On The Road With The Referendum

7 Jun

Over the last 12 weeks, I have spoken to almost 6,000 people at 69 presentations and conversations ranging in size from 10 to 900 in places from Hobart to Wangaratta, Burnie to Trentham, and across the Melbourne Diocese.

These have included the National Bishop’s Conference, Anglican deaneries and other congregations, ecumenical gatherings, other denominations, the Jewish community, local council and community centre, schools, and more.

I have conducted interviews on Radio National, did podcasts with several media and participated in interviews for newspapers, and Anglican magazines, and provided video recordings for use locally at a UN symposium in New York. I have even spoken on the same platform as the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. I think it was a thrill for her!

I have prepared resources that are available on my website and designed brochures, posters, and educational collateral. I have commissioned two artists to produce an educational tool for explaining voice and conflict resolution called the Mat Circle, another artist to produce Statement from the Heart message sticks, and written a paper called “Unpacking the Statement From the Heart” as part of my role at the ANU.

What has been my message:

That the referendum for recognition and an enshrined Voice in the constitution is the first step in implementing the Statement from the Heart which the Melbourne Synod endorsed in 2017 and the General Synod did soon after. The referendum is not about the Voice as a stand-alone mechanism but the beginning of the process of Voice, Treaty, Truth, and Makarrata which was the method of Recognition agreed upon at all 12 dialogues held with elders and local people across Australia leading up to the Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017. The Statement was drafted and signed at Uluru by 250 people, most of whom came from rural and remote communities a long way from Canberra.

We do not have time this morning to read the Statement, but when you do you will discover that it is a gentle poetic exposition of transformational forgiveness. You will not find any harsh or threatening words, no apportioning of blame or accompanying shaming, or any demands or ultimatums.  It simply lays out the story, offering this nation a gift.

What is that gift?

The absurd compassion of the open hand and walking together to a better future for this nation. The absurd compassion of allowing you to accept the invitation with a yes and then allowing you, through your democratic processes, to shape your yes into legislation fit for purpose. These are the two gifts packaged in the Statement – the gift of being able to say yes to the invitation to walk with us to build a better future for Australia. The second gift is that when you have opened the first you will be gifted the privilege to shape your yes through legislation. We do not demand the first, that’s an invitation; nor do we prescribe the second, that’s up to you.


How Does it Work?

 Tomorrow, in the workshop we will unpack the Statement and Voice in-depth, and look at FAQs and the various voices speaking against it, but in the time I have left, I will quickly take you through the process.


  • Voice:

If you are not heard, you are not seen and if you are not seen, you do not exist. Voice was the most supported element of the four elements in the consultations for the Statement signed at Uluru. If enshrined in the constitution it recognises a process of joint or shared sovereignty with power, embedding the spiritual notion of kinship or relationship sovereignty with the hard external linear sovereignty of the Crown. It is the completing the circle which has remained unfinished due to the exclusion of our people from the birth certificate of our nation in1901.

  • Treaty:

Once recognised, there is an opportunity to agree that as both are here, both are to work together to live respectfully in this place. You cannot do treaty with those who do not exist. Once they are heard you and they have the responsibility to agree on how you are going to live together in this space. This is conciliation – a process that has never occurred in Australia. We have leap-frogged Voice and Treaty to go straight to reconciliation.

  • Truth:

Once we come together there is room, to tell the truth – the truth about what happened, why it happened, how it impacted both parties and why and how it continues today. We reflect on how we got to where we are and provides the foundation to resolve what can be resolved, forgive what can be forgiven, and a commitment to work together. This is about how each of us feels to be in this space, one privileged, the other destituted by that privilege, and how we begin to understand that we share similar pain and questions.  This is reconciliation, not relationship or nation-building, but dealing with the hard stuff.

  • Makarrata:

A Yolgnu word for “coming together after a dispute” means someone must do reparation and face the consequences of their actions. It is not the romantic conclusion at the end of a Disney movie where all live happily ever after. It may involve a spear in the thigh. The person will walk differently afterwards, unable to hunt they learn to rely on and respect others and to settle down into a relationship with the wider community. It reminds them and others, sorry is not enough. This is the story of Jacob at Peniel when he wakes up after wrestling with a young man overnight, possibly the young Jacob who stole Esau’s birthright all those years before. He wakes up with a dislocated hip to always walk with a limp in memory of this graced moment and with a new name, Israel.

If the Statement from the Heart process is followed it will mean that Australia as a country will walk with a limp – it will be a different country and will have a new name – just.

  • Justice:

Justice is the goal of the Statement from the Heart, not reconciliation. This involves the process or pathway towards justice –Makarrata.

As one of only 3 First Nations Clergy in the Diocese and the visible face in this space, this ongoing debate takes its toll on all 3 of us and on those First Nation People, you may know. Each day we must give the reason for our position on this question, to field racist and confronting questions, which may be well-meaning, but are and can be triggering. In my case, I am often awake in the middle of the night unpacking the trauma that has arisen in these encounters.

Often the trauma is not caused by direct personal attack, but by what is known as gaslighting – speaking for us, possessing us and our experience, speaking your opinions and suggestions instead of listening to our voice, relating stories of your experience of Aboriginal people and/or of working in remote communities and resorting to the safety of fear and misinformation – I could go on. What this does is remind us that even in the company of those who see themselves as our allies we remain persona nullius and must be spoken for instead of listened to.

In this debate both within and without the church we constantly encounter people who know better than us what we need, what we have experienced, and what it’s like to be a FNP in Australia. That doesn’t mean you are to remain silent, but the process of dialogue needs to change to what we call whinangarra – listen, hear, and reflect – which doesn’t include action, not even speaking. It takes a long time to learn to listen before you hear what is being said in such a way you can reflect on what is heard.

The big task in this interaction is to remember this –  you do not have a voice if no one is listening, hearing, and reflecting.

One of the very important things you can do at this time is to support those of us at the coal face and remind your people to do so as well. Yindyamarra yambuwan – respect everyone and everything, go slowly, and be gentle is all we ask, whether you are voting yes or no.

Remember also that this referendum is not about constitutional law, political power, media numbers, or social justice issues. This is not about political or ideological winners and losers.

This referendum is about people and making an equitable space in our wider community for those who have been dispossessed and marginalised, the people of the First Nations. It is also about those who came here later and carry the colonial memory of privilege gained by dispossession who are seeking ways to reconcile with themselves and their memory. It is about our children in schools who know the story and are looking to the adults in society to do the right thing and one day will ask “Dad, Mum, how did you vote?”.

This referendum is a moral, ethical, and spiritual act – a spiritual notion of absurd compassion and transformational forgiveness in the pattern of the Three Days of Easter which reconciled the world to God. God gave his compassion a Voice through the loving humanity of Jesus, Jesus gave us a Voice in response to that compassion and achieved the makarrata on the cross, a spear in his side that was visible in his resurrected body, a sign that all had been done so we could walk differently, individually and as a community.

All we must do is say Yes. 

Madang guwu (thank you)

4 Replies to “On The Road With The Referendum

  1. Thankyou Glen,
    I heard you speak at Trentham , and as I listened again to your sermon was reminded of the meaning of makarrata , such a powerful word .
    And also that if we don’t listen , we don’t see, and our First Nations people don’t exist !
    These truths are steeped in our Lords call lo love justice, mercy, and walk humbly with OUR God.
    I have just finished reading Brenda Matthews’The Last Daughter ‘ Deeply moving , and a call to ACTION. Vote Yes for the VOICE
    God Bless all your work,

  2. Hi Glenn, just want to thank you for your engaging and insightful presentation recently at Murrumbeena Uniting Church (25/6). Your good sense of humour, understanding of Indigenous culture & feelings, and respectful responses to questions were outstanding and inspiring.

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