Uluru Statement needs universal support, says Indigenous leader
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a chance to implement Catholic social teaching, and shouldn’t be a source of anxiety, the chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) has said.
“The Catholic Church plays an important role within the Aboriginal community because it helps to give us a voice,” John Lochowiak, the chair of NATSICC, told The Catholic Weekly.
“Our people are very Catholic. We don’t want to change the traditions of the Church.
“But as St John Paul II said, ‘The Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.’”
Mr Lochowiak is an initiated man with ties to the Pitjantjatjara, Kaurna, Ramindjeri and Arrernte language groups, and was born in Coober Pedy to a Polish father and Aboriginal mother.
He met St John Paul II in Alice Springs in 1986 and was stunned to see a man who looked like his Polish Catholic father.
His mother, who grew up on Aboriginal missions in South Australia, was given the opportunity to be educated by the Church because she would not be accepted by public schools.
“My mum, who’s an Aboriginal elder: you say anything negative about Catholics and that’s fighting words for her,” Mr Lochowiak said.
“In the community, when she said she was Catholic other Catholics treated her well, which helped to lift the profile of Aboriginal people.”
Mr Lochowiak was a member delegate to the Plenary Council, and welcomed the Church’s support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which proposes an Indigenous voice be codified in the Constitution.
NATSICC’s response to the Uluru Statement at the time of its release in 2017 said it was an example of subsidiarity – the concept in Catholic social teaching that decisions ought to be made locally, by those affected, wherever appropriate.
“Subsidiarity would dictate that along with major, meaningful changes to the Constitution, substantial reform to the processes in which consultation and delivery of programs for our people would need to take place,” NATSICC’s statement said.
It also described subsidiarity as a “cornerstone framework” in policy development into the future. “The key with subsidiarity is giving Aboriginal people a voice. And part of that voice is empowerment,” Mr Lochowiak said.
“We need to demonstrate that Aboriginal people know their communities, know their people, know the problems, know how to resolve their problems.”
Having a voice to Parliament will help Indigenous communities to have input on policy decisions that affect them, and will help Australians to recognise the ongoing presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Mr Lochowiak believes.
But non-Indigenous Australians also have to understand the ways in which they will benefit, Mr Lochowiak said.
“I spoke to someone in Adelaide recently, he wasn’t Aboriginal, who said, ‘But what are we, as Australians, going to get out of it?’
“Our statistics, Closing the Gap, it’s quite bad – so why would he be wondering what he’s going to get out of it?
“But actually he was right. Because in order for it to work, the whole community has to support it.”
The Uluru Statement also seeks a Makarrata, a Yolngu word literally meaning to spear through the thigh, but which refers to a legal process of truth-telling, reconciliation and “coming together after a struggle” that can also involve penalties.
Mr Lochowiak believes that any process of truth-telling about Australian history needs to honestly face the effects of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but should also account for the important role the Church and other institutions have played since European settlement.
“The key is education, truth-telling, and us coming together as one. In order for us to move ahead, people have got to understand why they should support the Uluru Statement, the Makarrata,” he said.
“It’s no secret there’s problems in the Aboriginal community. And we can’t fix it all ourselves.
“We need people working together, acknowledging us. It will all lift the profile of Aboriginal people in this country.
“If we can lead the way as Catholics – just think how great that would be.”