PeaceWise’s position on The Voice to Parliament
Released Thursday 28 September 2023
On Saturday 14 October Australia will be asked to make a decision in our first referendum this millennium.
As we know, the vote is to decide whether or not to amend the Australian constitution to:
- provide for the creation of a new body to be called “the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice” (The Voice)
- which can make representations to the Parliament and the Executive on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples
- and for which the Parliament will have power to enact laws about its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
We are writing because it is a significant moment in Australian history, and because we believe as Christian peacemakers we have something meaningful to say into the public debate around the issue.
Our hope is this contribution might help breathe grace into the discussion, as well as bring some pertinent information and perspectives that will assist those of you who are voting in making your final decision.
This article is in four parts:
1. PeaceWise’s journey and position explained
2. Some facts and truths about Indigenous Australians
3. Theological reflections on The Voice
4. Peacemaking reflections on talking to others about The Voice and on casting your vote
1. PeaceWise’s journey and position explained
Many organisations have expressed positions on what they believe the right way to vote is in relation to The Voice. In some cases, these statements have alienated people within the organisation by suggesting that all shared the same view on the issue, when in fact they did not.
The PeaceWise Board has been on a journey of discovery for the last couple of years, seeking to become better informed about Indigenous Australians and the issues they face. Between us as a group, we have read widely, seeking to better know the truth of their history, we have visited museum exhibitions, watched films, talked to Aboriginal people we know, gone to public forums, sought to become more culturally aware and better able to show respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As part of this journey, in 2022 we wrote a reconciliation-focused acknowledgement of country which we now use at the beginning of our training events and began including an acknowledgment of country in all our board meetings.
Since the announcement of The Voice referendum, as a Board believed we would need to apply what we have learnt in this journey in forming (and, in all likelihood sharing) our view about The Voice.
To this end, we set aside time at our Board retreat this year to pray into and discuss the issue. We each shared from our hearts, explained why we felt the way we did, and landed on our overall position.
Which is, like Australia as a whole, we the people of PeaceWise do not have a single position on The Voice.
What emerged through our discussion was that through collectively and individually journeying in growing on our understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their history, we had reached different perspectives on this issue. Some strongly supporting the Yes and others the No vote.
Therefore, in this article, which has been approved by each member of our Board, we will not be seeking to persuade you to vote Yes or No. There are many other articles which do this. Here are two Christian articles from each side which we believe capture some key elements of the two cases, and at the same time remain respectful in writing about the issue. Of course, the booklet sent by the Australian Electoral Commission itself contains extensive (secular) arguments for each case as well.
Two articles for the Yes case
- The Voice: a Christian Consideration by Michael Jensen
- Essay: Voice referendum a chance for Australia’s church to take a stand for justice by Tim Costello
Two articles for the No case
- Michael Jensen’s Christian defence of the Voice to Parliament: A Christian critique by Stephen Chavura
- Would Jesus vote Yes? by Kel Richards
We will revisit in Part 4 of this article the fact that within PeaceWise we have different positions on The Voice, and what that means relationally for us.
For the moment, we want to share some facts relevant to the debate and how we might vote.
2. Some facts and truths about Indigenous Australians
Of course, on each side of the debate there are those claiming the high moral ground when it comes to facts and truths. Each claims the other’s facts are fake news or distortions of the truth.
So, in this section we will stick only to matters of fact which are broadly accepted by all parties as true. They are relevant because they help us better understand the context of the discussion and the vote.
Fact 1: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first people God called to steward the land we call Australia
- Up until 1992, land law in Australia operated on the basis of a legal doctrine called “terra nullius” – literally that the land was unoccupied or uninhabited, and therefore could (legally) be taken possession of by English settlement.
- In 1992, in the Mabo decision made by the High Court of Australia, terra nullius was recognised to be a legal fiction. In other words, it was not true.
- Significantly, the lead judgment in the Mabo case was given by a Christian – Sir Gerard Brennan, who is quoted in the Australian Parliament’s webpage on the Mabo decision to say “The fiction by which the rights and interests of Indigenous inhabitants in land were treated as non-existent was justified by a policy which has no place in the contemporary law of this country.”
- This history is the basis for the statement frequently seen in public contexts “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”
Fact 2: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are disproportionately represented in a wide range of measures which show disadvantage in Australian society, and which both sides of politics would like to reduce
- The Closing the Gap framework is an annually measured Australian government strategy (pursued by both the Labor and Liberal parties when in government) that aims to reduce disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians on key health, education and economic opportunity targets.
- Huge amounts (billions) of dollars have been spent trying to close these gaps, with limited success.
- Many of the inequalities are tragic in nature – for example, the last Closing the Gap annual data report showed increases in both rates of incarceration (2,151 per 100,000 adult population) and suicide (27 per 100,000 people), each of which is materially higher than rates for non-Indigenous Australians.
Fact 3: The request for The Voice was proposed by 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- The request was made in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart which includes the following:
“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds, and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations’ Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”
3. Some theological reflections on The Voice
For Christians, as we come to vote on The Voice, it is not enough for us to just listen and weigh up the arguments for and against. It is necessary for us to also consider what godly wisdom and biblical teaching bring to the discussion. For as Christians we live in this world as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor 5:20) and seek to present Christ in all we do. To reflect this, we have decided to focus on three simple Christian callings – to justice, to reconciliation (motivated by love) and to peace.
The justice lens
Some of the most famous words of the Old Testament are those found in the book of Micah, which call all believers to have a deep concern for justice:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8
In the New Testament, the very first passage of Scripture read by Jesus is focused on deliverance for the poor and oppressed. In Luke Chapter 4, verses 16-20 we read:
He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”Luke 4:16-20
As Christians, we are called to be deeply concerned for the suffering and disadvantaged. As we have already noted above, we are therefore to be concerned for the suffering and disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is not something which we can be indifferent to or inoculated against (because we have heard about it for so long).
If we are to vote Yes, then, one of the reasons is likely because we believe giving a constitutionally recognised voice will help in Closing the Gap, because giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples greater voice into decisions that affect them will provide better outcomes for them.
If we are to vote No, it cannot be because we don’t care about Closing the Gap – it will be more connected with a view that voting for The Voice will not help achieve that outcome and that there are other better ways that this might happen.
The reconciliation (motivated by love) lens
There are very complex issues at play when we begin talking through the reconciliation lens. As the Mabo case determined, there is no question that English settlement resulted in the land for which the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the original custodians being taken from them by force. Additionally, whilst there may be debate about the level and detail of atrocities committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, it is also broadly understood there were systematic killings over generations, that parents were permanently separated from their children and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not actually recognised within our law as “people” entitled to vote until the 1967 referendum – which was passed with bilateral political support with a 90% positive vote.
How then can “we” (the rest of Australia) take steps to be reconciled with people who have been so wronged? And as Christians, how can we contribute to this happening? Some have argued that we should not speak of reconciliation, as there seems to be no prospect of forgiveness ever being extended, and how could reconciliation between people groups ever happen anyway?
As peacemakers, we would question this approach. If we are to say that we should not take steps towards reconciliation unless we think there is a very real prospect of forgiveness being extended to us, this would severely narrow the scope for unilateral acts of kindness, grace and peacemaking. In reality, we often extend offerings of peace, acts of kindness and grace, with the hope of softening hardened hearts, or in the knowledge that ultimately, we seek to love the other as we would wish to be loved as something that is pleasing to God in and of itself, irrespective of what the response might be. Loving in such a way reflects the nature of God’s love towards humanity who continues to show love and invites reconciliation despite the rejection of many. It also has the potential to witness Jesus, even as Christians we are called to a broader ministry of helping show others the life-changing possibility of reconciliation with God himself (see 2 Corinthians 5: 11-21).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that if we are offering our gift at the altar and become aware another person believes they have been wronged by us, then we need to be the initiators of seeking to be reconciled with that person (Matthew 5: 23-24). Reconciliation is seen as of such a high priority that it takes precedence over our offering of worship which we had come to do (and perhaps the passage also suggests that being unreconciled with others actually hinders our ability to worship God).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’s famous words on love give us a new and revolutionary challenge:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.John 13:34
This commandment then to love as Jesus did (note it’s not just an invitation) is to be done in Jesus’ power and in a way that is so compelling in its character, it shows to the world who we follow – because our love is so discernibly different.
Continuing in a similar theme, Paul in writing to the church in Philippi gives this extraordinary instruction:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Phil. 2:3-4
So then, as we consider whether to vote Yes or No, we would argue our heart must be inclined to consider how our vote will best live out Jesus’ and Paul’s instructions towards reconciliation and love. This is not “panacea, Pollyanna love theology” – this is the nitty gritty of having to make a binary decision (Yes or No) and seeking before God with our whole heart to know which decision we each believe will better reflect the heart and teachings of Jesus in this space.
The “live at peace” lens
For many years, on the back of our business cards, many amongst the board and staff of PeaceWise have had this verse printed:
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”Romans 12:18
The beauty of this verse is that on the one hand it calls us to make every possible effort to live at peace with others. And on the other hand, it recognises that we cannot control the responses of others, and ultimately whether or not peace comes is not our primary focus – our primary focus is we do all we can on our part to pursue it.
Looking at The Voice in this way, the question is again similar to the one just posed: which vote is more likelyto contribute towards peace between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of Australia – Yes or No?
4. Peacemaking reflections on talking to others about The Voice and on casting your vote
What then does all this mean when faced with such strongly opposing views on the issue? It has been saddening to see the question becoming increasingly politicised as the debate has continued, and indeed to see the nature of the dialogue become increasingly personal and vitriolic as proponents of each case have become increasingly desperate to achieve the vote they so strongly believe in.
In his book Posting peace: why social media divides us and what we can do about it, Douglas Bursch writes the following:
“Our fractured society cries out for peacemakers who understand their work not only has the power to heal individual relationships but to heal and strengthen nations and even our world.”
Jesus himself places such high store on peacemakers that he calls them out in his famous “Beatitudes”: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). And he goes further still, making teaching on peacemaking and forgiveness the very last instructions he gives to his disciples before he prepares to leave them as he approaches his death in Jerusalem (Matthew 18:15-35).
As we approach these final two weeks of the debate, we can and arguably should still be having discussions with people who have different views to us. Such discussions help test our views and potentially help us think through the issues in ways we may have not yet considered.
As we do, we must seek to do so respectfully, calmly and with carefully chosen words.
If we look to what happened within the PeaceWise board as an example, it would be fair to say that there was some surprise shared amongst us all when we took the time to each share and hear how we felt about the issue and why. But we were able to do this with a full commitment to listening well, and an even stronger commitment to maintaining relationship with each other – even when we disagreed. Passionately. Because we love each other and are deeply committed to each other. Even more passionately.
Our differences over what we believe is best in relation to the vote on The Voice have not negatively impacted our relationships in any way.
Instead, they have actually become stronger, as they have given us a new opportunity to seek to practise what it means to live at peace and in love with each other.
So where to from here?
We would like to end by offering hope and encouragement.
When we are in our churches, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our families, amongst our friends, in person, online and wherever else we may be, let’s seek to bring respect, dignity and grace to our discussions about The Voice.
Let’s encourage all to make decisions with the best information possible, and having come before God with a sincere desire to make a choice that is honouring to him. It is undoubtedly a wisdom decision. But wisdom, godly wisdom, does not come from simply our own reflections but through prayer and the careful wrestling with issues in light of what we are taught in scripture.
Let’s listen to truly seek to understand the other point of view – not just to bide time to make our own points. Let’s seek to model love and kindness – even perhaps if others say things that are not so loving and kind towards us.
May the Lord lead and guide you as you pray and prepare to vote.
And on the other side of the vote on the 14th October, no matter what result is reached, let’s continue to demonstrate these same peacemaking, loving and kind behaviours – for there will be people needing to be shown these very same things in the days which follow.
If the Yes vote wins, it will be likely that those who voted No will feel like a poor decision has been made, which may give rise to feelings of disappointment, regret maybe even deep concern.
If the No vote wins by contrast, it will be likely that many people, particularly many Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island peoples, will feel a visceral sense of loss. It is not hard to imagine real feelings of hopelessness and despondency arising, as hopes for a new future dreamed of are not realised. The Yes campaign’s line, “If not now when” speaks into this potential.
Being aware of the presence of these deep and strongly held emotions for people on each side of the vote will be important if we are to care for each other and work together to come back together after the vote.
We choose to end by sharing with you the Acknowledgment of Country which we use at the beginning of each PeaceWise training. We offer this now as a closing prayer to this article on The Voice.
As we start today, we begin by recognising the sovereignty of the one triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in whose presence we meet and who made all people in his image. We look forward to the day where together people of every nation, tribe, and language will gather in unity and worship him including the traditional owners of the [name of the relevant nation] where we meet today.
We also acknowledge the Burramattagal people, a clan of the Darug nation who are the traditional custodians of the land where the PeaceWise office is located.
We give thanks for the elders of all these nations, past and present, and pray for their descendants, and emerging and future leaders.
We also acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people present with us today.
We ask that through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, each of us will humbly and graciously, repent and forgive, so that as a nation we can continue to journey towards reconciliation.
Please help us in this.
All grace and peace to you,
Jeroen Bruins (Chair)
Wayne Forward (CEO)
Li Ai Oh
 We note that in addition to its literal meaning, this passage is commonly understood as Jesus’ announcing his earthly mission to deliver freedom and salvation to the “spiritually poor and captive” through himself – see for example the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (an abridged version of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary), edited by Kenneth Barker and John Kohlenberger, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan..