This was first published on Australian Presbyterian here.
It was published as part of a series – two for the Voice and two against. I think it is right for the Presbyterians to give equal weight to both points of view. Mine is supposed to be an ‘in the middle’ piece. It is about as objective and balanced as I can make it. To be fair I find the whole subject difficult – and somewhat disturbing – but I hope this is helpful.
Is the Voice Australia’s Brexit?
The polls are open – and for the next few days up until the official voting date, October the 14th, Australians will be able to vote on the Voice referendum. For this foreigner who is not permitted to vote it has been fascinating watching the debate unfold – and in particular reactions of the churches. I have a real sense of déjà vu. The whole thing has reminded me a great deal of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK. Perhaps there are lessons for the Australian Church to learn from the UK mistakes? This article is a summary of the arguments I have heard, including some of the resources, and some personal reflection. As I don’t have a vote, I won’t be telling you how I might vote. I am open to persuasion of either side, and just trying to think through some of the arguments and issues.
1. The Brexit Debate was a complex issue presented in simplistic and emotional terms.
I have read a great deal from all sides, listened to numerous debates and in particular listened to indigenous friends. Initially in my ignorance I assumed the Voice had to be a good thing – after all was it not just about recognising indigenous history and promising to listen to indigenous people?
Like the Brexit debate, when I looked deeper into it, I realised it is far more complex than the simplistic narratives portrayed in most of the media. We are told that if you are for the Voice then you are compassionate, humble and want justice for indigenous people. If you are against you are ignorant, stupid or racist. On the other side if you are for the Voice, you are a communist sympathiser who either wants to destroy the country or you are just a sheep following the elitist mainstream media (MSM); whereas if you are against it then you are a patriotic and thoughtful person who understands the real significance of what is going on.
As an example of the simplistic nature of the debate take the words given to Nathan Cleary, football star, “no Voice, no choice…come on Australia, vote Yes”. I’m not quite sure what that means, nor am I sure he knows what it means – but if he is suggesting that if indigenous people don’t have The Voice, then they will have no choice in Australian society, that is simply not true. I suspect the phrase was chosen because it sounds like a good Tik Tok meme, which the PM and Patricia Karvelas immediately announced as a game changer. Such simplistic celebrity endorsements backfired in the Brexit debate, and that may have the same effect here. Those who rely on a celebrity sports or media person to determine their vote, probably don’t deserve the vote! On the other side, no one should endorse, pass on, or encourage some of the doctored and false clips of the Prime Minister.
There have however been some more nuanced and thoughtful contributions – but they have been largely drowned out by the emotive hyperbole. Whether the Australian people vote Yes or No, the result will be, like Brexit, a much more divided society – which is ironic given that the Voice was supposed to bring unity.
2. The Brexit debate was incredibly one- sided
In the UK the vast majority of corporations, trade unions, sporting clubs, universities etc were opposed to Brexit. The clear message was that all good intelligent people would be against it. Brendan O’Neill sums up the parallels well in his aptly coined word ‘Plebphobia’.
Likewise with the Voice. Australia’s not-for profits, banks, sporting clubs, insurance companies, academic institutions, corporations, professional bodies have all come out on the side of the Voice. Organisations such as the Commonwealth Bank, Westfarmer, Fremantle Football Club, the National Rugby League, the AFL, Cricket Australia, the NAB, Woolworths, Coles, TransGrid and many others. Qantas has painted three of its planes with the Yes slogan – a move unveiled by the Prime Minister. BHP has, contrary to its non-political campaigns policy donated $2 million, as have ANZ. BHP said that they donated this money because ‘we invest our voluntary social investment on matters that are integral to the ongoing success of our business”. On the NO side the only big donation appears to have been that of Clive Palmer’s $2 million. (as an aside I find it fascinating that every single celebrity who has expressed an opinion has come out for the Voice. Is this really because they all think the same way – the ultimate in group think? Or is it because to say No would damage their career?)…
It’s interesting that even today I have been told by Sydney council, the University of Sydney, a couple of Christian organisations, three celebrities, my phone company and a number of the shops I walk past, that I should vote Yes.
In Academia, just as in the UK Brexit debate, academics who would dare to support the No campaign would be risking their future career. During the Brexit debate I was aware of several leading academics and businesspeople (along with several SNP politicians) who were for Brexit – but they just kept quiet. The peer pressure was too great. This article suggests the same thing is happening in Australia.
And the following example of intimidation and bullying is similar to what some experienced in the UK Associate Professor Bea Staley of Charles Darwin University stated that:
|If you feel you are unable to vote Yes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights, you might want to reflect deeply on whether a career in allied health in Australia is really for you.’|
The BBC, a taxpayer funded public body which was supposed to be impartial, had a distinct bias against Brexit. Likewise, the ABC, which is, as a taxpayer funded body, supposed to be impartial, has shown clear bias against the No campaign. It has even provided video and audio for the Yes campaign’s John Farnham “You’re the Voice” television advertisement. Conflating the two, the BBC even ran a world-wide article headlined ‘lies fuel racism ahead of Australia’s Indigenous vote’.
It could have been lifted straight from the BBC Brexit playbook where it was regularly suggested that those who voted for Brexit did so out of racism, ignorance or because they were being influenced by the Russians!
Other professional bodies – as with Brexit – are of course falling over themselves to be on ‘the right side of history’. For example, a large number of Australian medical and doctors’ groups took out a full-page advert in the press telling us that the Voice would improve indigenous health. At best they have no way of knowing this; at worst one has to ask why they have not been listening to indigenous groups before and seeking to improve their health?
The Yes campaign is estimated to have a budget ten times the size of the No campaign including a number of donations from large public companies. ‘Fact checkers’ regularly ‘check’ the ‘facts’ of the No campaign, but are silent about those of the Yes campaign.
The fact that corporate Australia is overwhelmingly in support of the Voice gives the impression that it is primarily a concern of elites. As someone who inclines politically to the Left (in the old sense of the word – not in the modern sense of millionaire progressives!) I’m inclined to question anything which gets such support from the rich and powerful Establishment, in the name of changing things! Of course, I have to beware of reverse snobbery – it is possible that the Establishment elites are right!
3. The Brexit Debate was incredibly divisive.
When I walk round my area – in Sydney’s North Shore – there are a few Yes posters. I have never seen a No poster. I suspect it would be social suicide in this up-market area (which ironically has virtually no indigenous people) to put one up. To be for No is to be perceived as racist, ignorant, influenced by the right-wing media, driven by fear. Not one of the enlightened ones. Not on ‘the right side of history’.
There are so many examples of this kind of emotive bullying, usually combined with virtue signalling. I was recently at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Opera House where we were all treated to a sermon on how we should be voting for Voice, Treaty and Truth-telling (the leader clearly missed the memo from the PM that this was nothing to do with Treaty!). What struck me was the hypocrisy of it all. We were an audience that was 99% white – (and I suspect wealthy white people from the Eastern suburbs and North Shore which have virtually no indigenous people) who were paying tribute to elders who were not there – and supporting a policy which shows that we care – but I suspect no one present would be able to say how it would practically help. Whilst there was loud clapping, there was also some booing. And I suspect many of those who joined in the ritual clapping will probably vote No anyway! The thought struck me that if the Sydney Symphony Orchestra really did believe that they were performing on other people’s land, then the least they could do is give half their ticket money to indigenous charities!
Whatever way this goes (though the polls indicate a No win, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the greater Yes spend over the next few days will turn things around), I am certain that, because of the nature of the campaign, the result will be, as it was with Brexit, a more divided society. The excuses if there is a No vote are already pouring in – misinformation, Elon Musk, the Russians, Fascists, Rupert Murdoch, ignorance, racism, old people etc. Exactly the same as with Brexit. If there is a Yes vote I suspect there will be allegations of cheating, lies and it all being a fix. Either way, this does not look good. The trouble is that when people support a political cause with the same emotion and lack of reason that they do their football team, and their project does not come to pass (or is a failure) they get angry, frustrated and seek to blame the ‘other’. It’s a recipe for disaster.
I have another concern in terms of divisiveness. In a recent discussion I heard someone say ‘let them have what they want’. But who is ‘them’ or ‘they’? The Australian Bureau of statistics tell us that there are 812,728 people identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in the 2021 Census – up 25.2% (163,557 people) from 2016. More than half of this increase was for non-demographic reasons. In other words, a significant part of this increase is about people now self-identifying as indigenous. I have seen estimates that there are now around 1 million people who claim to be indigenous, of whom perhaps as many as 300,000 are not. More than 40% of indigenous people live in the major cities. And only a few thousand are not mixed race.
If three of your grandparents are Scottish/Irish and the other is indigenous, what does that make you? Are you one of the white colonisers, or one of the colonised? In one sense it is a ridiculous and divisive question – yet it is the kind of question that will be asked. Am I of the Marura mob, or the Macleod clan? Does my 25% indigenous blood give me a special place in the Australian constitution? Is my Scottish blood irrelevant?
I once sat in a meeting where a man spoke of how uncomfortable he was being in a room full of white people. Apart from the obvious racism, what made it ridiculous was that he was as white as me! Yet people just nodded sagely and tried to empathise with his skin colour oppression. Is this to be the future for Australia?
Excluding ‘ancestry’ and replacing it with the modern trend of self-identity can be harmful. I’ve seen this happen in the Scottish Highlands. We had communities where lots of what were termed ‘white settlers’ came in and suddenly announced they were Highlanders because this was their adopted culture and they wore a kilt! Local (indigenous) people, some of whom had been there for generations, were often sidelined, as the new self-identified Highlanders ran local community groups, businesses etc. It was often patronising, demeaning and certainly destructive of the community. The reality was that we had to find a way whereby locals, incomers of all sorts and the glorious mix that resulted could get on. When you bring up this issue of mixed race, some people get quite upset and angry and accuse you of racism. They suggest you are bringing up 19th Century Darwinianism. But I’m not sure why. After all isn’t the whole premise of the Voice based upon race? Personally, I find the concept of division by race destructive and harmful – but is that not exactly what we are talking about? The best book I have read on Aboriginal history is the wonderful ‘One Blood’ by John Harris. The title says it all. We are one blood. So why would Christians support dividing people on the basis of blood or race? In answer to this objection some state that this is not about race but it is about culture, peoples and identity. But if that is the case, why is it claimed that those who oppose the Voice are racist? On the one hand people will talk about racism against particular races – but then argue that it is not racist to favour one race. But if it is just about self-identity, what are you going to say to someone who identifies as indigenous, claims indigenous culture as his own and says that indigenous people are his people? Do you call him a liar? What proof could disprove such a claim if you are excluding race? Sydney University already offers substantial sums and privileges to those who merely self -identify as indigenous.
When money and land grants and power are involved, there will be an incentive for some to claim or to magnify their indigenous heritage. Giving a special privilege to one race within the constitution is a recipe for division, disputes, and disaster; especially in an era where identity politics and ideology means that racial identity can become such an area of dispute.
There are people who are racist, and in the crude sense, some of them will take the opportunity to express their racism through the No campaign. That should be immediately disowned. I don’t agree with Senator Lidia Thorpe on many things – although her reason for voting No is for me at least intellectually and emotionally coherent (she argues rightly that the Voice will be powerless) – but the Nazi video she was sent was disgusting and abhorrent. No excuses should be made for it. It should be denounced as loudly by No campaigners as it will be by Yes.
Not that the Yes side is squeaky clean. When Jacinta Price is referred to as a ‘coconut’ that is also outright racism.
4. The Church tended to reflect the divisions of society, more than the priorities of the Gospel.
During Brexit you would have struggled to find a bishop who did not openly support the EU. The Church of Scotland could not tell us whether the Holy Spirit wanted Scotland to stay in the UK but they were certain that He wanted the UK to stay in the EU. Many of the discussions about Brexit in the Church merely reflected the debate in the wider culture. And it was just as divisive. Likewise in Australia most of the major denominations, and most interdenominational groups have told us that God wants to support the Voice. A typical example is this published on The Other Cheek.
It is an astonishing article – equating voting for the Voice with the true worship of God, and suggesting by implication that those who do not vote for the Voice are disobeying God. In a similar vein Tear Fund published an article by Tim Costello which in a ‘nicer’ way expressed the same thought.
Costello wrote: “As a Christian I ask the question: what right do we have to oppose what our Indigenous brothers and sisters are asking for?” Leave aside the fact that a lot of our indigenous brothers and sisters are not asking for this, Christians don’t operate on the principle of ‘if you ask for it, you will get it’, no matter what the ‘it’ is. Our concern should be with the will of God – and we should be very careful (on any side) before we pronounce God as being in favour of, or against, any particular political project.
Costello used a simplistic view of history and a cheap rhetorical shot to equate opposition to the Voice with opposition to slavery or the African – American civil rights movement in the US. He repeated the oft used meme “I fully accept that voting ‘No’ does not mean you are a racist. But I’m sure there’s not too many racists voting ‘Yes’.” Exactly the same meme was used about those who voted for Brexit. Apart from not being true – I know racists who will vote Yes – it’s also a crude remark, demonising fine Christian people who are anti-racist and who will vote No BECAUSE they are anti-racist.
Costello gives another example of this rhetoric when he states, “Enough of the discredited line that to stand up to injustice is divisive, dangerous and unwise.” He assumes too much. That his position, and his alone, is about standing up to injustice. Maybe there are those who oppose the Voice because they consider it will increase injustice, rather than deal with it? In this regard it is disappointing to me, as a former supporter of TEAR fund, to note that whilst they have plenty to say about the Voice and the injustice it is supposed to deal with; they seem to have nothing to say about the injustice of 80,000 plus Australian babies being killed every year through abortion. I found nothing on their website about that great injustice. Silence in the face of such evil does not entitle you to lecture other Australian Christians about the morality of voting for a particular political project.
Mark Powell gave this excellent response to Costello in The Spectator Australia.
(On a slightly different tac I found it more than a little disturbing that The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund came out in complete support for the Uluru statement of the Heart (I assume they mean the one-page statement, rather than the 18-page supporting document). Amongst other things it states, “This sovereignty is spiritual notion: 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.” If this means anything at all it is more akin to green paganism than it is to evangelical Christianity.
In the interests of balance, I would have liked to have provided some examples of those on the NO side saying that it was the spiritual duty of all Christians to vote against the Voice. I’m sure there are some, but I haven’t been able to come across any. Perhaps I don’t move in the right circles?!
Having said that – as with Brexit – some in the churches have provided serious, insightful and helpful contributions. On the Yes side Archbishop Kanishka Rafael is helpful (although interestingly the Dean of his cathedral provided an equally helpful paper against).
And the Gospel Coalition published this informative and well-argued article by Michael Jensen in favour of the Voice. I am curious as to why the Gospel Coalition did not publish an alternative point of view. Are there not Gospel people on both sides of this argument? It did, however, publish a more balanced article by Akos Balogh.
On the No side commentators like John Anderson, theologians like Mark Powell, as well as the historian Stephen Chauvra have provided helpful analysis. John Anderson’s interview with indigenous campaigner Anthony Dillon was fascinating and really seemed to me to get to the heart of the issue.
How should the Church respond?
It is one thing for individual Christians and church leaders to express an opinion. It is quite another for the Church to make pronouncements. In my view it is a fundamental mistake for any denomination or individual church to make a pronouncement on any political issue which is not clearly addressed in the Bible. The Bible is clear about abortion, marriage and many other issues. But when the Bible is not clear, the Church should not speak with the authority of God. Take for example the Sydney Anglican Church, which at its latest Synod, despite some excellent contributions, reflected here – came up with the worst of both worlds. “We encourage all church members to prayerfully seek God’s voice as they search his wisdom in considering a ‘yes’ vote for the approaching referendum”. This sounds like the BBC sit com caricature of an Anglican vicar. “We do want you all to consider, in a really nice way, to avoid doing things that might upset God…or anyone else”. The Church needs to speak with a clear voice, and as already said, it should not speak with a clear voice about that which God has not made clear!
In this regard the Two Ways podcast with Philip Jensen and Tony Payne was particularly helpful. At the end of a helpful and stimulating discussion I still did not know how they were going to vote!
This does not mean that individual ministers as citizens should say nothing. I argued for both Scottish independence and Brexit – and I had people in my congregation, and colleagues in ministry, who argued the opposite. That’s fine. But there is a world of difference between ‘David Robertson says’, and ‘God says’! And why should the Church say what God does not say? Does that not compromise the Gospel message?
There is another error that is made. In the world we are offered politics as the new religion, and political solutions as the new salvation. We must never go along with that. When the Scottish referendum was in full flight, I saw the hope that otherwise disengaged people in the working-class housing estates had. Even though I was on their side, I knew they would ultimately be disappointed, whatever the result. Likewise with the Voice. It should never be presented as the answer to the problems of indigenous people. When Michael Jensen wrote in his Gospel Coalition article, “the Voice opens us all to the possibility of a truly reconciled Australia”, he was stating a position which both overplayed the political and underplayed the Gospel. The only possibility for a truly reconciled Australia is the Gospel of the crucified, risen, ascended and returning Christ. An advisory group to a political government cannot come anywhere near that. And an advisory group to a political government cannot destroy it!
Is there any hope in this mess?
The referendum has been handled really badly. But we should still be encouraged that there have not been riots on the street, and there has been a civilised, if somewhat limited debate. It is also good that social media and some of the mainstream media have allowed different perspectives.
I have been most impressed by one female indigenous politician – Jacinta Price. I have found here story deeply moving, her arguments persuasive and her passion for an alternative future for her people – and indeed all Australians – incredibly hopeful. These two articles, as well as her speech to the National Press Club – sum up her vision.
But our hope is not in any of these things. For that I turn to the Word of God and Paul’s speech to another council – in Athens. Paul tells the Athenians that God has set the boundaries and the appointed times, and that this God of time, space and history is the one who calls all people everywhere to repent. The Church has no place only inviting some to repent – all of us – whatever the race, or our tribal past – are called to repentance (Acts 17). The hope of Australia is Christ. Let us proclaim him.
I don’t agree with the ‘if you don’t know, vote no’ approach. It is correct that we should find out. But that goes for Yes voters too. ‘If you think you know, vote yes’ is just as bad a reason! Far too many just assume that they do know and that they are on the side of the angels. Any alternative point of view is far too often quickly dismissed as ‘misinformation’.
This from Malcolm McCusker is full of the kind of detail which is so essential to know.
It is surely right that Australia recognises its indigenous past – and indeed the shame of the way that indigenous people were treated. But can people today be held guilty for what happened 200 years ago? How far does that principle extend? Surely the concern should be for the present indigenous people – and especially those who are disadvantaged? Whether the Voice is the best way to do that is at the very least up for debate. The danger is that it is just as much about white guilt, political activism and emphasising racial division, as it is about helping the poor. What if the Voice just ends up being yet another failed political project which helps no one except the bank accounts and egos of some political activists? On the other hand, what if the refusal of the Voice ends up being a great missed opportunity? I don’t have a vote (maybe we should set up a Voice for Scottish exiles?!) so I will leave you with a couple of articles on either side. On the Yes side this from Michael Bird is probably the best I have read.
“A constitutionally sanctioned Voice will mean, hopefully, that the 4% of Australia who are indigenous will not be forgotten or exploited by the other 96%.”
“I want my fellow Aussies to note this, there are good reasons to vote “Yes” and legitimate reasons to vote “No.” I respect people on both sides as I understand their reasons for voting the way they are.Yet what we need above all is respect, civil discourse, and to persuade people with honest debate not with invective polemics. Nobody changes their mind by being abused, mocked, or humiliated. Both campaigns should remember that.”
On the other side this from Greg Sheridan. In particular these comments:
“The voice would inject race into the Constitution in a way that it’s not there now, with likely awful results. It will imprison Aboriginal Australians in a stereotyped racial identity and, for the first time since 1967, formally enshrine the division of Australian citizens into unequal races. This would be a tragedy of epic proportion and threaten much of the astonishing success of modern Australia.”
“Price has the most constructive suggestion – a full forensic audit of how all the money notionally spent delivering services to disadvantaged Aboriginal people is actually spent……”“
As Price observes, most Australians are filled with goodwill, indeed with love, for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fellow Australians. But Price and Mundine are surely right that advancement for Indigenous Australians won’t come through constitutional change. Concentrating on the Constitution is at best a distraction. At worst, it’s very bad indeed.”
I have found this very hard to write. Like the Brexit debate I have wrestled with the complexities and gone back and forth. During the Brexit debate I ended up writing an article which was my most read ever – and which got me into all kinds of trouble! Which is why I was so reluctant to write this, but I have been asked so many times and I hope my reflections are helpful to you. My advice is simply to think about things for yourself, vote in accordance with your conscience, your understanding and the Word of God – and don’t break fellowship, or demonise those, who see differently from you. I accept fully that I may be wrong, and I apologise for any offence caused. But I am thankful that – as an Anglican pastor who works amongst all kinds of disadvantaged people always reminds me – in the end we know that Jesus wins!