The Voice

Posted by on Sep 10, 2023 in Blog | 7 comments

australia map

You have probably heard that on 14 October Australian voters will take part in the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum to approve an alteration to the Australian Constitution to create a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice that “may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government … on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. While I am conscious that half the readers of this blog are not from Australia, the question of justice for First Nations Peoples impacts us all, and requires careful and prayerful thought.

I recently led some workshops in Darwin and was hosted by Mal and Christine Good. As we discussed “The Voice” I was impressed by the depth of their thought and insight. Darwin is part of Australia’s Northern Territory, which has a higher proportion of Indigenous residents than any other part of the country (32%, while the national average is 3.8%) – so this is a question very close to the people Mal and Christine live and minister amongst. I asked Mal if he would write down his thoughts and he agreed. I am greatly indebted to him – and urge you to read his insights, and to think through the implications for your setting – regardless of where in the world you live.

If you missed last weeks post on Difference and Distance, can I commend it to you. I intentionally wrote it as preparation for this weeks post, which further develops some of the themes.

The Voice of one crying in the wilderness

Yes, I’m a white Australian male and right at the outset I wish to acknowledge the privilege and opportunity that I have been afforded. When my parents, my two older brothers and I migrated to Australia in the early sixties we were told that it was a land of opportunity.  I think that was the main reason my parents made the big life-changing decision to migrate. That and the dreary winter in London the year prior.  This, in contrast to the constant clear blue sky being beamed back to Britain from Perth in Western Australia, of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, in the November of the same year. But a land of opportunity it was, and I thought that it was a land of opportunity for everyone. 

Jumping forward to 2016, my wife and I were living in a rural country town in WA and exploring the possibility of relocating, to pastor a church in the northern suburbs of Darwin in the Northern Territory, when a program on SBS caught our attention. That program was called ‘First Contact’.  It was a multi part series and the following best sums it up: – 

More than six out of 10 people who call Australia home say they have had little or no contact with Aboriginal people. The chasm and disconnect between Australia’s First Nations peoples and the rest of the nation can be vast.

First Contact is a landmark documentary series that shines a light on this deep divide by taking a group of six non-Indigenous people, from different walks of life and with strong and varied opinions, and immersing them into Aboriginal Australia for the first time.

What we found astonishing was that a large number of people who call Australia home had little or no contact with Aboriginal people. How could this be, after all we had had contact! 

Early in the new year (2017) we made the move to Darwin, but going the long way, via Tasmania! (As you do!). We packed up the car and headed east, passing through the small towns that are scattered along the Great Eastern Highway. Aboriginal people were visible in these towns, at least until we reached Coolgardie. We drove into South Australia, and apart from Port Augusta, Aboriginal people were sparse. On to Adelaide, through Victoria and into Melbourne and across to Tasmania, again Aboriginal people were just not visible.  We realized that for a vast majority of people in Australia, Aboriginal people were a distant people and not their neighbours. They were distant and different!

Noel Pearson in his 2022 Boyer lectures makes this observation in his introduction where he addresses the ‘who we are’ question: –

Emerging from a screening of a 2019 documentary about the end of the career of footballer Adam Goodes, I thought about the trouble Australians have with Aboriginal people.  The trouble is readily called racism, and certainly racism is much to do with it, but the reality is not that simple.

We are a much unloved people.  We are perhaps the ethnic group Australians feel least connected to.  We are not popular and we are not personally known to many Australians.  Few have met us and a small minority count us as friends.  And despite never having met any of us and knowing very little about us other than what is in the media and what WEH Stanner, whose 1968 Boyer Lectures looms large over my lectures, called ‘folklore’ about us – Australians hold and express strong views about us, the great proportion of which is negative and unfriendly.  It has ever been thus.  Worse in the past but still true today.

The haunting words ‘a much unloved people’ must surely break our collective heart, considering that we are all made in the image of God.  Again, we see that Indigenous Australians are different and distant and yet most non-Indigenous Australians have something to say about them, and it is usually not good. Australia is a divided country, there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’.

Jonathan Sacks in his book ‘Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence’ says that ‘Dualism resolves complexity’. He goes on and says: –

Pathological dualism does three things. It makes you dehumanise and demonise your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim. And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love and practising cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Now, you might say ‘I don’t kill, I don’t hate, and I don’t practice cruelty, in God’s name’ and I would say ‘thank you very much, I would hope not’, but what do we do in God’s name?  Do we seek and support life affirming and life enhancing options for the other?  Do we love and embrace the other, and do we come to the other with compassion, in the name of God?

The true reality is that we are all created in God’s image, therefore there is no ‘other’, it is a false way of thinking and a dangerous way of thinking.

Difference and distance allows us to discriminate. It allows us to think the worst of the other person or group, and then act out the worst in us. Sacks sees this in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s dad sends him out to check on the flock and his brothers and after tracking them down we get this one verse, which says of his brothers: –

… they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. (Genesis 37:18).

This is a family, but there was a growing sense that Joseph was different, he was the dreamer, he was loved more by their dad, and a whole lot of other things began to emerge that set Joseph apart. He was different.  Again, Sacks makes this observation: – 

The text at this point is powerfully ironic. ‘They saw him in the distance and before he reached them they plotted to kill him’ (37:18). This sentence, like so many others in the Joseph narrative, has two meanings. On the surface, it means what it says: they saw him approach, and they planned murder. At another level, however, it is a philosophical statement about love and hate. They were able to contemplate fratricide because ‘they saw him at a distance’. They refused to allow him to come close. He was a threat rather than a person. They could see his cloak, but in Emmanuel Levinas’s terminology, they could not yet see his ‘face’, his alterity, his reality as a person. Distant physically, they would not let him come close emotionally.

I fear that this speaks to us in Australia in 2023. For many in Australia, our indigenous brothers and sisters are distant physically and we are fearful of letting them come close emotionally.  For if we do, we would be forced to confront our own prejudices and our own complicated underlying racism, (to extrapolate from Noel Pearson’s Boyle Lecture). 

I remember years ago when the marriage of some friends of ours imploded before our eyes.  I asked a wise old pastor how I would know if I could help them.  He responded, ‘if they are prepared to talk, and if they are prepared to be honest then there is hope of restoration’.  

Australia faces a great opportunity with a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. And I can’t but help think of that wise old pastor’s words, if they are prepared to talk, and if they are prepared to be honest then there is hope. Voice and Makarrata.

“Makarrata” is a complex Yolngu word that can be used to describe a process of conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice, it can also serve as a synonym for treaty.”

So, for me, the question is this, are we prepared to talk, and are we prepared to be truthful? Australia was sold to my parents as a land of opportunity, but it was not a land of opportunity for everyone.  The opportunities that our family had as it stepped on to terra firma, at the Port of Freemantle came at the expense of others.  It’s time to talk about it, and it’s time for the truth.

This is not something to be feared but rather embraced, as the reconciling people of God. I suspect that when we listen and are honest, we will discover that we are more different and yet have more in common, than we could ever have imaged.  So, when it comes to the referendum, I’ll be voting ‘YES’.

About the Author

Mal Good, alongside his wife Chris, pastor a very multi-ethnic church in the northern suburbs of Darwin where difference is celebrated.  He often says that ‘if you are different, you will fit right in’! For the church, on their good days, there is no them and us!  Rather together they seek to display the image of God.  However, Mal and Chris also spend 20% of each year living in a remote Indigenous Community in the Central Desert region of the Northern Territory. They do this as members of the Baptist Mission Australia Outback Team. Together they truly have moved into the neighborhood where distance has been eradicated and difference is being celebrated, as they seek to understand and walk alongside their Indigenous brothers and sisters.

Photo by Catarina Sousa on


  1. That’s a powerful message. Thank you.

  2. Comment *Thanks Mal. You and Chris are examples to us all – even if we don’t live in Australia! The Lord continue to bless you both.

  3. I think the problem all Christians of compassion and understanding for Aboriginal people have is the logistics and honesty of this Voice. We agree that the Aboriginal MPs represent the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal views. We agree that more should be done to improve the lives and conditions of the Aboriginal people. However, we are being asked to vote on a constitutional change without any detail about the content of that change. The question being put to Australian people is a matter of emotion and marketing. The consequences are vast and ill informed. While your post is an interesting read, the referendum is poorly communicated without respect to the existing Aboriginal MPs already in Parliament and respect to Australians to provide evidence and information about what we are being asked to vote for.

  4. Thank you – this is excellent. We do not need detail we need compassion. I have Aboriginal friends and when you listen to their stories and you serve in their community, you know we must do something to address the wrongs of the present let alone those of the past. I will be voting ‘yes’!

  5. My heart wants to vote Yes, but my head says the government is not asking the right question. I’ve been seeking the answers my head demands for months but cannot find them. This article appeals to my heart, but my head is still not satisfied.
    Why are we adding more race powers to the constitution rather than removing them?
    I do want to see disadvantage addressed, but I’m not convinced that race is the cause. The statistics certainly show correlation, but to bring about change the causes need to be identified. (For example, might poor education be a cause of disadvantage? If the research shows this, it would be logical to address education across both indigenous and non-indigenous populations.)

    • Hi Kerryn.

      I don’t think we can separate our head from our heart. If we do I think we die! This was a head and heart response.

      The vast majority of Indigenous people are waiting to see if we have a heart.

      I’ll not comment further.

      Blessings (or as the PEV would say, may God do good things for you)

  6. Thanks Mal. Your heartfelt words are powerful. I also sense that Aboriginal people have understandably lost trust in promises. I do so pray that Australians can begin to humbly work together to restore all the brokenness.

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