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Australian Referendum Result a Cause for Lament

Rev Sharon Hollis President Uniting Church in Australia Assembly —

Unlike most other colonised countries Australia has never formally recognised the Indigenous People who have lived in these lands since creation, nor made treaties or other agreements. The outcome of a recent government referendum to recognise Indigenous People by enshrining an advisory voice (The Voice) to Parliament in the Australian Constitution has been overwhelmingly rejected.

Since the arrival of colonisers Indigenous People have asserted their sovereignty, petitioned for self-determination, sought ways to be part of government and advocated for meaningful recognition.

In 2017 after an extensive consultation process designed to determine how Indigenous People would like to address the lack of recognition issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart (View The Statement - Uluru Statement from the Heart) to the Australian People. The Statement called for Voice, Treaty and Truth as the way to recognise Indigenous People and address the systemic injustice of Indigenous People in Australia, seen in their over-representation in the justice system, poorer health outcomes, and shorter life expectancy than the rest of Australia.

The Uniting Church supported the Uluru Statement in full as an expression of our desire to heal the wounds of colonisation and address the structural disadvantage of Indigenous People in their own lands.

The Uniting Church has formally recognised that ‘the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways’ through a Preamble to our Constitution (https://ucaassembly.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/128). This preamble has guided our theology of sovereignty, truth telling and justice seeking. The Uniting Church also has a covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC).

The government called a referendum to recognise Indigenous People by enshrining an advisory voice (The Voice) to Parliament in the Australian Constitution. This referendum was held on 14 October 2023. The Uniting Church supported a Yes vote in the referendum after consultation with the UAICC, the Indigenous body in the Uniting Church. It takes a lead on ministry with Indigenous people and on Uniting Church positions in relation to Indigenous people.

The Assembly invited the whole Uniting Church to see the referendum as a challenge to reflect further on our own relationships with First Peoples within and outside the Church including how well we honoured the Covenant with UAICC. These decisions were made after discussion with UAICC and with their full support and cooperation.

The referendum was overwhelmingly defeated, with a majority of Australians in all states voting against the Voice.

After the loss of the referendum many Indigenous groups and people who campaigned for the Voice asked for a week of silence to reflect and mourn. As Christians we lament the grief and sorrow of most Indigenous people at the result, and we wait. What is clear is that reconciliation as a concept is broken in Australia.

The Uniting Church remains committed to its covenant with UAICC and to strengthening the Covenant. It is imperative if we are to have any integrity as a church seeking to exercise ministry and mission in these lands now called Australia. We remain committed to honouring the sovereignty of Indigenous People in Australia and being part of the movement that seeks justice for First Nations people in Australia. First Nations justice will continue to be a key area of advocacy for the Uniting Church, guided by Congress.