Sermon: In favour of the Voice to Parliament

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
22nd of January 2023

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

In last week’s reading from the Apostle Paul’s first surviving letter to the Corinthians, Paul started his epistle on a surprisingly positive note – for Paul. He wrote: ‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus’. (1 Corinthians 1:4-7) That is lovely, but in today’s reading, a mere ten verses into the letter, Paul is not so happy. The Corinthians are being scolded.

The problem is division. The Corinthians have been called by God into community, but they are a community in conflict. Apparently, they are idolising certain leaders, saying of themselves: ‘“I belong to Paul”, or “I belong to Apollos”, or “I belong to Cephas”, or “I belong to Christ.”’ We do not know exactly what this means, what each of those different factions represented. It could be that those who describe themselves as belonging to Cephas, Peter, want the church to hold more strongly to its Jewish roots. Apollos came from Alexandria; it might be that those who claimed to belong to him wanted Christianity to become a school of philosophy. We do not have the Corinthians’ side of this exchange, so we just do not know. What we do know is that (according to Paul) claiming to belong to a different evangelist or teacher from your fellow church members is divisive.

Paul is sarcastic about it: ‘Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?’ Paul is so opposed to such division that he claims not even to remember how many people he himself baptised when he was in Corinth. Was it just Crispus and Gaius? No, there was also the household of Stephanas. Did he baptise any others? Paul is not quite sure: ‘beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else’. (As someone who baptises I have to say that I think Paul is lying – I certainly remember everyone I have baptised.) So no one can claim to have been baptised in his name, Paul writes.

Paul reminds us that there is simply no room for division in the church. There is room for difference, of course; the church is the body of Christ and later Paul will talk about the difference between the eye and the ear, the hand, the head, and the feet. But eye, ear, hand, foot, and head are still united; they cannot live without each other: ‘If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body”, that would not make it any less a part of the body,’ Paul points out. There is diversity in the church, one body with its many members, but there is also unity, because it is in one Spirit that we have all been baptised into that single body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) Unity in diversity, a community in which difference is to be celebrated, not used to divide human beings from one another – Paul has some words of wisdom for this nation this year.

Today, the Sunday before the 26th of January, is commemorated by the Uniting Church as a Day of Mourning. Today we remember that while the raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove was ultimately wonderful for all the Second Peoples who have been able to live here (and I for one am deeply glad that my grandparents decided to leave the UK) it was the beginning of centuries of dispossession, disease, and violence for Australia’s First Peoples. Warning: this is the point at which the Reflection becomes overtly political. I know that on the last couple of times that Alistair preached here he talked about the proposed Voice to Parliament. It is appropriate to speak of the Voice from the pulpit because the Uniting Church, together with the leaders of the Anglican Church, the Catholic Bishops Conference, the National Imams Council, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Hindu Council, the National Council of Churches and the National Sikh Council, has declared our support for the Uluru Statement. If you have heard all that you need to know about the Voice and are planning to happily vote ‘Yes’ in the coming Referendum, you can tune out now. But for those who want a little more information …

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, written on canvas, surrounded by the signatures of everyone who attended the Mutitjula dialogue, and bordered by a painting of the Tjukurrp (law/lore) of Uluru.

A Voice to Parliament was the first reform called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an invitation made to all Australians on 26 May 2017. In 1963 the Yolnju People presented the Yirrkala Bark Petition to Parliament. In 1972 the Larrakia people of the Kulaluk area near Darwin organised a petition for land rights signed by First Nations people from all over Australia and addressed to the Queen. In 1988 Galarrwuy Yunipingu and another, now deceased, man presented the Barunga Statement to Parliament requesting a Treaty. But the Uluru Statement is made not to the monarch or the Parliament or the government but to the people of Australia, the people who approved the 1967 Referendum by 90.77%.

The background to the Uluru Statement was a meeting First Nations leaders had with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in 2015. They had called for this crisis meeting because after the abolition of ATSIC in 2005 the incarceration of First Nations people, deaths in custody, and the number of children removed from their families had only grown worse. As the Uluru Statement was to spell out:

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

As a result of that meeting, a Referendum Council was established and conducted thirteen regional dialogues, each including up to one hundred First Nations participants. The final dialogue was held at Mutitjula in 2017. That gathering was clear that any constitutional recognition could not be simply a passive acknowledgement. The people gathered at Mutitjula wanted the political power to influence the decisions government made about them. Importantly, they wanted this power to be constitutional so that it was never at the whim of the government of the day.

There are more than 800,000 First Nations people in Australia. Obviously, they do not agree on everything. Seven participants from Victoria and New South Wales walked out of the meeting at Mutitjula because they were concerned about a loss of sovereignty. The Uluru Statement describes the way forward as ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth,’ but some First Nations people want Treaty first. As a veteran of the Uniting Church’s many discussions of sexuality, I know intimately the compromises that must be made in the process of coming to a consensus. Most participants at the Mutitjula dialogue made those compromises, and the Uluru Statement is the result.

This year we will be asked to approve an addition to the Constitution to enshrine within it a Voice to Parliament. This will not be adding ‘race’ to the Constitution; race is already there in section 51(26). That section initially said that the Commonwealth has the power to make laws for: ‘The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws’. One of the things the 1967 Referendum did was remove the reference to ‘aboriginal people’ from this clause, so that the federal government could make laws for them, too. I think it was assumed by those who voted in that referendum that any special laws made would only be for the good of First Nations people, for example, land rights legislation. Sadly in the Hindmarsh Island Bridge case the High Court held that laws could also be made to the detriment of ‘people of any race’.

When we are asked to vote on the Voice, we will not be asked to vote on a particular design. This is because we are being asked to approve a change to the Constitution, and the Constitution is not the place to spell such things out. Professor Anne Twomey compares this to the 1946 Referendum in which Australians agreed to give the government power to legislate for social services, without spelling out exactly what those social services would be. The Referendum will leave it up to Parliament to determine how the Voice is constituted. This means, Professor Twomey writes, that ‘if, over time, it ceases to work well, parliament has been given the flexibility to change the composition of the Voice and how it operates, so that it can properly fulfil the role voters intended for it’. However, it will likely look something like the body suggested in the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Final Report that Ken Wyatt took to the Morrison Government in 2021. That report suggested a Voice with two members from each state and territory, as well as two from the Torres Strait Islands, and a third member for NSW, the Northern Territory, Queensland, WA, and SA to represent remote communities, as well as one more member representing mainland Torres Strait Islander people – a total twenty-four members.

We do not actually need to know that detail before we vote. We simply need to agree that there should be an Indigenous body that can speak to Parliament about laws and issues that affect First Nations people. That this is a sensible and reasonable suggestion is, I think, seen by the fact that both Senator Jacinta Price of the Country Liberal Party and Senator Lidia Thorpe of the Greens disagree with it. Each of them, one from the extreme Right and the other from the extreme Left, is opposed to the Voice. I hope that this means that on this issue most Australians are in a ‘sensible centre’.

Professor Marcia Langton, who was one of the Co-Chairs of the Indigenous Voice Co-Design project, writes:

It is the duty of Australians who want to build a nation that recognises 65,000 years of human history, who want to accord First Peoples a rightful, honourable place in the nation’s fabric, in the warp and weft of its foundational document, to convince their family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues to vote “Yes”.

Only eight out of forty-four referendums have been passed in Australia’s history, and the last one in 1977 was innocuous; it simply mandated that Senate casual vacancies be filled by someone of the same Party, allowed Territory residents to vote in referendums, and gave judges a retiring age. It is difficult to change the Australian Constitution, but it is a 120-year-old document, and its lack of recognition of the First Nations of this continent is no longer acceptable. The Uniting Church as a whole has agreed with this; it is up to us as individual members of the Church to talk about it with our friends and family.

The Apostle Paul demanded that Christians not be divided, but he also recognised that unity did not mean uniformity. He was clear that Gentile Christians did not need to become Jews, they did not need to be circumcised or follow the Jewish dietary laws to be part of the church. He wrote of the different roles of church members: ‘there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone’. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6) One of the arguments made against the Voice is that it is giving special rights to one group of Australians that others do not have, but First Nations people are already special! They are the original inhabitants of this continent; their Nations have been here for tens of thousands of years. To recognise this in the Constitution is simply to recognise reality. As it is, Australia is the only British-settled Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with the Indigenous people of the land and I, for one, would like us to be more like Canada and Aotearoa-New Zealand.

At the core of this letter to the Corinthians is Paul’s description of love, greater than faith and hope, without which we are noisy gongs or clanging cymbals. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13) At the very end of it he tells the Corinthians: ‘Let all that you do be done in love’. (1 Corinthians 16:14) The final paragraph of the Uluru Statement is: ‘In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’. I do hope that Australians will walk together with First Nations people and approve the Voice, in numbers comparable to the 90% who voted ‘Yes’ in the 1967 Referendum, because doing so will be, I believe, an act of love.

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