(first published on Churches of Christ Vic/Tas website, 21 June 2023)
In her 1960s biography of Doug Nicholls, Pastor Doug, Mavis Thorpe Clark refers to the 1937 petition for a Voice to Parliament signed by 1,814 Indigenous Australians. It sought their representation in both Federal and State Governments and was to be presented to King George VI. Ultimately, it was rejected because the Commonwealth had no authority to amend the Constitution apart from a referendum.
A parallel idea was to write to the Prime Minister asking for a National Day of Mourning on Australia Day, 26th January, in 1938. This was to mark the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet. The Melbourne Argus published an offensive report on 17th January, suggesting that “the Australian Aboriginal culture belongs to a very early stage of mankind’s development [and that its people] cannot be treated as a modern, civilised race.” The Day of Mourning proceeded, but with little public or official support.
Doug Nicholls, involved in several of the earliest discussions on these matters (with the hope that his VFA and VFL footballing profile would assist) later wrote to the Prime Minister in 1949, after the proposal to erect the Woomera rocket range. As a representative spokesperson for many Indigenous people, including as a Churches of Christ minister in Melbourne, his willingness to take action was significant. He again urged that an Indigenous representative be permitted to advocate on issues such as the Woomera matter, stating the desire for his people to have a spokesperson “in the National Parliament of their own native land.” Further correspondence with Kim Beazley Snr. reiterated the difficulty in enacting such request without alteration of the Constitution.
After many such attempts at change led by distinguished Indigenous leaders connected to our movement, we again hear the cry for a Constitutional amendment that would finally give a voice to Indigenous Australians. This time, continuation of the legacy of forward-thinking justice seems to be more widely supported, even if some apprehensions remain.
(Reservations over the nature of ‘The Voice,’ and the extent to which it might be utilised, have been countered by the fact that it must be permitted before detailing its implementation, as with the introduction of other legislated powers).
Walking with Indigenous Christians empathetically over time has taught many to listen to what Indigenous people want and need. Could the significance of some other important and prominent initiatives, first sought by Indigenous Christians decades ago and currently supported by a strong majority of First Nations People, also be calling us to consider what it is that we can, or should, do now?