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‘A spiritual notion’: The Voice and the yearnings of our hearts

  • 05 May 2023
  Frank Brennan SJ, An Indigenous Voice to parliament: considering a constitutional bridge, Garratt Publishing, 2023   Shireen Morris and Damien Freeman (eds), Statements from the soul: the moral case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, La Trobe University Press, 2023 The Uluru Statement from the Heart opens with the declaration that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were ‘the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent’. This sovereignty is, according to those who drafted the statement, ‘a spiritual notion’: ‘The ancestral tie between the land, or “mother nature”’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born thereon, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, for sovereignty.’

In his latest book, An Indigenous Voice to parliament: Considering a constitutional bridge (Garratt Publishing, 2023), Fr Frank Brennan SJ considers this ‘spiritual notion’. The quote itself, he notes, is adapted from a quote from a submission on behalf of the Republic of Zaire to the International Court of Justice in 1975, arguing that the ‘materialistic concept of terra nullius’ is replaced with ‘a spiritual notion’ of sovereignty. It was later quoted by the Vice-President of the International Criminal Court, Lebanese Judge Fouad Ammoun, in an opinion on Western Sahara. This opinion was later quoted by Australian judges in the High Court Mabo decision.

‘How extraordinary that the inheritors of the longest living culture on earth would quote a Lebanese judge quoting a lawyer from Zaire to express the depths of their spiritual relationship with the land’, Brennan writes. ‘This is a profound lesson for those of us seeking an inclusive Australia. We are able to share our diverse cultural and religious modes of expression to communicate the deepest yearnings of our hearts.’

Australians in general might consider themselves a grounded people, more swayed by pragmatism than high-blown rhetoric. There is certainly great need — as Fr Brennan’s argues in his book — for a substantial parliamentary process and consideration of the legal impacts of the Voice, and for the public to be assured that any proposed change will not risk ‘ongoing judicial review of administrative decisions likely to clog the working of good government’.

However, those seeking to make the case for the Voice ahead of the referendum will need to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads. It’s in this space, perhaps, that