Australians vote on plan to amplify indigenous voices
Amendment would create an indigenous committee to advise parliament
GEELONG, Australia—Rick Kerr watched from his truck as an archaeologist operated a yellow mini-digger in a suburban area not far from the Waurn Ponds Creek. The team worked to extract tool fragments and anything else left behind from centuries of indigenous fishing and farming on the plot of land.
Kerr, an Aboriginal man from the Djaara tribe, works for the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and was on site to ensure the archaeologists respectfully handled artifacts, like the cooking hearth they unearthed. Once the artifacts are removed, the property’s latest owners plan to build fast food restaurants and a parking lot. “You can’t stop progress,” Kerr said wryly.
Passersby often offer Kerr their criticism about Aboriginal people or how the government has treated them, and he has his own disagreements with Australia’s past and current policies concerning Aboriginal people. But when asked about his stance on an upcoming referendum, Kerr says he doesn’t have an opinion.
On Oct. 14, voters will decide whether to amend Australia’s constitution by creating an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory committee called the Voice to Parliament. It would make the nation’s indigenous people the only minority group whose participation in the government is enshrined in the constitution.
A year ago, the Voice to Parliament proposal seemed to have solid support, but the referendum now faces an uphill battle with only about 43 percent in favor, mostly divided along party lines. Government leaders have acknowledged earlier mistreatment of indigenous people. But many people like Kerr have conflicting thoughts about whether the committee will bring the needed reconciliation. Regardless of the outcome, Christians can help to bridge the gap.
Early voting on the referendum began Monday. Voting is compulsory. If the referendum passes, Australia’s constitution would allow for the creation of the Voice to Parliament, which “may make representations to parliament and the executive government” about matters relating to them specifically. It also gives parliament power to make laws relating to the “composition, functions, powers, and procedures” of the Voice. Those powers could change with each new government.
Aboriginal people have suffered mass killings, removal from traditional lands, and forced labor. Decades ago, officials removed Aboriginal children from their homes as a result of government policies. Kerr says if he’d been born three years earlier, he would not have been allowed to finish school. Aboriginal children who did attend school received training in domestic service.
At the north end of town, “Vote Yes” posters fill the windows on either side of the door to the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. Acting CEO Jason Kanoa sits across from me at a large conference table. His dark blue shirt sets off his dark hair and a closely trimmed beard. Behind him, a tall stone fireplace dominates the room. A taxidermied wedge-tailed eagle presides over glass cabinets that hold artifacts from the region.
Kanoa said that until recently he’s been quite deflated by the public’s response to the referendum. “It’s a shame that those opposing this referendum are saying, ‘If you don’t know, vote no,’” he said. With just over a week left until the vote, he’s starting to see more people interested in dialogue and educating themselves on the topic. At one recent event, organizers expected hundreds but ended up hosting 2,500 people.
Australian voters rarely see referendums on the ballot. Since Queen Victoria granted Australia federation status in 1901, legislators have put forth 44 referendum proposals to change the constitution. Only 8 have passed. A referendum must gain a double majority—a majority of votes in a majority of the six states plus a majority of total votes—in order to pass. In 1967, more than 90 percent of Australians voted to pass a referendum reversing the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the census and allowing parliament to pass laws concerning Aboriginal people. Historians call it one of the most successful national campaigns in Australia’s history.
The numbers aren’t quite as strong this time. A year ago, 65 percent of Australians supported the current referendum. But then Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor government sided with the Yes vote, and the opposition came out against it. Polls show support has dropped more than 20 percent since then.
Kanoa, who traces his heritage to the Gunditjmara and Bunitj tribes, says when his organization consulted Aboriginal leaders about throwing their support behind the referendum, they got mixed results. Some mistrust the process. Voice supporters cite polls from March, before the referendum’s wording was finalized, that says 80 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—indigenous people from the islands just off mainland Australia’s northern coast—support the Voice. Many indigenous supporters think it’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Aboriginal Christian leader, theologian, and writer Brooke Prentis supports the Voice, but she said there’s also a need for a treaty and a truth-telling commission to deal with past treatment of indigenous people. Prentis said not every Aboriginal person wants to be recognized in the constitution. Many Aboriginal people consider the constitution a set of laws that harmed their health, their families, and the wider community.
Prentis points to indigenous peoples’ lower life expectancy by eight years, rates of childhood suicide triple that of non-indigenous children, and the world’s highest rate of indigenous incarceration. The 2021 census showed that eight times as many Aboriginal people are homeless as non-indigenous people. Indigenous children make up 6 percent of children in Australia but account for about 33 percent of children in out-of-home foster care. She thinks the Voice will finally help the hundreds of indigenous tribes in Australia be heard. “We’ve tried many other things in the last 250 years, but we haven’t tried this,” she says.
Some opponents are concerned about the lack of transparency in what the Voice would actually do. Liberal party Sen. Sarah Henderson from southern Victoria told some of her constituents, “Regrettably, the Albanese government is keeping secret so much information about the scope and powers of the Voice to Parliament and the Executive, including the proposed legislation which will underpin its operation.”
Sandy Grant, dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, said in an article for The Gospel Coalition that human sinfulness can affect generations. “But a permanently entrenched Voice implies a permanent lack of potential for transformation on the part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This does not appear to be compatible with Christian theology that grants all people responsibility,” he said. “Addressing such disadvantage is a compassionate desire that all Christians can support. But some of us may prefer different means to the same end.”
In a text to me, Grant said that he hasn’t campaigned or pushed his point of view “because I do not want to bind consciences on a matter that I think is more the prudential application of Christian principles than a clear cut matter of obedience one way or another (unlike the definition of marriage, for example).”
Prentis says Christians can use this referendum as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbor. “In my experience, 90 percent of the people I meet don’t know an Aboriginal person,” she said. “In the churches they don’t know us, even though 54 percent of Aboriginal people identify as Christians.” That’s compared to 44 percent of the general population. “Regardless of the referendum, Christians need to continue to ask what Jesus commands of them. How will you love your Aboriginal neighbor as yourself?”
Back at the Waurn Ponds Creek dig site, Rick Kerr has a few more months until the artifact project wraps up. The job supervisor walked over to us with a handful of tool fragments, including a light gray chiseled shard. “Silcrete,” he said. “It’s very hard rock, good for holding a point.” Kerr already knew that—the supervisor is telling me, the newcomer. Kerr’s resiliency has grown since his childhood, when his family moved frequently to avoid the Australian government’s removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. Now he gets paid to preserve that indigenous heritage. “We’ve come a long way,” he said.
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