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Dividing by race in Australia

The proposed Voice to Parliament would enshrine identity politics in the nation’s constitution

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks to reporters on July 10. Associated Press/Photo by Markus Schreiber

Dividing by race in Australia
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Australia is facing a big choice about its future as it decides whether to amend its constitution. The prime minster, Anthony Albanese, has announced that the Australian people will vote on Oct. 14 on what is called the “Indigenous Voice to Parliament.” Referenda are not unheard of in Australia, the last being held in 1999 when the country voted “No” to becoming a republic. But the latest proposed amendment plays into the racial politics of the day and risks stoking division.

The amendment—pushed by a segment of Australia’s political and cultural elites—would divide Australia’s political system along racial lines by inserting a separate advisory body into the constitution. It is currently called the “Voice to Parliament” and will be a representative body for indigenous Australians.

The Voice will, in short, have the task of advising the government on issues affecting one particular racial grouping. While all Australians are currently democratically represented in the two houses of Australia’s federal parliament, this new body would be for indigenous Australians only.

The justification for this fundamental shift in Australia’s constitution is largely based on perceived (and actual) injustices and inequalities in relation to the Aboriginal population of Australia. The “Yes” campaign leaders, those who support the amendment, are suggesting that a Voice to Parliament will provide not only constitutional recognition but a mechanism to solve the many problems that indigenous Australians face.

But things are rarely that simple. Australia’s history is complex. The continent was settled in the late 18th century by people who believed they had a legitimate right to claim lands for the British Crown to begin new communities. Since that point, the Aboriginal population has both benefited and suffered.

British colonists sometimes worked with indigenous populations, and at other times treated them very poorly. Historical injustices, including those related to land acquisition, were perpetuated. And some argue that Aboriginal Australians today face a range of challenges, including cultural and economic disadvantages, that partly stem from this history.

At the same time, many of Australia’s indigenous people, whose current population stands at just over 800,000, live relatively normal lives and have ready access to the goods that come from living in one of the wealthiest societies in the world. They have jobs, access to healthcare, and education opportunities.

But these benefits are not spread equally, with life expectancy lower and infant mortality and incarceration rates higher in the Aboriginal population. All of this has prompted activists, politicians, lawyers, and community leaders to propose a Voice to Parliament. They want to see indigenous Australians properly recognized, represented, and reconciled with their fellow citizens.

Will the Voice actually help Aboriginal Australians? Or will it simply be one more bureaucratic body?

Advocates for the Voice argue that this constitutional change will be an important step towards those goals. The case for the Voice is attractive, especially to Christians who are dedicated to gospel reconciliation, justice, and neighbor love. And yet, beyond the sentimental reasoning offered by many, real questions are rightly being raised about the proposal.

Will the Voice actually help Aboriginal Australians? Or will it simply be one more bureaucratic body, one that will have a very wide scope, and at the same time focus on one racial interest group? Will it lead to anachronistic treaties being drawn up between white Australians and indigenous populations? Will reparations and claims of stolen land be escalated once the Voice is in place?

These are all issues of legal, political, and constitutional prudence. For Christians, the question also revolves around how we understand the imperative for reconciliation. A symbolic measure, like constitutional recognition of indigenous minorities, could be deemed a measured response to this imperative. But changes like those proposed in this referendum risk more division than reconciliation.

Gospel reconciliation would involve forgiveness for past wrongs, resulting in the possibility of tangible unity. But the proposed measures will not encourage unity or reconciliation.

True reconciliation would also not seek final justice for historical wrongs that cannot be properly righted here and now. Historian and political scientist Stephen Chavura has cogently argued that the “continual demand of justice and reparation without forgiveness” will only lead to “perpetual animosity and conflict.”

Christians should seek to right wrongs. But Christians also must grapple with the reality that temporal justice is necessarily limited. Measures like Australia’s Voice to Parliament, while aimed at seeking justice, risk an inexorable slide into racially defined social and legal conflict, an outcome that works against the Christian ideal of reconciliation.

The proposed Voice to Parliament provides an object lesson for Christians seeking earthly justice and reconciliation in the face of inequalities and historical injustices. In the end, such measures risk releasing the worst tendencies of racial identity politics that would make reconciliation impossible.

Earthly justice is limited, and the perfect justice of eternity awaits. Issues like the Voice to Parliament in Australia show what can happen if nations lose sight of the reality of eternal justice, whilst simultaneously embracing racial identity politics.

Simon Kennedy

Simon Kennedy is a research fellow at the University of Queensland and a non-resident fellow at the Danube Institute. He is also associate editor of Quadrant Magazine.

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