Five years ago, the people of Australia received an invitation from the heart of the nation. Under the watching gaze of Uluru, First Peoples gathered, debated, reflected and lamented, disagreed and found agreement, prayed and wrestled with a great challenge: how to express their voice in the fundamental constitutional arrangements of contemporary Australia.
The result was a historic message titled the Statement from the Heart, a result of the First Nations Constitutional Convention. It is not a long document, but it offers a depth of desire for a united and respectful Australia that should challenge and inspire us, and at the same time touch upon our national conscience.
The Statement from the Heart does not use the word “treaty”, but it does talk of processes for agreement-making. It does not use the word “reconciliation”, but it is all about reconciling peoples and history with eyes wide open to real stories of heartache and pain.
The statement does not offer a promise of fixing every injustice, but a First Peoples voice can work with government to help address the tangible struggles people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity are facing right now with regard to crises of health, judicial injustice and the education gap.
These are real issues, and they require serious problem-solving and commitment – a spirit of partnership. People of faith throughout Australia are working shoulder to shoulder with fellow Australians to address these issues, but so much more can be done. The statement asks us to build on these efforts by creating a stronger partnership between First Peoples and parliament.
The invitation of the Statement from the Heart does not promise more than what is possible, but it does offer an invitation to find a way forward for the voice of First Peoples in our Constitution. It must be remembered that in Australia we have both a written Constitution and a set of institutional arrangements to govern the nation. Our Constitution is a practical and lived-out means of being a democracy, and the voice of First Peoples has a rightful part to play in that process – particularly in relation to their own affairs.
Our nation has received a great gift in this invitation. The gift of the invitation of the Statement from the Heart was also presented this week as a sign of our shared humanity to Pope Francis by Gweagal woman Theresa Ardler. A gift, however, only has value if there is a receiver who welcomes it openly and humbly. The exchange then can truly become an act of love. How we now receive this invitation, therefore, is important – not just to those who have given it to us as a nation, but to each of us individually as brothers and sisters.
The voice of First Peoples is a blend of the ancient and the modern, troubled and impacted by history, and carrying all the deep human yearnings for community, a living tradition, respect for culture and the hopes of the young for a better future.
Many of our First Peoples also carry a light of faith, including the Christian Gospel, and other spiritual traditions.
On this fifth anniversary, leaders of faith communities gathered with Indigenous elders at Barangaroo, wondering why common ground had not yet been found on a clear constitutional path for a voice into parliament. Faith leaders spoke from their spiritual traditions to share a voice of support for the Statement from the Heart, and for First Peoples in this just and good cause.
We are grateful that on the night of the recent federal election, the new Prime Minister spoke first about the Statement. And we are equally grateful that the new Leader of the Opposition is interested in a practical approach to Indigenous constitutional recognition. May the words of political leaders not be mere rhetoric, but a turning point on a major issue confronting our nation and a sign of constructive co-operation to come.
The Statement from the Heart is both bold and modest and deserves ample attention. It is worth taking a few minutes now, for all people of good will, to read the statement again, mindful of the grace it affords our nation. Faith traditions, including my own Catholic faith, are ways of living full and humble lives, forming our conscience and acting for truth and justice.
The time has come for political leaders and our nation to respond fully, respectfully, and practically. We urge bipartisan support for the Statement from the Heart and are grateful for the courageous parliamentarians of all political parties who have given thoughtful and heartfelt collaboration to work on reconciliation and finding a real policy response to what the statement asks and seeks.
This article originally appeared in The Australian (2 June 2022).
Melbourne Catholic28 February 2024
Melbourne Catholic27 February 2024