The Gospel Coalition Australia does not have an official position on the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament, but we do encourage Christians in this, as in all areas of their lives, to respond to the coming referendum in worship to God and love of their neighbour.
We hope that many will have opportunities to talk about the faith as they discuss the Voice with their neighbours, workmates, friends and families. Christian theology and ethics do not directly lead to a particular response to this national referendum, but ought to inform our approach to it.
We have chosen to publish this lengthy article by Sandy Grant as one carefully researched and prayerfully considered example of what this might look like.
Authors Note: A longer form of this essay was originally written as part of a package of resources from a variety of perspectives for education on this topic, requested by the Synod of Anglican Diocese of Sydney. This also includes “Responding Generously to a Generous Voice”, a paper by Andrew Errington from the diocesan Social Issues Committee (SIC).
There have been helpful articles cautiously supporting the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum proposal, such as “The Voice: A Christian Consideration” by Michael Jensen and the SIC paper. I appreciate such contributions that are compassionate and judicious, draw on expert legal opinion, are informed by Christian thought and values, and are wrapped in a deep concern for just and improved outcomes for Indigenous peoples.
Like them I think it is important to recognise that God our Creator has established different peoples in particular places and that their forcible dispossession is an historic wrong that needs to be acknowledged. And like them, I acknowledge there is a range of views on the Voice among Christians (and others) and so advocate in a way that aims to avoid binding consciences.
Along with others, I am concerned about overblown and divisive rhetoric used by some of those for and against the Voice. Accusations of racism and straightforward name-calling are generally out of place in the debate. Catastrophist predictions of disaster should the referendum succeed or fail may likewise cause more panic and animosity than is warranted.
This article offers a contribution towards deliberations on this important question by providing some reasons why some Christians may vote ‘No’, while sharing the widespread goal of seeing entrenched disadvantage addressed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. My concern is that the proposal embeds the Voice into the Constitution, giving special, permanent access and influence to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, arguably over matters not directly and distinctively related to them.
The Scope of the Voice
A good case can be made for Indigenous people to have a right to special input before Parliament makes special laws that primarily or solely affect them. This principle is recognised throughout the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration focusses on matters internal and local to Indigenous peoples (Article 4) and related particularly to whatever political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions are distinct to them (Article 5). Flowing on from this, Article 18 states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.
However, the Voice proposal goes far beyond this, by entrenching a system of advantage of access that grants one category of citizens an extra entitlement to influence all areas of public policy, law making and public administration that touch Indigenous people in any way, not just for particular Indigenous affairs.
The advantage of access is meant to be wide and powerful in application. According to Professor Megan Davis, Chair of the Referendum Working Group, “the scope of the voice [sic] is its strength… it is not limited to matters specifically or directly related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” Indeed,
The Voice will be able to speak to all parts of the government, including the cabinet, ministers, public servants, and independent statutory offices and agencies—such as the Reserve Bank, as well as a wide array of other agencies including, to name a few, Centrelink, the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority and the Ombudsman—on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
There are disagreements among constitutional law experts about whether the High Court might infer that Parliament or Government has a positive duty to consult the Voice before acting and the extent to which they are obliged to give consideration to the representations from the Voice.
Nevertheless, its architects clearly consider that the Voice ought to have enormous moral authority. As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on ABC TV from the 2022 Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, “[i]t would be a very brave government” that defied the advice of the Voice.
Permanent Constitutional Privilege
The Voice proposal seeks to provide certain rights to a group of citizens solely because they are Indigenous or First Nations peoples. This appears to walk away from the principle of equal treatment of all citizens before the nation’s law.
Ideals of equality and associated human rights, which are deeply valued throughout much of the world, including Australia, can be traced in their development, in very large measure, to the Judaeo-Christian worldview that all humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
Moreover, with the coming of Christ, Colossians 3:11 says: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
This text notes that in Christ’s church there are many identifiable people groups. There are Jews and Gentiles. The large category of ‘Gentile’ included Greek speakers within the Roman empire, but also barbarian and Scythian—non-Greek speakers—often marginalised. Some of the believers from these different people groups were slaves; others were free.
The Christian gospel does not mean that all distinctions of ethnicity, language, education, gender, or economic situation are somehow erased. Some of these differences have continuing cultural or even legal significance on earth; others perhaps even deserve a particular respect this side of the new creation.
However, the Christian gospel certainly says, without equivocation, that no particular group had an advantage of access to salvation or to membership in Christ’s church. God’s amazing grace was equally available to all, simply through faith in Christ Jesus, as Lord and Saviour.
The church is certainly not equivalent to the state. Neither are God’s people any longer gathered as a socio-political people of God. However, the non-believing secular liberal Larry Siedentop astutely observes it is Christianity that has taught us more broadly to “wager on the moral equality” of humanity:
So in Paul’s writings we see the emergence of a new sense of justice, founded on the assumption of moral equality rather than on natural inequality … Paul’s conception of the Christ exalts the freedom and power of human agency, when rightly directed … Paul discovered a moral reality which enabled him to lay the foundation for a new, universal social role.
It was this Christian understanding of human equality that, in significant part, led to reforms such as the abolition of the slave trade and the extension of voter suffrage to women and to Indigenous persons. Further, it was Christian texts that challenged believers who were slow to realise the social implications of their doctrine for such reform proposals.
Australians should hesitate before abandoning the ideal that that all Australian citizens should be equal not just before the law, but before those who make the law and those who apply the law.
Addressing Persistent Deep Disadvantage
However, it might be argued that the differential treatment that the Voice gives to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is warranted in order to ameliorate persistent, deep disadvantage. The Uluru Statement From the Heart testified to “the structural nature of our problem” and the “torment of our powerlessness” experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So also, the Attorney-General, Mr Mark Dreyfus MP, in his second reading speech to Parliament noted:
The dispossession of their lands, languages and cultures, and top-down government policies have inflicted deep and continuing wounds on generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultures. Many suffer intergenerational trauma as a result of this history.
Our nation as a whole has been diminished.
Addressing such disadvantage is a compassionate desire that all Christians can support. But some of us may prefer different means to the same end. For example, some may doubt that legislation aimed at enforcing governmental listening is really likely to be effective in addressing heart issues at play. On the other hand, Christians I know, whether they vote Yes or No, will continue to listen to, respect and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to support practical efforts to ‘close the gap’.
Permanent Constitutional Change or Temporary Legislation?
Since 1967, the Commonwealth Government already has power under Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution to pass “special laws” for the people of any race, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, where it is judged needful or beneficial. The Voice to Parliament could have been legislated under this head of power, to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples a special advantage of access, for as long as the disadvantages remain substantial.
In this regard, the submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the Voice referendum by the late Honourable David Jackson AM KC, esteemed as a pre-eminent constitutional lawyer, is worth reading:
20. I also accept that much does need to be [sic] improve the lot of many, though not all, of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. It can be done already through the use of the legislative powers referred to above, and by suitable government action.
21. One point which appears to be made in support of the proposed amendment is that it ensures that there will always be a Voice. But why should there be, in perpetuity, a voice entrenched constitutionally? No very satisfactory answer has ever emerged.
Certainly, the impact of human sinfulness on others can be devastating and its effect felt inter-generationally. But a permanently entrenched Voice implies a permanent lack of potential for transformation on the part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This does not appear to be compatible with Christian theology that grants all people responsibility. Notwithstanding the deleterious impact historic wrongdoing and ongoing disenfranchisement have on Indigenous peoples, we should beware of treating them as permanently powerless or without agency for change.
If the main practical aim of a morally powerful and wide-ranging Voice is to rectify disadvantage, it should be temporary, since we should work towards a future where the gap will be substantially closed.
Laws passed by Parliament can also be amended or repealed if the parliamentary majority discerns that they are not meeting intended needs or are no longer suitable. But constitutional amendments cannot be repealed; they can only be changed via another referendum process. Thus the Voice proposal will introduce permanent differential treatment into the Constitution, on the basis of descent, for one category of Australia’s citizens.
Other Significant Practical Concerns
Concerns have been expressed over the potential for government to become unworkable, as the proposal empowers the Voice to make representations to the Executive as well as Parliament. This would be a significant concern if the High Court perceived a duty to consider all of the Voice’s representations or to consult the Voice in advance. A majority of legal experts assess the risk as low. But it has been noted that in such cases the High Court has not always ruled in a manner experts considered predictable in advance.
Other significant concerns expressed, including by some of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, include questions over what practical difference the Voice will make, and how the many, often diverse, voices of Aboriginal peoples and persons will be represented and respected.
I accept that current polling suggests a majority of Indigenous people support the Voice proposal. Speaking anecdotally, I have heard Indigenous Christian leaders strongly in support of the proposal. But I have also heard testimony from Aboriginal Christian leaders, in Sydney and beyond, that notes there are many different views for and against among Indigenous people. Some express neutrality towards the outcome of the referendum, with major hopes for change and reconciliation being vested elsewhere; others currently express strong or moderate opposition.
Other Approaches to Recognition and Voice
All Christians should share the desire to act justly and to love our neighbours well and extensively, including an obligation to be good listeners (James 1:19). Many may well be supportive of other options to recognise the First Nations peoples of Australia and to hear the voices of those descended from them. Such possibilities, if the Voice referendum were unsuccessful, could include:
- A statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia inserted into the preamble to the Constitution. There appears to be a large amount of goodwill for such a step from many on the conservative side of politics.
- A narrower constitutional change for a Voice could focus on providing advice on laws that relate principally to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Uluru Statement From the Heart asked for a Voice to be embedded in the Constitution. But it did not commit us to the particular form of the Voice that is now proposed.
- A legislated, rather than constitutionally enshrined, Voice could provide advice on laws that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. South Australia’s First Nations Voice Bill, passed by its parliament in March 2023, established an advisory body, with a right to address Parliament on legislation being considered, as it concerns Aboriginal people. This legislation explicitly acknowledges the non-binding nature of the feedback from Voice delegates, and it involved no change to that State’s Constitution.
- Some form of agreement-making as urged by the Uluru Statement From the Heart. The Bible testifies to the fact that God is an agreement-making God. I recognise that there are potentially vexed questions over both theory and practice in this area (e.g. about multiple sovereignties co-existing; and about which groups ought to represent various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations).
We do not want to send a message to Indigenous people that their hopes rest on this alone. Whether or not the referendum succeeds, many Aboriginal and Islander Australians, young and old, will still face many struggles and many opportunities. And the gospel of Jesus will always offer the most lasting hope of all, including the best pathway to reconciliation to others through reconciliation with God in Christ.
Like the vast majority of us, I am deeply sorry for the historical mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, even more so when singled out as a group. I want to see an end to any discrimination on the basis of race. While acknowledging the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons as the Indigenous peoples of this land, I also believe it is important to uphold fundamental equality among all citizens of Australia—a belief that rests on a Christian worldview.
I have argued that the Voice proposal undercuts this, giving permanent special access and influence to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, potentially over all areas of public policy, law making and public administration, not just for Indigenous affairs. This is a reason that many Christians may legitimately decide to say, “No, not this way” to the current referendum proposal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Recognition and Voice.
 Megan Davis and Gabrielle Appleby, “Voice only works if it’s free to choose what to talk about”, The Australian, 1 April 2023; accessed 1/7/2023.
 “David Speers interviews Prime Minister Anthony Albanese”, Insiders, ABC TV, 31 July 2022, accessed 1/7/2023. Note that this comment was made in the context of a question as to how a government would respond to the Voice advising Northern Territory ‘grog bans’ should be retained; something the NT Government was then removing.
 To this list Galatians 3:28 adds “male and female”.
 Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge MA., Belknap 2014), p74.
 Hansard, 30 March 2023 “Minister’s Second Reading Speech: Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 Bill”; accessed 4 July 2023.
 The author serves on the board of a school educating Aboriginal students.
 Submission 31, Inquiry into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum, para. 20-21, emphasis original; accessed 4 July 2023.
 Liberal Members’ Dissenting Report, p58, Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum, Advisory Report on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; viewed 4 July 2023.
 The last effort to do so failed in 1999 largely because of entanglement with the divisive republican referendum.