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May this new engagement not be broken off


The Catholic Bishops Justice Statement appears each year on Social Justice Sunday. This year the Statement is especially timely. It reflects on the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians in the light of the coming Referendum on the Voice to Parliament. As the title promises it looks for a fresh and deeper engagement in that relationship, one based on listening, learning and loving. Both the shape and the argument of the Statement deserve reflection.

The Statement comprises an introduction and forword, a reflection from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) speaking on the continuing effects on them of European occupation of their lands, another reflection from the Australian Bishops Conference  on their engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and suggestions for Catholics to deepen their own engagement.

Both the Introduction and the Foreword recall significant events in the relationship between the First peoples and other Australians: the Bringing them Home Report on the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, and the passing of the Referendum to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people to be reckoned as part of the Australian Population. Each event points forward to the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament: one to the systematic injustice that remains to be set right, and the latter to the hope that the coming Referendum may build on the good will shown in the first one. Together they evoke urgency. 

The aim of the Statement is to encourage a new engagement based on listening, learning and loving. It is addressed primarily to Catholics and draws on the Catholic tradition. Given that the vast majority of Catholics are non-Indigenous the engagement naturally emphasises the need for them to listen and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples.

In speaking of their history and experience of the First Peoples the NATSICC section discloses through stories the injustice that lies behind their pain and loss, and also their resilience. The story of Uncle Bevan Costello taken from his family to the notorious Cherbourg Mission, taught in schools, was a community leader, grieved for and worked to reduce the number of youth suicides, and died shortly before the declaration of native title for his tribal country.

The NATSICC contribution then outlines both negative and positive developments in the life of Indigenous people in Australian society and in the Catholic Church. The euphoria of the Apology was followed by the promise and its substantial failure to reduce the gap between the lives of Indigenous and other Australians. It offers ample evidence of the racism in Australia that raises the question whether Black Lives Matter. Its support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart is encapsulated in the line that there should be ‘Nothing about us without us.’  

The Bishops acknowledge the faults of the past, but also tell stories of how some have listened and learned, notably Archbishop Polding who spoke passionately of the injustice involved in the treatment of Indigenous Australians. They ground the call to engagement through listening, learning and loving in the Old Testament Prophets’ rejection of religion without justice and in Jesus’ insistence of right relationships. 


'What will be the likely effect of the rejection of the Referendum on the aspirations of healing and justice for the First Peoples and their trust in the honesty of any new engagement? And how is that to be measured against the effects of possible legal challenges should the Referendum is passed?' 


The heart of the Bishops’ message lies in an engagement with Indigenous Australians that is based not on distance nor the desire to help but on a love that will permeate and bring change to society and its politics.

This is a love which does not patronise or pity Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It is a love which seeks them out where they are, listens to them and learns from their great wisdom and which walks with them to a place where we are together freed from every injustice and oppression.

This call underlies the Bishops’ endorsement of the importance and authority of the Uluru Statement from the Heart that provides the basis for the Referendum question. While acknowledging the differences of opinion about the Referendum, they insist that in voting we should ask what represents best the hopes and aspirations, of Indigenous Australians and will bring them healing and justice.

The document concludes by suggesting ways in which we can enter and deepen our engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through listening, learning and loving.

My first response on reading the Statement was that it was a little bland. It seemed to understate the injustice and suffering of the First Peoples at the hands of Australian society and the Church and to emphasise tolerance for other views more than insistence on the importance of the passing of the Referendum. 

On a closer reading I appreciated the novelty of the Statement and the ambition of its goal. The Bishops broke new ground by including voices other than their own in the actual writing of the Statement. The joint presentation embodied the theme of a new engagement based on listening and learning. Viewed from this perspective the understated tone of the document could be seen to provide the atmosphere necessary for listening and learning. It also echoed, by intention or coincidence, Pope Francis’ emphasis on the process of synodality and the priority he gives to pastoral commendation over doctrinal declaration. 

The re-reading of the Statement, too, drew my attention to the authorities quoted in it. These always clarify the intention of Church documents. The Statement refers to trenchant judgments by Patrick Dodson, the radical solidarity with the First Peoples of Archbishop Polding, the opening words of the Vatican Council document on the Church in the Modern World – the charter for Catholic reflection on social justice, Pope John Paul’s speech at Alice Springs, the words of Prophet Amos lacerating the people for a religiosity that neglected the dire need of the poor, uncompromising words by Indigenous writers Noel Pearson and Lilla Watson and anthropologist William Stanner, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

All these people and the words quoted were countercultural and controversial in their day and most remain so. When brought together they give the Statement a radical edge. They prepare for the demanding criterion by which we should measure our vote: 

Choose the option which you believe offers the best chance of healing and justice for the First Peoples of our land.

It is the nature and right of all such statements to leave things unsaid that others might emphasise. I would have liked to see some weighing of the likely effects of passing or rejecting the Referendum question. Consequences are not the only ethical consideration, but they are important. What, for example, will be the likely effect of the rejection of the Referendum on the aspirations of healing and justice for the First Peoples and their trust in the honesty of any new engagement? And how is that to be measured against the effects of possible legal challenges should the Referendum is passed? 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image:  Indigenous Australian Yes campaign director Dean Parkin talks at a press conference during Garma Festival at Gulkula on August 06, 2023 in East Arnhem, Australia. (Photo by Tamati Smith/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NATSICC, Catholic, Bishops, Justice, Referendum, Voice



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Existing comments

The prophet Amos’s testimony about himself was humbling: “I was not a prophet; neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdman, and a gatherer of sycamore fruit”. These words resonate around our Indigenous peoples. The Bishops’ message is built around respect, inclusion of voices, listening and forging a way forward no matter the result of the Referendum. A mighty delivery from the Bishops.

Pam | 22 August 2023  

Heard Tim Costello speak at a local church this morning on the referendum.And yet I came away wondering how many Christians will be voting NO.

Margaret | 24 August 2023  
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We are all one, equal, in the eyes of God. Separation by race is patronising, rather than helpful, as tribal discussions on the voice have stated.
It would be more to the point to talk of helping those suffering alcohol abuse and birth defects. It would be better if the efforts went towards helping families, those women and children suffering domestic abuse or worse. We are all listening and waiting to hear of solutions rather than power and money, spoken of by activists.
Where is forgiveness and reconciliation, at what point is there a cut off and when will there be thanks for the benefits so many have received.
Positive improvement should be the aim, not deliberate division lead by unelected people. That is not helpful to democracy, freedom of choice or personal responsibility also encouraged in Bible stories.

Jane | 25 August 2023  

I supported the ‘No’ vote initially. I read Gary John’s book and found it persuasive. I believe that his recent highly criticised remarks ref the ‘stupor’ found in isolated Aboriginal Communities and the need for Aboriginal people to acquire good English skills for educational and social advancement is nothing but the truth. Sophisticated Western Society can not respectfully co- exist with Stone Age culture. Aboriginal languages are dying and are already becoming interesting only to forensic language scholars. It’s a pity because a knowledge of a language tells a great deal about the people whose first language it is. However the current disconnect between First Nation peoples is so riddled with bitterness, misunderstanding and hurt feelings of the well meaning ‘WOKE’ that we can’t waste time, money and energy on ephemeral and non-core issues. English is the language that will provide the tools to make a better life.
Even so, I have changed my mind and will be voting ‘Yes’ in the October Referendum. Frank Brennan SJ is dead right on the money here. and I précis his comments thus:-
“Regardless of the dispute over wording in the Uluru ‘Statement from The Heart’ and the possibility of future disputes, IT IS HIGH TIME (emphasis mine) that we acknowledged the presence of First Nations people in a manner in which they have ,through consultation amongst themselves deemed appropriate. I agree wholeheartedly !!

William Stockwell | 24 August 2023  

For those who choose or are chosen to serve Aboriginal as long term workers or Catholic chaplains, will listening, learning and loving include listening and learning the language of the Aboriginal people they serve inAustralia and in so doing, have a greater depth and appreciation of culture, as anyone taking up that same role overseas is required to do?

David Woods | 24 August 2023  

My vote will be No and the main reason is Bob Hawke's statement in 1988 :
“In Australia, there is no hierarchy of descent. There must be no privilege of origin. The commitment is all. The commitment to Australia is the one thing needful to be a true Australian.”
Our Constitution must never divide this country by race or by religion.

Jane | 25 August 2023  

Dear Andrew … I cannot match you in ‘knowledge’ nor in your grip on ‘life in general’ … and I admire what you and your fellow Jesuits contribute … but I do struggle with the whole issue re. the Aboriginal population of Australia and ‘our’ treatment thereof. What happened over 200 years ago cannot be changed and life over 200 years ago was cruel throughout the world for all races. The British coming to a large continent that was only vacant land, occupied by 300 or so nomadic tribes that spoke in different dialects, and fought each other , should not be condemned for what would have been a difficult situation for any occupying ‘outsider’ ( the Brits being the best of the inevitable ).
What should happen today is for the budgeted $4.8billion spent on Indigenous Australians to be better and more wisely managed and for the many wonderful people who want to improve the lives of Aboriginals to actually spend time in remote areas and any Aboriginal communities that need full time support.
We must look after this 1% of Australia’s population while not forgetting the millions of other Australians who may feel maligned and/or forgotten. cheers. Jack.

Jack Bowen | 25 August 2023  

Warm appreciation to Andy and all who respond so generously to his endorsement of the ACBC statement.
Equally warm recognition of the carefully argued ways in which Frank Brennan has approached the subject. Stan Grant too is another 'Mandela'.

I shudder to think about the 'slap in the face' that a 'No' vote would constitute for our First Peoples. There is, on wretched evidence, a limit to the rejection that a disenfranchised people can take.

I wonder if at this tense time I may appeal to the courageous challenge issued by Albert Nolan OP, the recently deceased Master General of the Dominicans, through the prophetic challenge he employed in his riveting pamphlet, 'Taking Sides'. His article, made freely available on the internet by the Dominicans' Scarboro Mission in Canada, can be read on the following website:


As with the positive influence it had on many White Christians at the time of de Klerk's referendum to consult White South Africans - then the only South Africans permitted by apartheid legislation to vote on the matter! - it won over a majority of them to support the dismantling of an unjust system that systematically excluded Black South Africans from power-sharing.


Michael Furtado | 26 August 2023  

I have not yet read the Bishops' Statement, but I plan to do so over the next little while. In terms of the referendum, I will vote yes because I have decided to trust the combined wisdom of all those Indigenous people who took time and made the effort to discuss their lives, and together produced the amazing Statement from the Heart. They know about the terrible stories and horrific statistics, and they still gently invite us to join them in acknowledging their pain and listening to their voices. These 'voices' will be elected from across the country and the detail of how it all works will be decided by the people we have all elected to parliament. The Voice may not end up as a perfect mechanism, but it sure will be a step in the right direction.

Beth Gibson | 28 August 2023  

Thank you for your thoughts on the Indigenous Voice to parliament, Andrew.

While the Catholic Bishops' statement does not recommend which way people should vote, for me the wording of the first paragraph is very convincing about which way I should vote. It reads:

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have lived in this land for many thousands of years. Their custodianship, however, is not recognised in the Australian Constitution. This is an omission which needs to be rectified. A constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament is proposed as a way to achieve this."

We have to admit that one of the key underlying philosophies of the Australian Constitution that it was based on was the White Australia Policy. This assumption was an attempt to make out that Australia was a white nation and conveniently overlooking the fact that First Nations' people in Australia were not white.

In an attempt to get around this anomaly, white bureaucrats tried to dilute the melanin genes in the population’s gene pool in a vain attempt to make us all look white.

A YES vote will help to overcome the historic denial of the 60,000 year stewardship of this land by our indigenous peoples.

It is also true that if the YES vote wins, the problems Aboriginal communities face will not automatically go away. However, governments will be required to listen to indigenous communities when they are develop policies are being developed that affect them. Currently, they are not required to do so. In the past, this lack of consultation has led to wrong-headed policies that created the Stolen Generation and the NT Intervention.

To those who claim that they will vote NO because it discriminates against non-indigenous people who are battling, I would say that in civilised and humane societies, there is the concept of "positive discrimination" to assist those who are doing it hard.

If we truly care about the "battlers" we should be opposing governments that give billions to the wealthiest in society claiming that this is good for the economy. What this does, of course, is to embed Australian society into further inequality.

As a nation, we need to stop ignoring the denial of the wrongs committed against the Aboriginal and Torres Islander people of this country following the British occupation and also work towards overcoming all inequality.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 30 August 2023  

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