Indigenous supporting the Voice campaign

Open Letter to Religious Leaders In Australia – Supporting the Voice

29 September 2023

5.2 MINS

by Tim Costello

This week marks the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Those prophetic words for all Americans are now etched in history.

Less well known, but no less important, are King’s prophetic words to white religious leaders written from Birmingham Jail. This letter was smuggled out written around edges of old newspapers and raggedy bits of paper as he was allowed nothing to write on.

He addresses the white clergy who claimed to support the cause of equality, but called his direct action ‘unwise and untimely’. While those clergy leaders urged ‘patience’ and delay, he responded that he had ‘never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation… We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights’.

The letter from Birmingham Jail is as heavy-hearted as his Washington speech is uplifting. To ministers saying ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern,’ King revealed a disappointment. It is the pain of a brother and not an enemy: ‘I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the Church. I say this as a Minister of the Gospel who loves the Church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen’.

MLK’s words inspired me years later to become a Baptist minister. I even named one of my sons after him. But there’s something freshly relevant today as he calls out ‘a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular’.

Among so many of Australia’s church leaders, on the profoundly important issues of Indigenous injustice, we find caution rather than courage. They say these issues are too divisive for church leaders to address. I encounter this argument every day, as church leaders close their doors to Indigenous leaders and voices like mine seeking to explain why we are voting Yes in the Voice referendum.

We are voting in a referendum, not a partisan election. This referendum was requested by an overwhelming majority of Indigenous leaders. The current PM has answered that request, and he has the support of many prominent past and present Liberals, including half of Australia’s state conservative leaders. It is a chance for Australians to transcend the tribalism of day-to-day politics.

So let me explain why I believe this goes to the heart of my faith.

Equal Dignity

As a Christian, I ask the question: what right do we have to oppose what our indigenous brothers and sisters are asking for? In 1937, William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta Christian leader, secured thousands of indigenous signatures on a petition to ask King George the VI ‘to prevent the extinction of the aboriginal race: to secure better living conditions for all; and to afford aboriginal representation in Parliament. The King never saw it as the Prime Minister and States blocked it from even being sent. And where were the Churches then? Sadly, over the years, we have gone missing or remained deaf to the pleas of our brothers and sisters.

But that is not how our Christian story began.

From its earliest days, the church has navigated conflict and inequality. Jewish Christians insisted they would not eat with Christian Gentiles, until the apostles made it clear that transcending those divisions was at the heart of living out the gospel. They had the courage to overcome resistance, and the message of freedom in Christ and one family in Christ, not two – a Jewish Christian and a Gentile Christian soon carried across the world.

Barely any Australian Christian today imagines they would have opposed William Wilberforce’s fight against slavery had they been alive in his day. But that’s not what history teaches us. Many Christians said Wilberforce’s campaign was political, not spiritual. The Record, an evangelical newspaper in Wilberforce’s time, labelled his campaign against slavery as divisive and not of the Gospel. They baulked at giving any political expression to the biblical vision of now being ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free’ but united in Christ.

When alive, voices like Wilberforce that challenge inequality are always accused of being divisive and political. The irony is that once they have died, we celebrate them. Why don’t we learn from history? How is it that many can joyfully sing the anti-slave anthem Amazing Grace, then go out and oppose the Voice? Why are leaders not challenging the flood of disinformation from White Christian nationalist websites from the USA?

It’s hard to imagine a stronger connection than that between Wilberforce’s evangelical network in the 1830s and the cause of justice for Indigenous Australians. They made the bold case that Aborigines had been made in God’s image and had rights as those who occupied this land. They established the Aboriginal Protection Society, which exposed colonial injustices. The evangelical Secretary for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, and the evangelical civil servant James Stephen, sought to prevent the takeover of unoccupied lands in South Australia, insisting that unoccupied lands belonged to the Aboriginal people and needed their consent or treaty. Those efforts were circumvented by Robert Torrens and other settlers, who wanted to behave like the other Colonies and just take the land.

Rectifying Injustice

The Wilberforce evangelicals had more success in New Zealand. Why was the Treaty of Waitangi struck in 1840? Because of the strengths of that Christian evangelical vision in Westminster. It would be more than 150 years before native title was recognised as law in Australia in the Mabo case in 1992. Once again, there was a massive ‘No’ case scare campaign claiming that Australians would lose our backyards with the Native Title Act. But as sensible voices at the time reassured us, not one centimetre was lost.

Like MLK, we can be both proud of our many national achievements, as well as be honest about injustices that date back to our foundations. Captain Cook, in 1770, claimed all of the land on the Eastern continent of Australia for the British King on the basis of the legal principle of discovery. In the same year, America’s second President, John Adams, wrote in the Massachusetts Gazette that this principle clearly ‘could not give title to the English King by common law, or by the law of nature, to the lands, tenements, and hereditaments of the native Indians’.

When Australia’s constitution was being written, the language of natural rights- so familiar to Wilberforce’s network- had sharply declined. The only delegate to raise questions about the fate of Aboriginal Australians was Sir William Russell, the delegate from New Zealand – a country that by then had fifty years’ experience of a treaty with Indigenous inhabitants. Russell warned that the new federal Parliament ‘would be a body that cares nothing and knows nothing about native administration’. Cautious voices told him not to worry because Australia’s Aborigines were dying out as if the fate of Indigenous peoples could be attributed to natural causes. And so Aborigines were left out of our Constitution ­­– the injustice that we are now addressing – while special provision was made in our Constitution for the future inclusion of New Zealand.

I fully accept that voting ‘No’ does not mean you are a racist. But I’m sure there are not too many racists voting ‘Yes’.

Enough of the discredited line that to stand up to injustice is divisive, dangerous and unwise. Four in five Indigenous Australians are asking for a voice, and Christians represent a larger share of the Indigenous population than the population at large. Let’s heed the lessons of history, from Botany Bay to Uluru. Let’s raise our voices for Amazing Grace, but let’s not fail the true test for our generation.


Tim Costello is a Baptist minister. He was the mayor of St Kilda and the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Advocate of World Vision Australia. Tim has worked as a lawyer and is the author of a number of books on faith and justice.

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  1. Peter Pearce 29 September 2023 at 6:36 am - Reply

    Dear Mr. Costello,

    Your deep commitment to social justice is evident, and as fellow believers, we must all engage with respect. However, a few observations about your article need to be made.

    1. Historical Comparisons: Drawing parallels between Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement and the Indigenous Voice referendum can be seen as overly simplistic. MLK’s struggle was for a race brought to the US, subjected to slavery, and facing daily prejudice. The Indigenous peoples of Australia have a unique and different history. We cannot collapse the two narratives into one.

    2. Mayo and Wilberforce: You bring up the passion of historic figures such as William Wilberforce, but who stands as the Wilberforce for this current campaign? Could it be Thomas Mayo, who recently found himself in the spotlight for resurfaced tweets from 2018, emphasizing repatriations and returning land? This echoes your comment about “false fears of losing land.” It’s essential to be clear about the objectives.

    3. Biblical Standpoint: Your article mentions the Apostle Paul’s proclamation that there’s “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28). This is indeed about unity in Christ. However, it also emphasizes that our identity in Christ transcends earthly categories. Thus, believers might question if enshrining a specific Indigenous voice in the constitution potentially sows more division than unity.

    4. Accusations of Racism: The assertion “I’m sure there are not too many racists voting ‘Yes’” is deeply problematic. It implies that voting ‘No’ correlates with racism. Such a broad-brush comment does a disservice to the many who may vote ‘No’ based on well-thought-out reasons, unrelated to racial bias.

    5. Lessons from New Zealand: Pointing to the Treaty of Waitangi is an insightful comparison. However, it’s essential to remember that the Treaty has been a complex document, with challenges in interpretations and settlements. Drawing from the New Zealand experience, we might ask if there are other ways to recognize and uplift Indigenous voices without constitutional changes.

    6. Church’s Involvement: Many Australian church leaders choose to stay away from the Voice referendum, not out of apathy, but out of respect for the separation of church and state. Their focus remains on spiritual matters, trusting that believers can make informed decisions on civic issues.

    In conclusion, while the heart behind your advocacy is commendable, it’s essential to approach this complex issue with nuanced understanding and respect for diverse perspectives.

    • Kim Beazley 29 September 2023 at 8:27 am - Reply

      There’s hardly anything that could be added to your comprehensive response, but this. When Costello says that “I fully accept that voting ‘No’ does not mean you are a racist. But I’m sure there are not too many racists voting ‘Yes’., this is on the back of an account of long ago historical wrongs, which, by their very nature will always be selective.

      By doing so Costello himself raises the spectre of racism, lighting the fire before trying to put it out with a water pistol.

      And you correctly identify the “heart behind [his] advocacy”, but that’s a common problem I’ve noticed in most Christian arguments advocating a “Yes” vote. It’s all vague emotionalism and hope that something good will come of it.

    • HHarrison 1 October 2023 at 10:17 pm - Reply

      I agree here with the exception of point No. 6. It is a fallacy that church and politics are separate. God is into government!
      Sadly much ‘church’ advocacy has not been very insightful. Sadly the church has been too silent on many issues, where they should have used their voice. (Something of which to repent), which has contributed to our corrupt and Godless condition. I have admired and supported Tim Costello on the many fronts he has stood up for, but here I think the reasoning is more emotional than knowledge and examination.
      Sadly many have totally lacked discernment – not seeing the real reasons and motives.
      Why did the PM refuse to to see or hear a group of indigenous people who tried to meet with him?
      Why will he not investigate or make public the billions already allocated, but not seen?
      Why the lies, evasiveness, angry talk, and the extraordinary amount of money spent?
      Think on these things!

    • Jenny 6 October 2023 at 5:34 pm - Reply

      Tim Costello has always been more about so-called social justice than Christianity! In Victoria, he supported the legalisation of prostitution, gaming machines in pubs and clubs and drug injecting rooms….
      So I’m not surprised to see him supporting the Voice.
      In essence, the Voice will DIVIDE our nation on race – of course, as Christians, we believe we are all ONE race!
      This division this is NOT something we want in our nation!

  2. Pearl Miller 29 September 2023 at 8:46 am - Reply

    I used to respect you Bro. But it seems you have gone the way of all flesh and succumbed to the allure of the mighty dollar.
    Since to my understanding Bill Gates owns and operates Micah Australia… I’m not surprised that you are following the bosses directives….Just like all the Chief Health Officers that told us the poison was “safe and effective”.
    T. Mayor(Mayo) is a flaming communist, lying that he is indigenous ….. shame on him and you!
    Obvious that you have shares in the new proposed indigenous voice. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord and listen to what real Christians have to say….especially Senator Jacinta Price…. God help you repent Tim.
    PS Thanks Peter

  3. Jean Docker 29 September 2023 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    I believe that all Australians are included in the constitution and I believe that Aboriginals are Australian. Where is the problem? I believe there are seven aboriginal members of Parliament who would represent Aboriginals and would be available to speak to Aboriginals about their needs. I can’t see why there is a problem.

    • Marianne Bagguley 3 October 2023 at 9:03 am - Reply

      I’m with you Jean. Our indigenous Australians do have representations in Parliament – they do have a Voice which needs to be LISTENED to and acted upon responsibly.

    • Janice Wellings 10 October 2023 at 10:45 pm - Reply

      Exactly. Well said Jean!

  4. Marg Peyton 6 October 2023 at 11:33 am - Reply

    If the referendum were to pass, it would give greater power to the unelected permanent judges on the High Court. THEY, not the elected Parliament of the day, would determine what ‘advisory’ means. Conceivably it could be that the Voice branch of government (for that is what it will be) has the right to see all discussion papers and proposals for policies and legislation being considered by the different Government Departments. The Voice could argue that they need to have access to this information in order to advise if the indigenous community is in any way affected.
    It is fundamentally wrong and against basic democratic principles to give a small section of the community , based on their dna, this Constitutional status and deny it to other Australians. In 50 years time, when Australia’s population has probably doubled, with continuing immigration, the 3.5% of the population that currently have aboriginal ancestry, will be even less. And yet such a tiny group, will have this special legal status. The Voice Referendum should never have been brought. It was not well thought out, lacks detail, is discriminatory and has divided our nation.

  5. Jenny 6 October 2023 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    If you managed to get through what Tim Costello has to say, you MUST read the response from Mark Powell, a Presbyterian minister in Hobart!
    Mark points out many of the flawed arguments in Tim’s letter.
    Martin Luther King wanted a society where his children would NOT be judged on the colour of their skin but on he content of their character – the OPPOSITE to the Voice…
    He also notes that many aboriginal organisations do NOT want the Voice!
    Read it at:

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