First Nations Peoples have an inalienable right to be heard at the highest level of the nation’s governance. History is calling all of us forward, writes Sister Clare Condon SGS.
On 23 March this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the proposed referendum question: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
Coincidentally, the next day I drove from Canberra to Dubbo with Sally Fitzgerald, a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council, to join other rural First Nations women with four other members of religious communities. We sought to learn more about the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart and the proposed referendum vote. We arrived in Dubbo with a sense that History is calling.
Anne Dennis, a Gamilaraay woman and NSW Lands Council member, with artist Elizabeth O’Reilly led us in a journey towards understanding the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart. It was an understanding, deeply based on the history of Australia’s story, but also from the perspective of our individual heart stories.
This was a significantly different approach from some of the polemics and distractions we have heard in media responses and from some politicians and advisers, particularly in arguments against constitutional change and a Voice, where there seems to be little understanding of the depths of historical disadvantage experienced by First Nations people.
By video, we journeyed through the story of First Nations Peoples’ endeavours to achieve recognition and justice within this nation from 1788. It helps to have the facts. We followed the tragic moments of hope and despair, as promises were made and promises unfulfilled, reports made and reports shelved or watered down, representative bodies created in hope and then abolished as governments changed. Always according to the white man’s system and with whoever held power at the time!
During the day, I was reminded of the first Decree of the 2022 Australian Catholic Church Plenary Council, which reads:
“All Australians have much to learn from the cultures, spirituality, and knowledge of country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, our society is yet to recognise fully Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of the lands and waters now known as Australia, or to achieve right relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
“The Catholic Church in Australia has been caught up in this history of dispossession, Stolen Generations, racism, and the undermining of language and culture. Dioceses, eparchies, and religious institutes have made sincere efforts to share faith, education, and pastoral services with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, much suffering has been inflicted by the historically misguided attempts of those who were ignorant of the cultural richness of these peoples.”
For me, this small gathering in Dubbo posed the question: Are we finally coming to a place of understanding, maturity and reconciliation, that is so desperately needed at every level of our society or are we still blinded by ignorance, immaturity and division?
Anne McGuire RSM reflected on the weekend experience in this way: “The gathering enabled me to listen deeply and to engage in meaningful, warm and loving dialogue with friends old and new.
“It was particularly important for me because I learnt so much about the long history of Indigenous peoples’ passion and their persistence to be recognised and heard. Further I saw some of our ‘mates’ shift their viewpoints when given factual detail in an unbiased and non-threatening way.
“Anne and Liz’s work with us helped me to move from my head to my heart.”
Sally FitzGerald from Canberra wrote:
“I have strongly been against the Voice and over the past couple of months I have become less than strong against it. I went to Dubbo with an open mind and I have to say that I was blown away by the content!
“The presentation by Anne Dennis was gentle yet powerful! She spoke from her heart and never pushed anything on to us. She said that it was up to each of us to ‘listen to our hearts’ and then decide. Anne presented us with the most up to date information and this was great. I could feel a change happening in me!
“Liz O’Reilly told us that she was going to run an art class. I was ready to run! Liz’s presentation via art was amazing. I particularly was taken aback when she asked us to read an extract from the Voice and to write down words/phrases that spoke to us. I was gobsmacked when words stood out for me as I had never thought of them before in relation to the Voice. Three words that spoke volumes to me were … hope, future, our children.
“I knew that a change was happening to me; something that I did not expect or look for. Both of these presentations have convinced me to change my attitude and to be a strong supporter of the Yes vote. I cannot believe the change in me!”
And a participant from the mid-west of NSW commented:
“I have been in a mixed mind since the journey of the Voice began because of a few concerns. Firstly, I was unsure of who would be the ‘voice’ for me or the people in my life and if they would be in favour for the right reasons? Secondly, would these people be given enough control and opportunity for the betterment of my culture? Thirdly, would their voice and opinions be heard in a positive manner and how would fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be kept in the loop when decisions would be made on their behalf?
“Also, how many obstacles or putdowns would these people have to endure to be heard in fairness and with cultural respect? Promises have been broken in the past, so how will this be with the people who will be our voice? My understanding is still a little daunting and my trust factor in the system still concerns me but we have to start somewhere.
“Listening to the diverse voices in our gathering and having time to embrace valuable knowledge from our speakers has deepened my understanding. The time seems right for this change and cultural inclusiveness.”
Mandy Edwards from Minto commented on her prior sense of confusion and her coming to clarity and the desire to “fight for what is right for our children and grandchildren”.
The Fifth Plenary Council in 2022 made the commitment to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart and to encourage engagement with processes for implementing the statement, including local, regional, and national truth-telling efforts.
The Statement is not only from Uluṟu, the heart of the country, but it is an invitation from the hearts of First Nations people to the heart of every individual Australian to listen deeply. It is all about new and lasting relationships, not political scorecards.
There are three steps to travel the journey: Voice, Treaty, Truth. May we continue journeying across all phases and not pitch one as more important than the other. Each one is essential experience.
The nation, through the national parliament, needs to strengthen the voices of the First Peoples. Interestingly, Parliament has no problem hearing the voices of lobbyists from many sections of society, from the mining companies, industry, tourism and many more self-interested groups.
Surely all of these should be secondary to that of the First Nations Peoples, who have never ceded their land and waters. They have an inalienable right to be heard at the highest level of the nation’s governance. History is calling all of us forward. Have we the humility, courage and strength to accept the challenge and to truly listen from the heart?