the Voice

A Christian Case to Vote No to the Voice: My Reply to Michael Jensen’s Response

19 July 2023

11.9 MINS

Editors’ note: The Daily Declaration does not have an official position on the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament, but we do encourage Christians in this, as in all areas of their lives, to respond to the coming referendum in worship to God and love of their neighbour. Please find one of two very important articles published side by side, by Rev. Michael Jensen who speaks up for the Yes case, and Dr Stephen Chavura who speaks up for the No case for the referendum.

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I thank Rev. Dr Michael Jensen for responding to my original critique of his Christian case for voting Yes to the Voice referendum. For those wondering, I sent a much shorter version of this reply to the ABC Religion and Ethics, where my critique of Jensen and his response were originally published, but unfortunately received no reply. Thus I am grateful for the opportunity to expand it and publish it here with the Daily Declaration.

In this article, I respond to Jensen’s major points in his reply to my critique of his original Christian defence of the Voice.

Indigenous Opinion on the Voice

Jensen’s response to my critique starts out strong. Contrary to my scepticism, Jensen says Indigenous support for the Voice is overwhelming and well-established with valid surveys. I accept that formally valid polls indicate overwhelming Indigenous support for the Voice.

I still maintain my earlier methodological concerns in terms of how the responses were gathered — from an existing database of regular survey participants. I have the same qualms about the larger YouGov poll Jensen cites surveying 732 Indigenous Australians saying that 83% want the Voice. That poll was also taken from online panels of regular survey participants.

Again, one must ask whether those worst-off Indigenous Australians in remote areas are likely to be on such panels. Recent reports by the ABC that “remote communities haven’t heard of the voice” suggest that we need to be careful about assuming that we know all the relevant facts about the proposal’s support among Indigenous Australians.

But to be clear, I am happy to accept the formal validity of the polls Jensen cites and, for argument’s sake, accept that an overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians supports the Voice. However, as I argued at length, I think such support for the Voice still furnishes us with little reason to think the Voice will be a significant step towards reconciliation, for all the reasons I outlined in my original critique.

Will the Voice Substantially Ameliorate Indigenous Suffering?

I said that the most glaring deficiency of Jensen’s defence of the Voice was the lack of any attempt or even interest to argue that the Voice will significantly benefit the worst-off Indigenous Australians. Nothing has changed since reading Jensen’s response.

The reason why it is important for Jensen and also Archbishop Kanishka Raffel to argue this is because those who say we are manifestly not reconciled almost always point to the disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as evidence. In other words, so the argument goes, as long as those disparities exist reconciliation will remain distant.

But this means that if the Voice is to be a significant step towards reconciliation, then it must be a significant step towards ameliorating these disparities. Thus, showing this is absolutely vital to Jensen and Archbishop Raffel’s case.

It is very important to understand that, given Yes advocates are the ones advocating for a significant change to our constitution and to our legislative process, the burden of evidence is on them to convincingly show that this Voice is likely to lead to positive changes. Put negatively, it is not up to No voters to prove that it will be ineffective.

The very reason we are having this Voice debate is because the problems experienced within Indigenous communities have proven to be wickedly complex. This means that Voice advocates must show exactly how the Voice will likely be an effective mechanism to somehow cut through these complex knots and help deliver tangible outcomes. Merely repeating mantras like “It will give Indigenous Australians a say over policy” is not nearly enough.

To my contention that it is unlikely that the Voice will substantially ameliorate Indigenous suffering, Jensen says:

There are, no doubt, overblown claims about what the Voice could achieve being made by advocates. But, to be sensible about it, instituting the Voice does not automatically solve anything. Of course it doesn’t. To damn the proposal on this basis would be unreasonable…

So, again, Jensen makes no attempt to argue why the Voice is likely to be an effective mechanism for the amelioration of Indigenous disadvantage. Furthermore, Jensen attacks a straw man, for I never argued that unless it automatically solves everything then it should be rejected. In fact, I’m not aware of a single No campaigner who’s said anything so silly.

What I argued was that there’s no strong reason to think it will do much to ameliorate Indigenous suffering, and that there are good reasons to think that it will not. Jensen does not refute this at all.

Jensen’s approach is to simply urge us all to just give it a go and piously hope for the best. But this is not responsible public policy, and it is no foundation upon which to change a constitution. The Voice in all likelihood will merely add yet another political and bureaucratic strand to the already notoriously tangled web of Indigenous-aid bureaucracy. [1] Voting for this outcome is no expression of neighbourly love.

Furthermore, when one reads the entire Calma-Langton Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Final Report, one sees that it is a model of “representation” that does not involve universal Indigenous elections of their representatives, is likely to be plagued by family and tribal conflicts during Voice-delegate selection processes, and is highly likely to elevate already-influential Indigenous powerbrokers to new powerful positions.

For a realistic analysis of the Voice model, I encourage readers to read the Recognise a Better Way working paper. I should also point out that we are already seeing portents of the tribal divisions that will likely emerge as this Voice claims to speak for Indigenous Australia. The ABC has reported on several occasions Indigenous Australians saying that no Voice can speak for their tribe (here and here). The tribal nature of Indigenous Australia cannot just be swept aside as though it is insignificant to the question of how effective this Voice will be.

It is not enough to simply accept all the promises of the Voice advocates, as Jensen seems to do. We must, as I said in my original response, “Stop judging by mere appearances and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)

Voice and Treaty

Jensen in his original article says “Some have expressed concerns that the Voice would be the first step in the process toward leading to a treaty and the payment of reparations, which they consider to be a negative outcome. However, there is no sense in which these following steps are an automatic outcome of the Voice.” In response, I showed very clearly how the Uluru Statement and its website, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, are all explicitly committed to a treaty. Jensen completely ignored this issue in his rejoinder.

Not only does the Uluru Statement tell us that the culmination of the agenda is a treaty (“Makarrata”), but the Uluru Statement website speaks of “a potential for two sovereignties to co-exist.” This is radical language. In international law, only states have the status of sovereignty. I think it is also highly plausible that the Voice will also call for reparations, given that reparations were part of a recent $1.3 billion treaty package between the WA government and the Noongar people, involving annual reparation payments of $68 million for ten years.

Jensen’s response may be that it’s true that a treaty is a part of the full package, and the Voice will likely call for a treaty, but that the request for a treaty probably won’t be successful, therefore those who don’t want a treaty have nothing to fear. But let’s think this through: A Voice perpetually calling for something it will never have. Does this sound like something that will facilitate reconciliation in Australia? Of course not.

Jensen needs either to argue that I am wrong about the connection between Voice and treaty, or show why the demand for a treaty, even sovereignty, will more likely lead to “reconciliation” and “unity” than to animosity and division. Jensen makes no attempt to do either. Given recent controversies in Western Australia regarding Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation, it is far from obvious that a treaty will prove to be unifying and reconciliatory.

Jensen’s final sentence is “What, after all, is the Voice? It is simply a request for recognition and consultation — to be given the dignity of a say.” But Jensen must know by now that this is not the full story. I also showed how Indigenous Australians most certainly do already have many says through many different avenues to all of our parliaments. [2] The idea that Indigenous Australians have no voice to parliament is sheer myth.

Reconciliation without Forgiveness?

In my original article, I said that the concept of reconciliation in our national context is vague to the point of bordering on meaningless. Jensen disagrees and says “The Uluru Statement from the Heart is very clear about what reconciliation might mean as far as it is concerned.” Even here Jensen is equivocal, saying the statement is “very clear about what reconciliation might mean.”

In fact, the word ‘reconciliation’ appears nowhere in the Uluru Statement. Jensen seems to be implying that the threefold agenda of truth-telling, Voice, and treaty are related to reconciliation. Fine, but how? Do they constitute reconciliation? In other words, if we institute the Voice, continue the process of truth-telling, and agree to a treaty, are we then reconciled? Or does he mean that realising these three goals will bring us much closer to reconciliation? This is a crucial question, but Jensen doesn’t say.

Jensen then strangely says:

[Christians] know that there needs to be an honest account of the truth. This need not be a denial of the good things that European settlement has brought — not at all. But there needs to be an acknowledgement of the facts of Australian history: murderous dispossession, contempt for the culture of Indigenous people, the taking of children, and so on. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians live with the terrible and unjust consequences of that dispossession. Are these not the facts? Does Chavura not acknowledge the seriousness of these actual “open truths”?

In all honesty, one could be forgiven for wondering where Jensen has been living for the past thirty years. Has he not noticed that much public discussion since the 1980s and especially since the 1990s starting with Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Speech has been preoccupied with the very “open truths” Jensen mentions? Does Jensen not know how suffused with Indigenous issues the school curricula have been for decades? Is he not aware of the 1995 Bringing Them Home Report and the massive media attention it received for years?

Did he miss the Reconciliation Walk over the Harbour Bridge in 2000? Has he not noticed the annual debate over the propriety of Australia Day? Has he forgotten the 2008 national apology? Is he aware of the annual Closing the Gap report into Indigenous disparities? Has he even heard of Midnight Oil? It’s as though Jensen has missed all of this.

Then he asks, “Does Chavura not acknowledge the seriousness of these actual “open truths”?” Well, yes, and I teach them every year to my Australian history students. Having said that, like Peter Sutton, I would question the wisdom and helpfulness of largely attributing present-day disadvantage to colonialism and the “facts of Australian history”, as opposed to pressing problems now like alcoholism, fatherlessness, and remoteness. [3]

Jensen then says, “We do not demand that those who have been wronged must forgive us… Yet Chavura moves in exactly that direction. We said sorry, didn’t we? What more do they want?” It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which Jensen has distorted my argument. Of course, I do not even suggest we should demand forgiveness. What I say is that if reconciliation in any Christian sense is to be achieved, it would have to involve forgiveness. This is an inescapable Biblical theological fact, and probably intrinsic to the concept of reconciliation itself.

Why is forgiveness necessary? Well, for one thing, reconciliation always involves forgiveness. For example, I can wrong my friend by saying harsh words to him, and then I can sincerely take the words back. My friend may even acknowledge that I sincerely took the words back, but if he refuses to forgive me then we are not reconciled. The same would be true if I stole from him and paid him back, even twice, thrice over. If he refuses to forgive me then we are not reconciled.

And how much more is this the case when it comes to crimes against humanity. Jensen speaks of “murderous dispossession, contempt for the culture of Indigenous people, the taking of children, and so on…” Recall Jesus’ parable of the man who owed more than he or most anyone could possibly repay in many lifetimes (Matthew 18:21-35). The same goes for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The crimes of the past are so great that reconciliation through fulfilling the demands of justice (“works”, in biblical parlance) — reparation and recognition — are impossible to fulfil.

How much money, how much land, how much recognition will make up for the colonial past? If there is to be an end to enmity, it will never be realised by fulfilling the full demands of justice. So what cuts through the Gordian knot of the impossible demands of justice? Forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that we don’t pursue justice, but we cannot pursue it thinking it will on its own effect reconciliation, nor can we pursue it in an irresponsible way that makes things worse, as I have argued that this Voice will likely do.

I have been criticised in the past by other Christian theologians for stating the necessity of forgiveness in reconciliation. This really baffles me. I fear that Christian leaders and theologians in the process of trying to reach out to Indigenous Australia (or its most vocal spokespeople) have actually syncretised Christian reconciliation with a historically non-Christian model of conflict resolution — Makarrata. No thoughtful Christian could place forgiveness anywhere but central with repentance in the reconciliation process.

I am no lone voice on this. Indigenous Elder and Pastor James Dargin tells a personal story of disadvantage, abuse, and pain. Yet his message to Australians is that there is no way to move forward as individuals and as a nation apart from forgiveness. Boldly, Pastor Dargin says this forgiveness needs to come from both sides. I encourage everyone to listen to this incredible man’s testimony. If there is to be reconciliation and unity in Australia, it will be principally through heeding the pleas of peacemakers like Pastor Dargin.

But as I said in my earlier response, we need to stop leaning on the concept of reconciliation in this national discussion — for all the reasons I suggested. I ask church leaders especially, are we really going to spend another thirty years talking about this distant goal of reconciliation? I think Australia and its church leaders are stuck in a dialogical rut.

Let’s tap into the Australian spirit of mateship and move away from talk of reconciliation and talk of fellowship instead. As I said, constant talk of the need for reconciliation runs the risk of getting stale and becoming an empty mantra, but also of inadvertently sending the message that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia are at enmity, or are enemies, thus perpetuating hostility rather than facilitating reconciliation.

Applied Theology

Jensen is disappointed that my argument against the Voice is “insufficiently theological”, that, regarding my Christian faith, I have not “thoroughly applied it to the case in hand.” He is fully entitled to say that, but I don’t think this is true. Ironically, I think I — the historian — have interrogated the theological concepts much more than Jensen the theologian!

But I think it’s obvious that Jensen and I have very different approaches to applied political theology. I think the major problem with Jensen’s approach is not that he is too theological, but that he has not properly delved into the complexities of the issue at hand so that they can inform his theological application.

The best political and moral theologians (and philosophers, for that matter) appreciate that applied moral and political theology must be informed by the complexity of the problem to which it is being applied. Too often clergy and theologians are adept at using theological concepts but almost uninterested in grappling with the tricky political, demographic, sociological, geographical, legal, and economic realities of the situation. [4] It’s almost as though these pesky realities get in the way. I detect this all through Jensen’s defence of the Voice.

But it is these empirical realities that inform exactly how neighbour love is to be pursued. If we don’t take seriously the task of understanding the nature of the problems we wish to ameliorate, then we run the risk of making things even worse, of further injuring the broken Samaritan when we rush to lift him to his feet, of unwittingly giving our neighbour a stone when he asks for bread (Matthew 7:9-11). That’s no way to love our neighbours, Indigenous or not. And it is for this very reason that I think the best way for us to love our Indigenous neighbours is to vote No to this Voice.

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[1] I encourage readers to visit the Recognise A Better Way website for sustained discussions of the problems affecting Indigenous Australians and long-standing practices of addressing these problems.

[2] See Nyunggai Warren Mundine, ‘Indigenous Voice does not Speak for Country’, in Peter Kurti and Warren Mundine AO (eds.), Beyond Belief: Rethinking the Voice to Parliament, (Connor Court, 2022), especially p.84. See also Gary Johns, The Burden of Culture: How to Dismantle the Aboriginal Industry and Give Hope to its Victims, (Quadrant Books, 2022), p.2.

[3] Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, (Melbourne University Publishing, 2011), chapter 2, especially p.58. On the pressing problems now also see Johns, The Burden of Culture.

[4] Dr Jonathan Cole has articulated such concerns here.

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Dr Stephen Chavura is Senior Lecturer in History at Campion College, Sydney. He is co/author of three books and has written many opinion pieces for The Australian, Spectator Australia, and The Daily Declaration. He has also appeared on Sky News and many podcasts including John Anderson’s Conversations (here and here).

Photo by Anna Shvets.

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10 Comments

  1. James 19 July 2023 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Amen. Thanks for this great article Stephen.

  2. Pearl Miller 19 July 2023 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    Brilliant! God protect us from going down the Black Lives Matter Rd. See Candace Owens on that issue. This ideology has culminated in rampant criminality…smash and loot…no arrests. no charges laid in the US……after all they deserve to be above the oppressors law now. Deserve to seek revenge for past atrocities…. I’m thinking Zimbabwe now…. So much to look forward too.
    My final words….Jacinta Price for P.rime Minister!

  3. Peter Webb 19 July 2023 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    I would go further than Dr Chavura, and argue that *claims* that aboriginals are not represented adequately in Parliament, are outright dishonest. They – including my aboriginal relatives and friends – have exactly the same representation in Parliament that every other non-aboriginal has. Those claiming otherwise, might reflect on the Commandment against bearing false witness, before they talk about Christian faith.

    Such a claim also denigrates every aboriginal member of Parliament. For if non-aboriginals cannot represent aboriginals, then it must also be the case that aboriginal members cannot represent non-aboriginals. Again, I believe that to be untrue and that skin-colour is not a measure of an elected member of Parliament’s ability to represent their constituents.

    At a personal level, I hold myself to be innocent, and expect the normal presumption of innocence to apply to all Australians. I have murdered nobody and robbed nobody , and therefore no reconciliation will occur until those horrible accusations are withdrawn. I could add that none of my English ancestors did anything of the kind, either, but even making argument goes against the basic standard of justice which is that a person can only be held guilty of their own acts.

    In essence, the “crime” of which the majority of Australians are to be “forgiven”, is to be born here.

  4. Jim Twelves 19 July 2023 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    Stephen, gracious, deeply thoughtful, well argued and wonderfully articulate. Thank you so much. As for not being sufficiently ‘theological’? I for one think your stand is much more ‘Christian’, because its steeped in reality, especially the call for ‘fellowship’. Didn’t the Bible call us to not discriminate between us, but to call everyone equal. Now our task is to put that into practice.

  5. Stephen Brinton 21 July 2023 at 11:39 am - Reply

    This is a commendable article. I was disappointed in Dr Michael Jensen’s article as he avoided many important issues and presented an almost (to use the colloquial) ‘suck it a see’ approach. Dr Stephen Chavura responds with grace and demonstrates wisdom and insight in his coverage of complex and emotionally charged issues.

  6. Kym Farnik 24 July 2023 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Simply… VoteNo because:
    -It’s divisive & embeds racism
    -We don’t have the full implementation defined-huge risk
    -11 indigenous parliamentarians already with a voice
    -100’s of aboriginal agencies, $billions already spent, little results
    -Does not fix 1 real problem in the communities !!

    How are a bunch of inner city elites going to represent 350+ different people groups?
    Don’t know, #voteNO !!!

  7. alyson 9 September 2023 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    when i first heard the claim that 80% of aboriginals will vote yes i wanted to check how they came up with this percentage. That’s as far as i got but this little article shone a bit more light on it
    https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/blatantly-false-rmit-factlab-exposed-after-silently-deleting-egregious-fact-check/video/3c0b0f154343825b2fba1b05cc1313c9

  8. D McMurchie 20 September 2023 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    As a long term Anglican Church atendee and a retired lawyer I read Rev Jensen`s comments with great concern. Why did the archbishop allow it and not rebuke him? His intro is full of Left-Wing Greens type phrases such as the ‘wound’ to the “First Nations People’. I thought these were warring tribes. We have benefited from their dispossession! Really? Haven`t they also? He foolishly claims that the Voice concerns the serious matter of the welfare of Aborigines. Where`s his evidence for that? He makes the dodgier claim that it is a step along the path to reconciliation misleading churchgoers who might believe this is true. Just because the PM says it does not mean it`s true. A better step to reconciliation would be for an end to the racial abuse of whites suffered by those who live in rural areas. No one is suggerstng that.

  9. Allen Higgins 3 October 2023 at 9:13 am - Reply

    Well done Stephen,

    In a take on Upton Sinclair’s famous quote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary (or identity or standing in society)depends on his not understanding it.”

    Having casually followed Mr Jensen for many years, I believe the above to applies to him.

    He seems to mix in circles such as The ABC, Eternity News, the inner city with it ultra liberal views, and a part of the Diocese of Sydney who seem to want to distance themselves from what the ABC et al portray as the “rigid othodoxy” and “lack of compassion” of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

    There are a sizeable minority of people in the Diocese of Sydney whom I know and whom I would describe as compassionate narcissists. I am not suggesting Michael is one of them, but I will say he sails close to the wind.

    He is an enigma to me.

  10. Constantine Michailidis 3 October 2023 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Thank you Dr Chavura, your case against the type of arguments that Dr Jensen put forth was masterfully argued.
    Whenever I hear the Yes argument by people and TV commercials it always leaves me asking the question, ‘But how?’
    Dutton asked for details, but not even details could explain how something like the Voice , unrepresentative of anyone except some elitist aboriginal activists, can solve the problems that are due not lack of representation, but to things such as alcohol, fatherlessness, sexual abuse, truancy and remoteness.
    We who want to vote NO are made to feel guilty that we are voting against the aboriginal nations.
    I am voting Yes in my heart for common sense and truth and reconciliation and healing ,but a big NO against a change in the constitution for such a matter as this at the polls.

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