By Kirralee Nicolle
5 October 2022
Fear is a significant factor in negative responses by some Christian leaders to the proposed referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, according to a prominent Aboriginal Australian theologian.
It comes as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Indigenous Coalition senator Jacinta Price and Australian Christian Lobby managing director Martyn Iles all spoke out against the proposed Voice in recent weeks.
Prime minister Anthony Albanese recently announced a referendum on the issue was likely to occur during the 2023-2024 financial year.
Aboriginal Australian theologian and Bidjara woman Professor Anne Pattel-Gray said that she found Mr Iles’ beliefs disturbing as they appeared to place the blame for systemic issues resulting from colonisation on Indigenous Australians.
Mr Iles wrote in an article in The Australian on 9 September that the Voice had “sinister” ideas behind it and that the Constitution should “remain colourblind”.
“The result of the voice will be a constitution claiming that I, as a white man, am inescapably an oppressor to people of colour,” Mr Iles wrote.
“It is a permanent statement that our nation is irredeemably segregated by a barrier to our shared humanity that cannot be scaled – our race.”
Professor Pattel-Gray said Mr Iles’ was playing with people’s fear of the unknown.
“He paints a picture of making the Voice to Parliament the point of division,” she said.
“Anyone who knows our history would understand why there needs to be a Voice to Parliament in order to rectify the injustices that have taken place over the 234 years of colonisation in this country.”
Professor Pattel-Gray said she agreed with Mr Iles that believers are united in Christ, but that his view did not account for issues of inequality.
“Being one in Christ doesn’t mean I don’t get justice,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m to be dominated by the white patriarchal system.”
“We Aboriginal people, we’ve seen this for generations – how the Bible has been used to subjugate us and to make us inferior. He’s just doing the same thing.”
Professor Pattel-Gray said that she was concerned Mr Iles appeared to lack understanding of colonial history, which was a widespread problem.
“Had we grown up in a world that was open and transparent and acknowledged its history openly – warts and all – then we wouldn’t be in this situation we are today,” Professor Pattel-Gray said.
“We wouldn’t be having to protest and march and have a Voice to Parliament. We wouldn’t need to be having truth telling commissions if it was an open and transparent and an honest society, but unfortunately that’s not our history.
“We’ve got to lobby for opportunities where we can address those injustices and perhaps right those wrongs of our forebears.”
She said Indigenous Australians held keys to issues the nation was facing, including combatting climate change and addressing falling numbers in churches.
“People need to find value in what we bring to the table, and obviously the ultra-conservative Christian sees no value in us,” she said. “It’s a cultural bias, but it’s also extremely racist.”
Speaking generally about the Voice to Parliament, Wiradjuri man Reverend Canon Glenn Loughrey said it was just the first element in the Statement from the Heart, which he called a “heart-healing process”.
“The Voice is about putting our presence into the founding document of the country,” he said. “The Voice isn’t the destination, it’s simply the beginning of the process that we move through to get eventually to reconciliation and reparation. It’s putting the sovereignty of Aboriginal people alongside the sovereignty of the people who came here later.”
Mr Loughrey said this was an important part of achieving recognition for Aboriginal people in Australia.
“If you’re not heard, you’re not seen, and if you’re not seen, you don’t exist,” he said.
Martyn Iles has been approached for comment.