The Voice referendum is in “a hell of a mess,” but Catholic social teaching and decades of papal support for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples provide strong grounds for Catholics to vote Yes on 14 October, said Fr Frank Brennan SJ in a recent speech.
The priest, lawyer and long-standing Indigenous advocate addressed a gathering at St Ignatius parish in Richmond, Victoria, on 12 September.
He offered a philosophical and political background to the proposed referendum question confronting the country, the attitude of recent popes to its Australia’s Indigenous peoples and the reasons he supports the Voice to Parliament.
He also outlined his own problems with the way the referendum process has been undertaken.
These included a failure to engage the support of the major political parties and the general public on the wording of the question or the proposed constitutional change itself.
“I’m one Australian who stood up and said, ‘I don’t think the wording is perfect, I don’t think the process has been perfect, but we’re left with an invidious choice,’” Fr Brennan said.
“Do we choose some wording which may not be perfect, or do we say No and we put this off to another day?”
He expressed his shock after the opportunities for dialogue promised by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when he announced the referendum in 2022 failed to materialise.
“After three months I was terrified, because there’d been no process set up to engage people as to what the formula of words might be, and no process for the public generally to put forward suggestions as to what might be a workable constitutional proposal,” Fr Brennan said.
With constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples an active discussion since 2007, there was no guarantee the future political leadership of the country on the issue was “going to be any better than the combination of Albanese and Dutton,” Fr Brennan added.
“I say: Is it not the time to say Yes, rule a line and put this behind us and then deal with whatever imperfections there might be?”
Key for Catholics considering their vote is the warm support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples expressed by Pope Paul VI during his 1970 visit and St Pope John Paul II during his 1986 visit, he said, as well as Pope Francis’s “long and abiding commitment to the plight of indigenous peoples” expressed in his apostolic exhortations Evangelii Gaudium and Querida Amazonia, and encyclicals Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti.
Book-ending his talk with references to his friend, the ailing Western Australian Senator Patrick Dodson, also known as the ‘father of reconciliation,’ Fr Brennan traced the timeline of the Voice proposal, beginning in 1997 with the inaugural reconciliation convention chaired by Mr Dodson.
He explained that an expert panel set up by former prime minister Julia Gillard established four principles in 2012 to guide any process aimed at constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including that it be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectrums.
“Anyone watching our parliament today would know that whatever you want to say about the proposal being put before us, it is not one which is supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectrums,” he said.