This week we observe National Reconciliation Week, and last Friday—on National Sorry Day—we also commemorated the sixth anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples invited the Australian people to walk with them in a movement ‘for a better future’. In 2021, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as did the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia in 2022.

As part of the journey towards reconciliation that was envisioned by the statement, the Australian people will be asked to cast a referendum vote in October 2023 in response to a proposed alteration to the Constitution: ‘A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve of this proposed alteration?

In a recent statement on the proposed Voice to Parliament, the ACBC says that the current lack of recognition in the Constitution of thousands of years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodianship of this land is ‘an omission which needs to be rectified’. While acknowledging that the proposed Voice isn’t the only way to achieve this, the bishops point out that it ‘is the way requested by those who gathered at the historic meeting at Uluru’ and that it ‘could be a significant step towards a more just and equitable Australia’. For this reason, they encourage all Australians ‘to educate themselves as well as possible concerning the proposal’ and to engage in ‘meaningful’ and ‘high-quality debate shaped by a genuine concern to do justice and bring healing to First Nations Peoples’.

To assist members of the Australian community to do just this, Catholic Social Services Australia and Catholic Social Services Victoria are hosting three public webinars in the lead-up to the referendum. The first was held on Thursday 25 May, with more than 250 people registering for the webinar. Professor Melissa Castan was the first speaker, together with Sherry Balcombe, Manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria and a council member of Catholic Social Services Victoria.

Prof. Castan is the director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, specialising in human rights, public law and constitutional law. She is also Associate Dean in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and has a particular passion for and focus on the recognition and implementation of proper legal relations with First Nations people.

Voice to Parliament 1

A constitutional and human rights perspective

In opening, Prof. Castan provided some historical context for the current referendum. ‘It’s been over 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down a final report and told us the truth about what’s happening in incarceration places,’ she noted. ‘It’s been over 30 years since the High Court handed down the judgement in the Mabo case, which told us the truth about Aboriginal and Torres Strait connection to land and the ongoing cultural and legal relationships there. And it’s been over 25 years since the Bringing Them Home report was handed down by Sir Ron Wilson and Professor Nick Dodson, which told us the truth about how children are separated from families and the impact that has on culture and family life and kinship.

‘These landmarks in our Australian narrative are key steps for us in the national journey … those findings were really important in telling part of our national story, but I’m particularly looking forward to the next step in this journey.’

Speaking of the referendum question and proposed amendment, Prof. Castan said, ‘the amendment into the Constitution is to just put in the advisory body, which is called the “Voice”. That’s all the amendment does for the Constitution.

It just says there’s going to be an ‘extra bit’. It’s left with Parliament to work out how that bit’ works. Will it have 24 people, or 36 people, or three people? Will it sit in three-year terms, or seven-year terms, or six-month terms? Will it talk about this range of topics or that range of topics? All of the machinations of how the Voice body will work will be decided by Parliament. Parliament retains the entire supremacy and sovereignty over the construction of the Voice.

She went on to say, ‘As a representative and advisory body, I think the Voice can be understood as embedding a really genuine form of legal recognition and a very genuine form of political relationship-building between Indigenous communities and the nation state, the state of Australia.

‘I think that’s very important, not just for our First Nations people, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; I actually think it’s fundamental to Australia as a whole in the national interest and as a constitutional democracy.’

Prof. Castan spoke about the ways that Australia was colonised and how, in essence, they have been the cause of a long-lasting ‘fracture, or fault line’ in Australia’s history. ‘That fault line is really saying that a whole lot of people were invisible in the Australian law,’ she said, noting that it has had an ‘enduring impact and many dire consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’.

‘So now we have this opportunity that’s been brought about to change that lack of hearing, to change that omission, and to listen properly to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want us to do.’

Prof. Castan noted that the Uluru Statement from the Heart was the result of broad community consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about the future they want. ‘We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country,’ the statement reads. ‘We have the power over our destiny. Our children will flourish. They will walk into worlds and their culture will be a gift to the community.’

Prof. Castan particularly drew attention to the statement’s closing words, which read: ‘In 1967, we were counted. In 2017, we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’

‘And so the reason why we are looking at a Voice and we have a proposal for the Voice is because of this invitation that’s come from Indigenous people,’ Prof. Castan said.

We can’t go back into history and undo the mistakes, but we can work now from the present and into the future in a very constructive way.

2021 Sherry Balcombe Fiona Basile 1
Sherry Balcombe.

Sherry Balcombe shares her perspective on the Voice

Responding to the presentation given by Prof. Castan, Sherry Balcombe encouraged everyone to continue to seek a deeper understanding of the Voice proposal and what it means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Observing that recent coverage of the issue has sometimes led to confusion about the implications of the Voice, she said, ‘It’s about time we had a bit of clarity around what it does actually mean for us.

‘We have to do something different for things to change for our people,’ she said, speaking of how important it was for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be able to make meaningful contributions to decision-making processes—to ‘talk with good faith, with open hearts and open minds,’ and to sit down and ‘have adult, mature conversations about how we can make a difference to our people’.

She reminded those gathered on the webinar that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is an ‘invitation’ to the Australian people: ‘Please walk with us, join us on this journey …

We do want our culture to be a gift to this country. We want everybody to be proud that they live in the country with the longest continuous culture on the planet. We want everybody to share in it.

Sherry encouraged everyone to ‘educate’ themselves, saying ‘knowledge is power’. ‘Please don’t let this discussion be the end; let this be the beginning. I hope that we can continue to have some good information being shared so that people can make informed decisions. It’s about opening your heart and your soul and wondering: What would you want to happen to your family if you were in our situation?’

Upcoming webinars

The second webinar will be held on Thursday 29 June 2023. Fr Frank Brennan SJ will speak on the Church, Catholic Social Teaching and engagement with First Nations peoples.

The third webinar will be held on Thursday 27 July, and will feature a panel of three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices: Uncle Rob Briggs, Aunty Violet Sheridan and Esmai Manahan.

Catholic Social Services Victoria has established a page on their website, Reconciliation in Australia, which contains a wide range of resources to assist the Catholic community to discern and discuss the referendum question and associated issues more deeply.