‘Yes’ to Voice offers opportunity of new beginnings

Australians will soon be asked: “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?” I’ll be answering “Yes, I do.”

I can’t overstate the importance of Indigenous Constitutional Recognition in Australia. That recognition begins with a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Voice to Parliament provides a platform for Indigenous perspectives and experiences to be heard, and to help ensure that our federal government and parliament are informed about the needs and accountable to the interests of First Nations people.

Late last year members of the St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne met for eight weeks to study the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We took time to look in detail at this visionary and simple invitation by First Nations people to Australians to engage in the first steps on the all-important path to reconciliation in our nation. At the beginning of the process of reconciliation stands the establishment of a Voice. St Paul’s Cathedral First Nations Canon, Uncle Glenn Loughrey, explained: “If you are not heard, you do not exist. ‘Voice’ was the most supported element of the four parts in the consultation for the Statement signed at Uluru.”

“We have a responsibility to speak up for those who have been denied a voice.”

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Now that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have issued this invitation in the Statement from the Heart, it’s our responsibility to take up this invitation and to work for a better future for Australia. I believe it’s our faith that underpins the work for greater justice for Indigenous people. Our Scriptures remind us how God consistently calls us to advocate for the marginalised and oppressed, and to promote their justice. Jesus calls us to love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves. As Christians, then, we have a responsibility to speak up for those who have been denied a voice and to work towards a more just and equitable society.

I believe the Voice to Parliament is a step in the right direction to bring about greater justice for Indigenous people in Australia. More effective and just policies to benefit our First Peoples and our nation can only be shaped in close consultation with Indigenous people. The establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice gives shape to that important consultative process. The Voice will have the power to make representations to parliament and executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. While it will not have the power to veto government policy and legislation, the Voice will provide valuable input, and will influence the way in which our elected representatives make new laws and shape policies regarding Aboriginal people.

Andreas Loewe, left, and Glenn Loughrey

The idea of a Voice to a legislative body is neither new nor radical. Many other countries, including Canada and New Zealand, have already established similar mechanisms to ensure that Indigenous peoples have a say in decisions that affect their communities. By doing so, they have been able to make better progress in the work of reconciliation, in improving the lives of First Peoples, and in promoting greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

For many years, the Churches have also had an Indigenous Voice. Thirty-two years ago, the Anglican Church established the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council (NATSIAC). This ‘Voice to General Synod’ is currently chaired by St Paul’s Cathedral Canon Glenn Loughrey. As chair, Uncle Glenn speaks to archbishops, bishops, and members of the General Synod on matters that affect Indigenous people. NATSIAC has Indigenous members from across Australia: “Like the membership of the Voice, it is representational,” Uncle Glenn explains: “It provides suggestions, proposals, and ideas for the church to adopt.”

In many ways, then, the proposed Voice to Parliament reflects the mechanism of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council which, for more than three decades, has initiated significant, positive change in our church, including the appointment of a National Aboriginal Bishop (currently the Dean of St Peter’s Cathedral Adelaide, Bishop Chris McLeod).

“Here is a model we established decades ago that also will benefit our nation.”

The Catholic Church has benefited from a similar ‘Voice’ – the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council – while the Uniting Church is advised by the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

It’s not always the case that the churches lead where the nation should go. Nor is it always appropriate. But here is a model we established decades ago that also will benefit our nation. Saying ‘yes’ to the Voice to Parliament will provide Australia with an opportunity for a new beginning. Uncle Glenn told me: “Just as John the Baptist in his baptism for repentance asked for new structures to address the sin and evil embedded in the system, this proposal allows Australia the opportunity of a new beginning.”

I invite us to commit ourselves to work with many others for a society where Indigenous people are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve, where their perspectives are valued, and their voices are heard – in our nation as well as in our churches. May this New Year bring the positive changes we hope, advocate and pray for!

Dr Andreas Loewe is Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

Common Grace has a new Listen to the Heart campaign which invites Christians to join with others across Australia, listening deeply to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and together calling for Voice and justice in 2023.