Principal's Blog - 28 May 2020

28 May 2020

Dear Members of the Marcellin College Family,

This week is National Reconciliation Week. A time when we ponder as a nation the injustices of the past and what a road map to a lasting reconciliation into the future might look like. It is also an opportunity to learn more about the customs, culture and history of Australia’s Indigenous people.

In considering all of this, the question of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians emerges as an opportunity to assist the ongoing process of reconciliation. In 2017, Indigenous leaders themselves met to discuss this issue. The outcome of these deliberations was the publication of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was a wonderful statement of recognition and hope. In this same year, 2017, as Principal of Marcellin College Randwick in Sydney, I invited Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO to deliver the annual Lionel Bowen Lecture to the community. Lionel Bowen, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, was an Old Boy of Marcellin College and the annual lecture in his name was delivered by a prominent Australian each year with a focus on “Citizenship and the Common Good.” As part of his presentation in 2017, Fr Brennan focused on Aboriginal Recognition. This is a topic he has a passionate interest in and knows much about. Described by one former Prime Minister, Paul Keating as ‘that meddling priest’ and by another, Kevin Rudd as ‘a burr in Australia’s ethical saddle’, Fr Brennan has been a keen advocate for Indigenous Australians over many years.

The following is an extract from Fr Brennan’s address to the Marcellin community at Randwick on 30 August 2017. Even nearly three years on, it captures succinctly the main issues to be dealt with as we continue the journey towards recognition and reconciliation.

Aboriginal Recognition
As a nation, we are stuck on finding our way forward on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Lionel Bowen would have urged caution and respectful consideration for all due process and consultation if we as citizens were to have any hope of amending our Constitution providing due recognition of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, thereby enhancing the common good of our nation.

In the midst of the complex uncertainty, let's hope that our elected politicians follow the same principles which guided the 2012 expert panel, 'namely that each proposal must:

  • contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation;
  • be of benefit to and accord with the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the
  • political and social spectrums; and
  • be technically and legally sound'.

There is no point in proceeding with a referendum on a question which fails to win the approval of the First Australians. But neither is there any point in proceeding with a referendum which is unlikely to win the approval of the overwhelming majority of the voting public, regardless of when they or their ancestors first arrived in Australia. Given that Indigenous Australians have spoken strongly through their representatives at Uluru in support of a First Nations Voice, it is now for our parliament to determine a timetable and menu for constitutional change with maximum prospects of a 'Yes ' vote.

How do we best guarantee the establishment of a First Nations Voice so that it is heard and listened to whenever laws and policies affecting Indigenous heritage and aspirations are affected? Even if change to our Constitution remains some distance in the future, it is important for us all to commit ourselves to designing and implementing a First Nations Voice here and now, deciding whether it be different from the existing National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. And it's important for all our elected politicians to be attentive to those Aboriginal members of parliament who have both political experience and skin in the game, seeking recognition of their mob in the Australian Constitution, while rightly demanding that the outdated 'race' provisions be deleted.

Senator Patrick Dodson is surely right when he says, 'To formulate a successful referendum outcome, especially in the next year, a bipartisan, indeed, cross party consensus will need to be carefully shaped.' That will take something more than the Uluru Statement. Also, Malcolm Turnbull was right when he said on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum: 'No political deal, no cross-party compromise, no leaders' handshake can deliver constitutional change. To do that a constitutionally conservative nation must be persuaded that the proposed amendments respect the fundamental values of the Constitution and will deliver precise changes, clearly understood, that benefit all Australians. ' Like all earlier proposals for constitutional change, the Uluru Statement now needs to be assessed by our political leaders and scrutinised by all comers. That's no disrespect to those Indigenous representatives who gathered at Uluru; it's the inevitable politics of democratic constitutional change.

The clearer the blueprint for the First Nations Voice, the more likely that the referendum question formulated with parliament's approval will gain the necessary super-majority of voter support. A referendum question including provision for a First Nations Voice with no prior blueprint has absolutely no prospect of winning the required votes.

It would be a retrograde step to hold a referendum which has very little prospect of success. Some think it best to hold a referendum in the next 12 months regardless of its prospect of success. In my opinion, a lost referendum will do harm to the existential reality of many Indigenous Australians and to the common good of our polity.

Post-Uluru, Aboriginal Australia is seeking a First Nations Voice regardless of what is in the Constitution. And Aboriginal Australia is seeking recognition of that First Nations Voice in the Constitution. If it can't be put in the Constitution in the next twelve months, should we still be seeking to establish the First Nations Voice? I presume the answer is 'yes'. If we can't put it in the Constitution in the next twelve months but if we can get it established and working, is there some greater prospect of getting it in the Constitution down the track than if it were not established? I presume the answer is 'yes'.

Mind you, I still favour what is nowadays described dismissively as symbolic, minimalist change. In this realm, there is no such thing as a small change to the Constitution. Any change is big and significant. If you think that changing the plaques on statues is important, you should regard the removal of 'race' provisions from the Constitution and the addition of formal recognition of past Indigenous history, present Indigenous reality and future Indigenous aspirations as essential.

John Hickey