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Priest draws on Outback experiences for vote


Change can be overwhelming for some people and as Australians prepare to vote in the Voice Referendum on October 14 emotions and fears are understandably running high.

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However, well known South Australian priest Fr Paul Bourke, who has spent most of his ministry alongside First Nations people in rural and Outback communities, says his past experiences give him great confidence that a ‘Yes’ vote should not be feared.

On October 26 1985 in his role as the parish priest of the Catholic Inland Mission, Fr Paul was present with hundreds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to witness the Handover of Uluru to the Traditional Owners. At the time, there were many who opposed such a move because of what it would mean for the nation, but Fr Paul said as history would show these fears were clearly unfounded.

Fr Paul Bourke

“Much happened and was experienced by all present and everyone across our nation that day,” he recalled.

“It was a day of history and truth for Australia, that was not without much struggle and angst for many, particularly our First Australians and those who opposed it.

“Sir Ninian Stephen, the Governor General of the time, conducted the official handover ceremony and was accompanied by Yami Lester, the then chair of the Lands Council.

“Sir Ninian spoke in English with Yami translating into Language. It was the best of times, even with one light plane flying overhead with a protest banner saying ‘Ayers Rock for all Australians’.”

Fr Paul said it was what happened after the official proceedings ended that continued to serve as a reminder to him of the unnecessary fears people had held about the change of ownership.

“After the signing was over, Yami Lester, unscripted, took the microphone for one last time declaring, ‘all you white fellas out there, take one last look at the Rock because it’s not going to be there tomorrow. Us mob are going to come tonight, roll it up and drag it into South Australia!’

“Just as the late Cardinal Joseph Cardijn spoke of the ‘Truths of Faith, Method and Experience’ when one discovers their lay apostolate, Yami’s humour nailed the fear and muddied waters of the reality, with the truth of the occasion. Something was right and just. And it remains so.”

Having been twice posted to the Inland Mission Parish for a period of nearly 15 years, Fr Paul has travelled to Uluru many times, the last being in November 2014. He said despite the handover to Traditional Owners, the rock remained there for all to see.

“Its awe and wonder quietly enriches and is still enjoyed by all, without fear or favour,” he commented.

“It has not changed and unsurprisingly never made it to South Australia! A truth of my experience.”

Fr Paul also recalled another occasion when he was parish priest at Booleroo Centre and was invited to attend a land rights meeting being held at Morchard.

“There was some angst and uncertainty about Aboriginal land rights with local landowners at the time so that’s why the meeting was called. Just as with the handover, there were some fears and muddied waters pulsating as well.”

Fr Paul travelled to the meeting with his sister-in-law’s brother, Peter, who happened to be with the SA Farmers Federation, friend Carolyn, who was with Aboriginal Legal Aid in Adelaide, and a young Aboriginal law student.

“As we all travelled together in my vehicle to the meeting it sent the best of messages to the decent farmers attending. Land rights wasn’t such a scary thing…and it turned out to be a most respectful meeting, no doubt assisted by all these players ‘arriving’ as one,” he said.

Fr Paul, who is now based in Port Lincoln, added that these were just two of his experiences in priestly life that demonstrated a “respectful, informed way of embracing our First Nations heritage and history”.

“The referendum on October 14 is another such opportunity. It will not harm us or destroy our country, but it may bring some symbolic healing to our sovereign soul,” he said.

“Let us continue to travel in the same vehicle.”

Meanwhile, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) is encouraging Catholic communities to organise ‘kitchen table conversations’ in the lead up to the referendum.

Copies of the One Journey, Together Kitchen Table Conversation Guide is being sent to every parish in Australia, with the resource outlining how to bring together groups of friends, family, parish communities and colleagues to ‘foster deeper understanding and engagement among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in the lead up to the referendum’.

To download the conversation guide go to

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