‘I Didn’t Recognise her till I Heard my Adopted Aboriginal Cousin’s Voice’:
Why I and Ethos’ Board Support the Voice
Experiences of Misrecognition
It was at Macquarie University in 2006. I was at a conference on Indigenous Education. So was she (I’ll respect her privacy), unknown to me, training as an assistant teacher. At the end, rushing to return to my office, I raced past her, ‘not seeing her face’, until I heard my indigenous cousin’s voice call my name, not expecting to see her as she lived hours away. When she called me out of my anonymity I had a sting of shame, having hurt her, but also the sweet surprise of recognition. She had to leave with a group but we planned to meet next time she was on campus. Sadly, our next and last meeting was 2016 for Dad’s funeral, and Aboriginals are tragically too used to funerals.
George Megalogenis notes how most Australians, in a vast land where indigenous people are now only 3.8 percent of the population, have much less chance to meet and know them, unlike my adopted Aboriginal cousins. Even then, the ‘tyranny of distance’, emotional (due to our feuding fathers) and locational, stole the opportunity for deeper recognition. What I do know is they’d been adopted from Kareela Aboriginal Hostel in white-bread Sutherland Shire, probably part of the Stolen Generations, far, no doubt, from flesh and blood, though some reconnection occurred later.
This ignorance, for all the emergence of indigenous sportspeople, academics and entertainers, continues to be, according to Megalogenis, a counterweight of fear to any ‘better angels’ voices like Lincoln called Civil War America to hear. Ignorance can be innocent or malevolent, but dangerous if left unaddressed. Recently I was interviewed on a fundamentalist Christian radio station. I chose the topic of the Voice – like a tortoise I moved forward with my neck out. After a few forays from my friendly host, the calls came in. The first was a Yes voter, familiar with Hermannsberg Mission about 200km from Alice Springs, and the Lutheran birthplace of Australian Aboriginal anthropology and recognition of an Aboriginal Creator God.
But this teased me into false confidence. The next six callers added up to a crescendo of ‘Nos!’ ‘Communism!’, cried one caller. I replied that many Aboriginals would barely recognise the term, while knowing lots we could learn about communal living. Another told me of friends who were only ‘one-eighth black blood’ and whose ‘one-sixteenth-blooded’ child was bringing in a fortune in welfare far beyond what whites get. I noted that they were using terminology like the various state Aboriginal ‘Protectors’ used to justify the forced diluting of black blood for the sake of ‘civilising’ children of the Stolen Generations. Many indigenous people had no choice of what blood percentage they’d keep through abduction and rape. These fundamentalist conspiracy theorists were ironically using the dehumanising language of Social Darwinists.
Things have improved since then but nowhere near as much as they should. I once visited Yarrabah indigenous mission in North Queensland in the 1980s to see the first Aboriginal Bishop Arthur Malcolm. I asked two white guys for directions, only to be teased, ‘have you got a gun?’. Even if meant as a ‘joke’, its indifference still sickens.
Urgent pleas for closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous life chances across health, longevity and educational, economic and employment prospects are set aside as many plug their ears. The original agreement of Liberal and Labor, always required for a successful referendum, has been set aside by a desperate Opposition. The perhaps legitimate concern from my radio respondents that the Referendum is divisive misplaces the blame. A decade of bipartisanship in the painstakingly careful and conservative Referendum preparation phase has been cynically and callously thrown away for short-term political gain.
People have short or suppressed memories. The racial division was already built into the Constitution’s exceptional categories, allowing discrimination against Aboriginals. The Referendum actually seeks to follow a great Christian and liberal principle of allowing and encouraging Aboriginal self-determination and agency to be expressed by the democratic principle of representation, not abandoning it to an almost impossible-to-administer form of direct representation by every small group of indigenous people.
The argument that there’s not enough detail denies the very simplicity essential to a widely accessible Referendum. Then the argument is stood on its head to refer not to a single page Statement from the Heart but to a merely advisory supposedly secret 26-page document. You can’t have it both ways. Note the difference that sort of demand in the same-sex marriage plebiscite would have made, where the simplicity of a ‘Yes’ vote made it possible. As Martin Luther King said, beware ‘the paralysis of analysis’ as an excuse for inaction and armchair pontification.
The non-culpable ignorance of many and wilful unwillingness of others, or the culpable confusion promoted by the Murdoch Press monopolising print media in most capital cities and local newspapers, allows them to sow confusion. As Kath Walker poetically pleads, ‘The press, most powerful of all / On you the underprivileged call. / Right us a wrong and break the thrall / That keeps us low’ (‘The Appeal’, in My People, Jacaranda Press, 1970, 3).
The level of misinformation exploits fear, recently reaching Trumpian proportions. The latest attempt by Mr Dutton, who admits to ‘playing tackle not touch’ football, is to cast doubt upon the Electoral Commission’s best practice in the last 6 referenda concerning the use of Yes and No statements in votes, rather than crosses, due to ambiguity of intent. It sets a dangerous undemocratic precedent for elections also. As the saying goes, ‘A lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’. How much more literally true is this in our mass social rumour age.
Having said that, virtue signalling and excessive labelling of every dissent or question from constitutionally conservative No voters of good conscience and others also plays the person and not the ball. Senator Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine, who have kindly written for us, have faced some appalling abuse from the Left. Price’s concerns for racial reconciliation, drawing on her experience of a mixed family as a model for national unity, and Mundine’s support for more grassroots-based political and economic models, should be listened to on their merits, not attacking the woman or the man, especially amongst fellow Christians.
In citing the sample of No supporter radio callers, I do not intend to demean them but to jolt potential Yes voters from their slumber. The calls came from all over Australia. The No vote now dominates the vote in more conservative states. Further, projected (on 27th August) individual No votes now also lead the Yes vote nationwide. This is despite polls regularly showing 80 percent indigenous support for the Voice. Despite legitimate areas for debate, a No vote will show that we think we know better than our fellow indigenous citizens, whom we don’t really know.
All of our able authors in this issue, primarily from a Yes perspective but also Senator Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine from the No Campaign, are Christians. I’d rather you hear all their voices firsthand, not filtered first by me. We also have several reviews from various perspectives. But I argue that the Yes vote fits Zadok’s and Ethos’ history of regular research and advocacy in Evangelical circles for indigenous recognition – a history I weave in here with my own story of slowly opening my ears to indigenous voices.
Our first impactful voice and writing on the subject was from Wycliffe Bible translator and Zadok writer Jillian Fraser in 1980 (at a Zadok and AFES Graduate Fellowship and Aboriginal Affairs Information Exchange event – would that there was such a group today). It was published in John Diesendorf (ed.), Faith Active in Love (1981). Trained in listening to indigenous voices to translate Scripture into their tongues, Fraser represented my first faltering step toward hearing Aboriginal voices.
The next step forward was from one-time Zadok Director and renowned translator and historian, John Harris. His classic tome One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity (3rd ed., 2012, 990 pages!) is based on Acts 17:26 which sees all humanity made by God from one ancestor Adam, finding their full being and life in seeking God in God’s appointed times and places. This sounds much more respectful than how we colonisers have treated indigenous religious voices and practices.
Further, when I first visited the Northern Territory in 2006, I read John Harris’ We Wish We’d Done More: Ninety Years of CMS and Aboriginal Issues in North Australia (1998), a moving appreciation and critique of CMS missionaries like his parents. Its title catches how even some of our heroic betters, with hindsight, could have done more, for example not sending the best linguists overseas and encouraging more indigenous Christian worship.
My second Territorial visit in the 2010s was an eye- and ear-opening TEAR Deep Dive ably led by Barb Deutschman. I was dealing with international vocational possibilities then and struggled with challenging claims calling on all Australian Christians to devote themselves to this land. But our visit to the barely reported Santa Teresa, 85km south of the notorious Alice Springs, opened my eyes to a Catholic-influenced town functioning well in modernity. The men took us on a kangaroo hunt. I foolishly asked if we’d be using spears. Our indigenous leader bellowed with laughter. ‘No mate, guns!’ They wisely didn’t trust us with them though. We were to scout the roos, usually long after they spotted them, as they roared around in four-wheel drives. Afterwards, they explained their cultural practices as we watched and helped prepare the meal – their elder, almost biblically, getting the first and best parts. The women held a sewing and art class live on their profitable business’ global website. How often do we hear about these hopeful stories compared with the struggles of Alice presented in much media as representative of many indigenous towns? The various Voices need to be heard, even in Alice, as Peter Deutschman shows in his article.
Finally, my support of the Yes case, while shaped by much reading and various experiences of indigenous people in joy and sorrow (taking many, mainly young, funerals), comes down to a basic sense of the necessity of Recognition via a Voice to Parliament, not racially or blood-based, but as recognition of and respect for the historical priority of our First Nations people. The gracious hospitality given in my eye- and ear-opening encounter with my adopted Aboriginal cousin is offered also in the Statement from the Heart. To be emotionally and relationally literate, we should at least read it, and open our hearts to its generous offer of dialogue, truth-telling and Treaty.
Just and reconciling God, ‘we wish we did more’. Enable us to share in the repair of this great shame, often committed under your name, by listening to and reconciling, on the way to Christ’s Kin-dom together. For all your promises have their Yes and Amen in him (2 Cor 1:17-20).
Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos.
This editorial was first published in Zadok Perspectives 160: Let Your Yes be Yes: An Indigenous Voice to Parliament (Spring 2023), 1-2. Republished with permission.