One Journey, Together Mark Gaetani 13 September 2023

One Journey, Together

The One Journey, Together webinar on the Voice referendum, coordinated by Catholic Social Services Victoria

A close up of a man with grey hair wearing a white, open neck shirt and a black suit jacket. He is smiling.

Address to Catholic Social Services Victoria online forum, 14 September 2023 

by Mark Gaetani, National President, St Vincent de Paul Society 

One month from today, most of our 17 million eligible citizens will vote on whether around one million Australians of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage should be given – to use a patronising term – the Constitutional right to input to Australian law and policy making. 

This complex issue has been made even more complicated, sometimes deliberately so, by politicised and divisive commentary.   

Many Australians, perhaps most of us, have little understanding of the historical oppression of First Peoples, of their marginalisation and their exclusion from major decision making. 

In his first ABC Boyer Lecture last year, Noel Pearson said, “We are not popular, and we are not personally known to many Australians.”  

But the upcoming referendum is not a popularity poll, it’s a vote about justice and inclusion. 

As Mr Pearson added - well before the Voice referendum was announced - “The people will vote on the principle: should Indigenous peoples be guaranteed a fairer say in laws and policies made about them?” 

Despite the complexity, we are being asked to make a simple decision – Yes, or No? 

The St Vincent de Paul Society is firmly in the ‘Yes camp’.  

The Society has long-standing connections with the Indigenous people of Australia, and we are well acquainted with the disadvantage that far too many of them continue to experience.  

Depending on the location, between ten and twenty per cent of all people assisted by the Society identify as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. In the NT, 95 percent of people presenting to our homelessness services identify as First Nations people.  

The assistance we offer ranges from helping with utility bills, accommodation and rental costs, provision of food vouchers, help with purchasing household items including whitegoods, assistance with health, medical, relocation, storage, travel and transport costs, and referrals, advocacy and social support.    

Our position on the Voice referendum is based on the values of our founders who two centuries ago showed courageous advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable, the powerless and the many others who needed not just a loaf of bread, but equality under the law. 

We supported Constitutional Recognition in 2013 in response to the 2012 Constitutional Recognition Bill.  

We reiterated this in 2014, in response to the Senate Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. 

In 2021, our position on The Voice was outlined in response to the Government’s Indigenous voice co-design interim report. In 2022, the Society outlined its position in our Federal Election Statement, A Fairer Australia 

And during Reconciliation Week in 2023, we launched an updated policy paper on Australia's First Nations Peoples.  

We take strength in knowing we are not walking alone. This issue must not be allowed to divide Australians further. 

The National Council of St Vincent de Paul Society Australia supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including Constitutional Recognition and The Voice to Parliament. This position mirrors that of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council, and the Australian Catholic Bishops. 

Our commitment aligns with the principles of Catholic social justice and reflects the dedication of our founders to creating a more compassionate and inclusive society. 

In a statement coinciding with last weekend’s Feast Day for our main founder, Frederic Ozanam, we said Australia faces many social challenges. The need for First Peoples to have a greater say over matters that their wellbeing is high on that list.  

Advocacy on social justice issues is enshrined within our governing document, The Rule, and we do not shy away from the injunction that, and I quote - “In all charitable actions there should be a search for justice…” 

I pray that justice will prevail come October 14, and that Australians will affirm their support for the First Peoples of this amazing land under the Southern Cross.  

May God bless us all at this challenging time. 

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