Fr Frank Brennan SJ
28 May 2023
It’s not often that Pentecost Sunday falls during our National Reconciliation Week which is bookended by 27 May, the anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum and 3 June, the anniversary of the High Court’s decision in the Mabo case. The remembered events of Reconciliation Week provide a good backdrop for us Christians contemplating the action of the Spirit as experienced by the first Christians of diverse languages and cultures who heard the disciples speaking in all their diverse tongues of the mighty acts of God.
‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travellers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.’
During this past week, our Parliament has for the first time been debating the bill for the proposed referendum on the Voice. One member who has sweated blood on the issue is Julian Leeser who resigned from the Opposition front bench so that he could campaign for a Yes vote even though he has serious, reasoned reservations about the proposed wording of the change to the Constitution. He told Parliament:
‘Over thousands of years, Australia’s Indigenous people have made their peace with this land, and it’s become part of their soul. Lives infused by the land, the seasons and the stories of their ancestors. The 2021 Senior Australian of the Year, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, calls the contemplation of this land “deep listening”, “dadirri”—the ability to stop, contemplate and listen. To listen to the deep waters of our country, to the present as well as times past; to listen and to hear the beckoning of change. This is such a moment for our country and for the home we share, Indigenous and immigrant, drawn from every creed and from every corner of the world.’
I have the good fortune to be here in Rome with Miriam-Rose this week as part of the Australian Embassy’s celebration of 50 years diplomatic relations between Australia and the Holy See. Her message of ‘deep listening’, ‘dadirri’, will be heard by people of diverse languages and cultures. Provided the Pope has got over his fever, she will be able to share something of that message with the Holy Father.
Sadly there has been little evidence of that deep listening nor of the Spirit reconciling differences in our Parliament this past week. On Monday, Mr Peter Dutton made it abundantly clear that the Liberal Party will not support the Voice referendum in any shape or form, and will not propose any amendments to the proposed Bill. The Opposition’s stance is a clear ‘No’. That being the case, you would have to wonder why he ever appointed Julian Leeser as his Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, as well as Shadow Attorney General. Dutton told Parliament:
‘Changing our Constitution to enshrine a Voice will take our country backwards, not forwards. The Voice is regressive, not progressive, and it should be very clear to Australians by now that the Prime Minister is dividing our country, not uniting us.’
‘But this referendum on the Voice will undermine our equality of citizenship. It’s an overcorrection. The Voice will embed new procedural rights in our Constitution— rights which are conferred only on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It will have an Orwellian effect, where all Australians are equal but some Australians are more equal than others.’
On Thursday the Prime Minister responded forcefully making it just as clear that the Government will not accept any amendments to the proposed wording. From here on, it is ‘crash or crash through’. He told Parliament:
‘The Liberal Party front bench had already locked themselves into saying no before the committee process that they called for and they said was important had even commenced its work. And the National Party decided to say no before the draft question had even been finalised. From the outset, instead of seeking ways to agree they have looked for excuses to disagree.’
The Prime Minister said that when he first put forward a suggested set of words at Garma on 30 July 2022, ‘it was a draft and we were open to debate, and I encouraged members to come forward—and, indeed, the public to come forward as well.’ In fairness to the Opposition, it should be admitted that no parliamentary process for receiving suggestions was set up until April this year, and the process was very truncated, with the government having already decided that no changes would be made. The words were already set in concrete before the parliamentary committee even met.
Neither side of the parliamentary chamber has done what was needed to bring the country together, to bring reconciliation in our land, to bring the country to ‘Yes’. Whichever way the referendum goes, we will be left with a country divided, and that is a tragedy.
This Pentecost we pray for the Spirit of reconciliation to descend afresh on our land and for all Australians, whichever way they will eventually vote, to recommit themselves to a deep inner listening to each other and to our land.
Let’s recall the haunting words from the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
‘[The] ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.’
Not many 21st century Aboriginal Australians use terms like ‘therefrom’, ‘thereto’ and ‘thither’. This statement is an adapted quote from the submission put by Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya, Senior President of the Supreme Court of Zaire, who appeared on behalf of the Republic of Zaire in the International Court of Justice in 1975 dismissing ‘the materialistic concept of terra nullius’substituting ‘a spiritual notion’. Bayona-Ba-Meya was a Congolese lawyer who commenced his studies in a Catholic minor seminary before going on to study law at a Catholic university in the Congo. Judge Fouad Ammoun, a Maronite Catholic and the Lebanese Vice-President of the International Court, quoted the submission in his judgment in the Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara. This part of Judge Ammoun’s opinion was then quoted by a couple of the judges in the High Court Mabo decision.
How extraordinary that the inheritors of the longest living culture on earth would quote a Lebanese judge quoting a lawyer from Zaire to express the depths of their spiritual relationship with the land. This is a profound lesson for those of us seeking an inclusive Australia. We are able to share our diverse cultural and religious modes of expression to communicate the deepest yearnings of our hearts. No doubt this is what Miriam Rose will do in Rome this week.
Judge Ammoun observed in his judgment that the ‘spirituality of the thinking of the representative of Zaire echoes the spirituality of the African Bantu revealed to us by Father Placide Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan, in his work Philosophie bantoue. The author sees therein a “striking analogy” with “that intense spiritual doctrine which quickens and nourishes souls within the Catholic Church”.’ How extraordinary it is too, that remarks by lawyers from Zaire and Lebanon echoing African Bantu and Belgian Catholic notions of spirituality would come to express Australian Indigenous spiritual aspirations to land in such a foundational document as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
At week’s end, NATSICC (the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council) published its statement supportive of a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, saying:
‘We acknowledge that people of goodwill who care for First Nations Peoples can come to different conclusions and form differing opinions from the same information. We must accept these opinions and respect each other’s rights to express them.
‘However, we offer these comments to encourage Australians to consider the benefits of the Voice to Parliament for helping to achieve reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
‘We urge all Australians, including our Members of Parliament, to engage in respectful and constructive dialogue on this issue. By working together in a spirit of solidarity, we can create a more just and equitable society for all.’
Let’s hope the reconciling Spirit blows through the chambers of our Parliament during the next three weeks while our elected leaders lay the groundwork for the three month campaign when we the people must decide how we are to be reconciled in this land, deeply listening to each other’s concerns for those who are the First Peoples of this land and for all those who come to this land to find a home where they can live in peace and security, equal under the law.
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
1 House of Representatives, Hansard, 24 May 2023, p. 84.
3 House of Representatives, Hansard, 22 May 2023, p. 57.
4 House of Representatives, Hansard, 25 May 2023, p. 20.
6  ICJR at pp. 77-8.