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Frank Brennan and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament


The revised edition of An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a constitutional bridge is Frank Brennan’s urgent contribution to this important national debate. I value his contribution, though I question some of his opinions and emphases. Fr Frank Brennan SJ is a rare beast. He simultaneously operates both as a citizen at the highest levels and within the community of ordinary Australians. I have personally witnessed him doing this in Parliament House and in parish halls. 

Frank, a white Jesuit, has every right to have his say on this topic. This book details his long involvement since his time as an advisor to the Queensland bishops in 1982. He has done the hard yards. Made AO in 1995 for services to Indigenous Australians, particularly as an advocate in the areas of law, social justice, and reconciliation. His 2015 book was called No Small Change: the road to recognition for Indigenous Australia. His membership of high -level committees, appointed by various governments is well-known. 

Frank’s contribution is multifarious. Not just in this book but much else: submissions, letters to leaders, lobbying in the halls of power, and talks in parishes and schools. The endpiece suggests that he is ‘happy to assist any local groups wanting to enhance their understanding of Indigenous constitutional recognition’. Not a week goes by in which Frank is not talking or writing about this subject. He is everywhere; a rare insider/outsider in public discussions. 

It strikes me more than I expected it would that this is also an extremely personal book and sometimes clearly painful. Frank knows those he quotes intimately in most instances. His ongoing and often personal disagreements with Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are documented. He also quotes his dear late father, former Chief Justice Gerard Brennan and dedicates the book to him, a man ‘who cared passionately and thought carefully about the legal recognition of the entitlements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’

Despite having a thick skin and long political involvement, this book shows that he has been deeply affected both by the cause and by the accompanying personal criticism. I respect his determination to keep up the fight for what he stands for. He titles the first chapter, it is ‘A task for every conscientious citizen.’ But Frank is no ordinary citizen. 

Frank has been a Christian in the public square for more than 40 years. He is probably the most widely read and widely heard ‘Catholic’ voice about this Indigenous Voice to Parliament. In church circles his voice is regularly magnified, for instance by parish and diocesan publications, and by CathNews, the official organ of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. 


'Frank wishes for a process for this referendum of a considerably higher quality than our country manages when conducting its ‘business as usual’: less partisan, less confrontational, more civilised, more open, the high road rather than the low road. Many of us join him in these aspirations. The community too would welcome them.' 


He references the Pope and the Plenary Council decree in support of the Uluru Statement. Pope Francis calls for ‘an authentic faith’ which ‘always involves a deep desire to change the world to leave this earth better than we found it.’ 

Frank offers 10 steps for Australian Christians.They include advice such as to be respectful and attentive, listen to Indigenous people, inform others, and have skin in the game. 

I would go even further and call out ad hominem attacks, wild exaggeration, wilful misrepresentation, bad faith, and lies. I would also urge all of us to get involved in local ‘kitchen table’ discussions and in the major campaigns. I would urge Christian leaders to get passionate and stand up in a way that few have done so far.  

The starting point for me is that First Nations Peoples have a ‘special place’ per se. It is not just because they need a voice more than others because of their vulnerability or because they are on the bottom of the socio-economic pile (which they are!), but because they are historically special and ‘first’ in a post-colonial society like Australia. This special place is not emphasised enough, perhaps because even ‘Yes’ advocates are nervous about doing so. 

Two different things run through this book which must be distinguished in all our discussions but often are not. They are what is right and appropriate in designing the Voice and what has the best chance of success in a referendum. Frank’s book intersperses the two. He demonstrates, for instance, how previous Liberal PMs and senior Coalition leaders have judged the Voice to be ‘neither desirable or capable of winning acceptance’. Frank advocates his own ‘best’ proposal, while also advising on what might win majority support of Australians. 

He writes in a new epilogue: 

I worry that a ‘Yes’ vote might not carry because of the deficiencies in the process for general community consultation and input and because the proposed formula of words will be too broad, risking the clogging of the workings of government and ongoing litigation in the High Court. 

On the point of winning majority support, he disputes the relevance of the positive 2017 same sex marriage result for this referendum. I’m not sure that he is correct about this comparison, especially among younger voters.  

He is also strong on the need for political bipartisanship as the basis for success. Yet he admits that he has ‘failed completely’ and that his discussions with the government and the former shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, elicited ‘no significant interest from either side’. His new epilogue is titled ‘The Failed Quest for Bipartisanship on the Voice’. 

The Yes and No camps are now fixed in stone. Government versus Opposition. Yes and No committees. This makes the parliamentary joint committee proceedings almost irrelevant. A few individuals might change their positions, but the big camps will not. Leeser says that he will vote Yes despite his reservations. So will Frank, I presume. 

Unlike the measured tone of this book, the broader public campaign has predictably taken the ‘low road’. I believe that the No side is most to blame for that; but the Yes side has not been free of blame. 

It depends on which you think is worse. Ad hominem attacks? Equally split.  Wild exaggeration? The Opposition is more guilty. Lies and bad faith? Ditto.  Partisanship? Both sides.  

While the ‘experts’ and ‘insiders’, like Frank, have argued about the detail, the early campaigning has mostly been about the bigger picture. The same is true when this book reproduces the arguments of the campaigners other than the lawyers. 

Yes case:  

  • Indigenous dispossession 
  • Accepting the invitation from Indigenous people 
  • Closing the Gap 

No case: 

  • Divisive 
  • Racist (in the legal sense) 

The range of possible positions ranges from Yes, Yes More, and Yes But, to Conservative No and Progressive No. There are hardened voters (58 per cent) and soft voters (41 per cent) with more Yes than No in both categories (32 per cent and 26 per cent respectively (Essential Poll 18 April 2023).  

Bipartisanship is dear to Frank’s heart, and he blames both leaders for its absence; but that horse has bolted. It is an ideal aim; but are we still in a bipartisan world? Perhaps other leaders, like state premiers, teal independents, Greens; Ken Wyatt, Fred Chaney and Leeser, matter more than they once did. 

Further questions remain. Youth/millennials? The younger generations may outweigh the older generations as they did in the 2022 federal election. Persuasiveness of the campaigns? Albanese versus Dutton. Burney versus Price. The government is popular; the opposition is not. How much racism exists in the community? How ‘unloved’, in Pearson’s terminology, are Indigenous Australians? Do enough Australians believe First Nations deserve special constitutional treatment or is that ‘divisive’? 

Frank writes: ‘This cause is just. The going will be tough. This book tries to make a contribution to the cause and to making the journey easier.’

Among the millions of words written and spoken about the Voice where does Frank sit? Based on this book and his other comments is that he sits roughly where Leeser sits (or vice versa), not with Wyatt or Chaney; not with the government and Aboriginal leaders; certainly not with Peter Dutton either. 

This book is one important slice of the debate around the shaping by experts of the Voice and the referendum question. Not so much about broader community discussion. It is a ‘what’s more likely to be successful’ book and a ‘what’s best for the country’ book, rather than a ‘how to vote’ book. 

Finally, it is a ‘Poor Fellow My Country’ book as in the new epilogue. It is written in a sad frame of mind as Frank regards the process as ‘more messy and divisive than any of us had hoped’. He says, ‘the tragedy I am wanting to avoid is a “No” vote carried because of flaws in the process resulting in a lack of time for real community engagement and for proper legal advice.’ 

Like Xavier Herbert, Frank laments for the Australia that he thought could have been; an Australia that could reconcile the dispossession of its Indigenous people and throw off its colonial past. 

Essentially, Frank wishes for a process for this referendum of a considerably higher quality than our country manages when conducting its ‘business as usual’: less partisan, less confrontational, more civilised, more open, the high road rather than the low road. Many of us join him in these aspirations. The community too would welcome them. 

However, the landscape of Australian politics is littered with recent examples of political campaigns, like the 2017 postal survey on marriage equality and the 2019 and 2022 federal elections, which fell well short of these aspirations. Those leaders, those media and those members of the community who participated in these negative examples haven’t changed. 

Against all the evidence so far, however, I hope that Australia will rise to the occasion in this referendum. Frank does too. 




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was a member of the Plenary Council.

This article is based on his speech to launch the revised edition of Frank Brennan's book, An Indigenous Voice to Parliament, at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra on 1 May 2023. Listen to Frank Brennan's response to John’s speech here:  https://soundcloud.com/frank-brennan-6/accc-book-launch

Main image: Still from Joint Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum Committee, 1 May 2023. (Parliament of Australia).

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Frank Brennan, Voice to Parliament



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Existing comments

On the occasions I talk to people about The Voice I can feel myself getting a little bit out of control, wanting passionately that they will agree with me on its absolute necessity. It’s an achy-breaky heart issue. It will be nothing less than devastating to those who support The Voice if the “no” campaign wins. Noel Pearson has said he will be unable to continue to campaign for reconciliation. Others will have to take up the mantle. This is the chance for Australians, all Australians, to show who we are. It is that important. Frank’s dedicated work and passion for the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has always been evident. Now is the time.

Pam | 04 May 2023  

Frank Brennan is one of the few genuinely respected people in the debate on the referendum on the Voice. This has become a poisoned issue and many ordinary Australians have disengaged and will probably vote 'No'. If the referendum is defeated and people like Noel Pearson exit the political arena, it will probably be a very good thing.

Edward Fido | 05 May 2023  

Pam's comment with its reference to the 'absolute necessity' of the Voice together with the wide-ranging relativising thoughts of John Warhurst's review of Frank Brennan's book prompt my own comment. We live in an entropic environment of ever relative social, cultural and political connections. Any recovery of a noble nomad age is not on. Nor is society as a whole perfectible. A newspaper correspondent wrote the other day that to him a constitutionally enshrined Voice implied that there would be always a Gap for the elite membership of the Voice to address (rather than to eliminate). I rather see not one on-going Gap, but more and more gaps manifesting here, there and everywhere in our more and more migration dependent society. The challenge it seems to me is to generate involved humanising ways at remote social (read local shire) hubs and among smaller groups who inhabit our many urban byways, and not to build another highway that leads to Canberra. In another context, the same might be said of the Catholic Church's current promotion of the Synodal Way that would terminate in Rome. Already macro institutional road trains should be decoupled in favour of micro units of 2s and 3s gathering in whatever humanising spirit is available to them. Small is ever beautiful.

Noel McMaster | 05 May 2023  

Thank the Lord for people like Fr Frank Brennan SJ in our church and society who advocates for truth and justice for all people.
I watched with interest this week the Voice Referendum Committee Hearing to learn more about the wording of the legislation. After listening for a few hours to the contributions I still have doubt in my mind that a separate Voice is the right way forward for our country. Listening to Noel Pearson speak so eloquently about the importance of the wording as written without further amendments has raised more questions for me. It wasn’t so much what Noel Pearson said but his reluctance and bloody-mindedness to any change put forward from others, and his slur of arrogance towards them for raising any points of difference, which could also raise issues for our Indigenous brothers and sisters if the Voice is successful. Sadly, there will be no Win Win in this debate if there is not a genuine opening of hearts and minds in the coming weeks. ??

Anna | 06 May 2023  

Sometimes I wish that Frank would come out of academia and into the street and take on the likes of Abbott and Dutton and their narrow-minded and diminishing posturing that threatens to white-ant years of careful consultation and consideration.. This is too important an initiative to be lost because cynical politicking.

Ginger Meggs | 06 May 2023  

Australians have rejected most proposals for constitutional amendments, approving only 8 out of 44 referendums submitted to them since federation.

Francis Armstrong | 06 May 2023  

Tom Brennan SC, Frank's brother, has endorsed the constitutional amendment for an Indigenous voice to parliament as 'legally sound", opposing Frank's expression of confusing reservations. Tom rightly points to the unnecessary confusion caused by marginal legalistic arguments about constitutional wording. Frank and Tom both support the real need for the 'Voice', and leading constitutional legal opinion supports the wording. I wouldn't be surprised if Frank now lets this go. Let's get on with it. The situation of our indigenous people must be addressed at long last, and the proposed constitutional changes give them the voice they need to identify the real issues that need to be addressed.

Peter Johnstone | 09 May 2023  
Show Responses

The advocates for the present wording agree that there will be no need for a public servant to give notice to the Voice that the public servant is making an administrative decision on a matter relating to Aboriginal persons, and that there will be no need for the public servant to provide the Voice with any information whatsoever that might assist the Voice make an informed representation. 
These advocates agree that Parliament can legislate to ensure that there is no need for a public servant to do either of these things.
These advocates also agree that the High Court would never draw an inference or find a necessary implication that a public servant do either of these things, for that would clog the system of government.
Why then would you constitutionalise the entitlement of the Voice to make representations to a public servant making administrative decisions relating to Aboriginal persons?

Frank Brennan SJ | 11 May 2023  

You’re on the wrong side of history, Frank. Even if the Murdock “Yes, but” campaign is successful by fooling old people with the constitutional stuff. The Sins of history is not inadmissible evidence just because the Murdoch media doesn’t want us to talk about it.

The next generation who wants to deal with yesterday’s dirty business and move on to grapple with today’s problems, is already here. It’s not about being “woke”. It’s about education.

Have you thought of maybe enrolling again as a student at Law school with today’s young people, and seeing the world through their eyes?

Fosco | 11 May 2023  

What makes you think people who have reservations about the Voice proposal in its current form are all mere dupes of "the Murdoch media", Fosco? Or, for that matter, that there is consensus about how "today's young people" in Law school see the world?

John RD | 14 May 2023  

How do I know the times have changed, John: from Rupert, of course. Like the Church, you can learn a lot from that man. During the Land Rights debate of a generation ago the Murdoch Media ran a campaign of Total Fear: everybody would lose their backyard. Nowadays, that stuff wouldn’t work. It’s too crude. Today, propaganda has to be more sophisticated. It’s all about creating Doubt: technical constitutional problems, insufficient details to make an informed decision, unforeseen consequences…that sort of stuff. More BBC, more “Yes, Minister”. Back then it was straight Goebbels. If Murdoch's men think the world has changed it must be so. They are masters of manipulating public opinion.

How do I know young people see the world differently? I’ve spent over thirty years in the classroom trying to teach. And, if they still see the world like a “silly old fool like me”, then I have failed.

Fosco | 15 May 2023  

A fair question "Why . . . constitutionalise the entitlement of the Voice to make representations . . ." I agree that the provision s not necessary in that the executive, public servant preparing relevant programs and policies SHOULD always consult with affected cohorts regardless of whether representations are received. The constitutional provision however ensures that the constitutional Voice receives the respect intended and is a reinforcement of the importance of the views expressed via the constitutional voice. This is after all an attempt to properly acknowledge respect for our indigenous people particularly having regard to the incredible indigenous history of our country and the shameful story of invasion, massacres, stolen children and the continuing disgraceful gaps and failures in so many areas of indigenous social wellbeing, not to mention ill-informed policy development to address those disadvantages.

Peter Johnstone | 12 May 2023  

'As of 14 June 2019, the quota of [NT] electors was 5,555.[1] At the general election in August 2020, the quota was 5,649. Northern Territory divisions are the smallest such electorates in Australia, due to the Territory's small population.

'With so few constituents, an MLA can easily get to know all of the enrolled voters in his or her electorate. '

Leaving aside the point that Wikipedia isn't peer-reviewed, the fact is that each member of the Voice is accountable to such a small group of local (s)electors that a personal or acquaintance relationship between member and constituent is likely to exist.

Why then shouldn't a member prevail upon the Voice to make a representation to a public servant on a particular matter? The existence of the Voice is predicated on the notion that what works for non-indigenous isn't necessarily to be the norm for the indigenous. If a First Nations individual feels that s/he is not being heard within a particular administrative process, surely that is precisely when the Voice or a member of the Voice should become an intercessor. Surely, a group is only heard if individuals within it can feel that they are being heard.

roy chen yee | 16 May 2023  

How can we simplify this? We need lawyers like we need surgeons. They are there to understand the inner workings and their latin names. We need to be able to trust them to do what we believe we want. But there are other vocational groups who specialize in getting messages across clearly. It is their job to understand the perceptions of the audience, and what will move the audience to the desired decision/action.
Often when I felt I was not being understood I tried to explain the technical underpinnings of my reporting by giving more professional detail. Result;deeper misunderstanding.
Sometimes a simple series of words or a meme will do the trick better than a well argued thesis. Remember John Hewson and the 'birthday cake' which swung a nation in 1993 or the lie 'children overboard'.
For my money regarding the Voice, I would go for an argument like this-'All kinds of lobbyists inhabit Parliament House; 891 registered with orange passes. Anyway if profitable companies and peak bodies can have a voice to parlimentarians and bureacucrats why not the original owners of Australia in matters which effect them? Lobbyists have no guarantee of being listened to; it is a voice not an enforcable demand.
Maybe I have just made it worse. Vote YES!

Michael D. Breen | 11 May 2023  

I agree, Frank Brennan presented a case for the No campaign and then closer to the referendum, said he would be voting yes. The No campaign and right leaning press took full advantage of his stance.

Michael Gorman | 23 October 2023  

Maybe in practical terms, the application of the Voice requires that when the Aboriginal Voice proposes to the parliament a particular action conforming with the wishes of the Aboriginal community, that the parliamentary debate and subsequent vote of the parliament should be a matter of conscience for all individual parliamentarians and not predicated on party policy, numbers or lobbyist influence of any persuasion.

John Frawley | 10 May 2023  

I support recognition of Australia's indigenous peoples and Torres Straight islanders in the Constitution (though, in the context of Constitutional reform, I do not consider "nations" - a word freely used in the current debate - an appropriate or helpful choice of words).
To avoid extended bureaucracy and the possibilities of obstructive legislative initiatives Fr Brennan foresees in the "Executive "aspect of the Voice proposal as it stands, why not apply the principle of Ockham's razor, with indigenous peoples availing themselves of the political opportunities for representation they already possess, as their most prominent leaders have done and do ? Would this not reduce the chances of exacerbating divisions inimical to reconciliation and the closing of the gap?

John RD | 10 May 2023  

Why not do nothing, John RD? Because that's what 'availing themselves of the political opportunities for representation they already possess' means. I think the answer's simple. Firstly, it hasn't worked in the past, and there is no reason to think it will work in the future. And secondly, because the Voice is what they have said, loudly and clearly, is part of what they want.

Ginger Meggs | 17 May 2023  
Show Responses

To suppose nothing has been achieved is an insult to indigenous people who have and do bear office, Ginger; and the Voice does not have the univocity of indigenous leaders you suppose.

John RD | 19 May 2023  

I Sam going to write YES on the voting box and Jesus alongside YES.

As a by white fella with a black fella heart I am more convinced as a nation we need to be One Fella

Peter Reeves | 26 July 2023  

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