This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an invitation from the First Nations to all Australians to ‘walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’. As a show of support, religious leaders from the various faiths of Australia gathered recently in Sydney to sign a joint resolution that calls for bipartisan action to hold a referendum on a First Nations voice. Sherry Balcombe, manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria, attended the event and described it as an incredible and hope-filled moment.
‘We’re starting to grow up,’ Sherry says, commenting that it was incredible to have the various faiths come together in support of First Nations People. ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before. The feeling in the air was really hopeful,’ she says. ‘And from where I was sitting, I had the sun right in my face … and it moved around just as they were signing, so the sun was shining straight on them. It was incredible!
‘We all care about the one Creator but we all have different beliefs, and [Friday’s gathering] was something where all of that was being put aside to look at the statement and what the right thing is to do.’
Despite the Uluru Statement from the Heart being drafted five years ago, it has been a challenge to garner widespread support for a voice to be enshrined in the constitution. Sherry believes that Friday’s gathering will help raise awareness for the cause, but that everybody in Australia needs to play a part in making change happen.
‘We want these faith leaders to go back to their faith communities and spread the word so that everybody comes out to vote in a referendum so we can have a voice in this country. We need as much support as we can for us to have a voice.’
Pushback to the statement hasn’t just come from political leaders either. Even among Indigenous communities there is hesitation and disagreement, Sherry says, about a voice to Parliament being the way forward. ‘The Statement is just the beginning. It’s going to be a hard journey and we don’t know what this will look like yet. But that voice to Parliament needs to be a voice. It can’t just be “we’ll consult with you and then we’ll do what we want to do.” Our people need to be sitting around the table where the decisions about our lives are being made. Whatever that looks like, the sooner that we do it, the better.
‘And look, not all the communities agree with this. That’s frustrating, but they’ve got to be listened to as well. We need to take that into account and we’re such a diverse community. We have over 500 languages. We’re so different.
So for us, we really need to come together as a people. You’re never going to please all people all the time, we get that. But personally, we’ve got to start somewhere and the place to start is where decisions in this country are made. That’s the only way we’re going to change things.
And the invitation is for everyone, not just First Nations people. ‘Reconciliation Week is about inviting everybody to see the beauty of our culture and hopefully, with that education, to start to understand more about why we are here and appreciate they we live in a country with the longest continuing culture in the world,’ Sherry says.
‘And to know this all the time, not just during Reconciliation Week or NAIDOC Week or even the football [during the Indigenous Round]. It’s so that it becomes part of the culture here, rather than a one-off, tokenistic event. We wouldn’t want that with prayer, would we?’
Sherry believes that Australians are now mature enough to recognise the need for change, and work towards constitutional reforms that will empower her people and enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution.
‘This nation’s tapestry is starting to change. Our country’s standing up and saying this is no longer acceptable. I’m hoping that we go to a referendum and we start to change this country, so that when my grandkids grow up, they’ll live in a different world.
‘And that’s why I was so excited to go to Sydney, because this is a moment in history. I was there on behalf of my family and my dad who carried the flag for many years.’
She describes all those who worked on the statement and those working for its implementation as ‘heroes’. ‘They’re doing something that isn’t fashionable. It’s not liked by a lot of camps—both black and white—but they’re still standing up and picking up that flag and saying, “No, we’ve got to do this.”
‘There’s nothing worse than speaking to Year 9 students and having them come up and cry to you because they didn’t realise this happened in their country,’ Sherry says. ‘The education of our kids has gotten a lot better over the last 10 years, and getting the calls from schools to come and talk is really good. It’s an incredible thing.
Sometimes I think we’re changing this country one child at a time. And if that’s what it takes then great, because I’m in it for the long haul!
Photos supplied by Dr Shireen Morris from the Macquarie Law School.
Melbourne Catholic02 October 2023
Justin McLellan (CNS)02 October 2023