Addressing Catholics at a Lenten talk called ‘Finding Hope in the Voice Debate’ in St Ignatius’ Church, Norwood, Fr Brennan warned that the referendum was at a “critical point” and in danger of being railroaded by a flawed process. He was speaking ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement on March 23 that in June the Parliament would consider a proposal to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
A proponent of self-determination for First Nations people, Fr Brennan said people supporting a Voice to Parliament needed to be sure it was “legally certain” and could “deliver something for Aboriginal Australia”.
He admonished groups for giving unequivocal support for the ‘yes’ argument before the proposed change to the Constitution had even been formulated and approved by the Parliament, referring to a statement from the University of Melbourne affirming their support for the ‘yes’ position.
“You’ve got to know what they are putting in the Constitution, to say you’re going to vote yes regardless…is just wokeness gone mad,” he told the packed hall.
“At the moment the ‘yes’ camp is saying vote yes for anything…equally in the ‘no’ camp, no matter what the wording is, it’s ‘nup give ‘em nothing, we’re all the same, there shouldn’t be any special treatment of Aboriginal people’.
“In the middle, and a lot of you I suspect are in that group, you would like to be able to say yes but you want to know what’s being proposed.”
Regarded as an expert on constitutional law, Fr Brennan also spoke to students on the topic during Mass at Saint Ignatius’ College at Athelstone and participated in a video for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council’s new dedicated website on the referendum.
At Norwood, Fr Brennan outlined the history of proposals to change the Australian Constitution to provide recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and, in more recent times, to provide them with a voice to Parliament.
He pointed out there have been 44 attempts to amend the Constitution and only eight have succeeded. Of those amendments proposed by the Labor party, 24 of 25 attempts have failed.
Fr Brennan, who has worked extensively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, said he was prompted to write his latest book, An Indigenous Voice to Parliament, after the Albanese Government announced it would not be producing a pamphlet giving the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides of the debate but rather letting people find the information on digital platforms.
“In remote Aboriginal Australia to go and say ‘look at a computer, there’s no need to have a pamphlet delivered to your front door’, I think that was ridiculous,” he said.
“So I sat down and wrote this book and one of things I’m most pleased about is that it contains two chapters – one on the yes case and one on no case, with most of the quotes coming from Indigenous Australians.”
Fr Brennan also criticised the Labor Government for not having a formal consultation process such as a constitutional convention or parliamentary inquiry on the proposed wording but rather introducing a bill to Parliament and then allowing only six weeks for public submissions.
After the Uluru Statement called for a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution, Fr Brennan said 18 suggestions for wording were put forward, one of which was submitted after the closing date and was regarded as needing further work because it recommended a Voice to the executive arm of government as well as to Parliament.
“Which set of words did Mr Albanese pick? The 18th submission,” Fr Brennan said.
“Can you see trouble – like really big trouble – brewing? This is where we are now.
“This is the proposed formula of words, that the Voice may make representation to Parliament and the executive government.
“When I heard him announce that, my heart sunk considerably; I thought this is going to be a very hard sell to the Australian people.
“Executive government refers to ministers of crown, but also includes every single Commonwealth public servant.”
Fr Brennan wrote to Prime Minister Albanese in November suggesting it was time to set up a Parliamentary Committee process with a bipartisan approach to “get Peter Dutton (Opposition leader) inside the tent”.
“Four months on that still hasn’t happened,” he said.
“What we’ve got now is all sorts of eruptions going on, some heard publicly and a lot more behind the scenes which is very unfortunate indeed.”
In his book, Fr Brennan has put forward wording which provides: recognition that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; acknowledgement of their continuing relationship with their traditional land and waters; and acknowledgement and respect of their culture, languages and heritage.
Stumbling on the path to reconciliation
His suggested amendment to the Constitution is: ‘There shall be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice with such structure and functions as the Parliament deems necessary to facilitate consultation prior to the making of special laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and with such other functions as the Parliament determines.’
Fr Brennan said this would provide flexibility for the Parliament to decide how the Voice would work and the ability to change the process if it isn’t working.
“What’s currently proposed is too fixed, too simple, it won’t fly, and I don’t think the Australian public would ever accept it,” he added.
“Once you put a one-line entry in the Constitution, you can’t go changing it.”
Acknowledging that for those involved in the Uluru dialogue the ‘voice’ was non-negotiable,
Fr Brennan added that as he moved around the country he found that for many Indigenous Australians, words of recognition in the Constitution “resonated very strongly”.
An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge by Frank Brennan is available from garrattpublishing.com.au