‘Not enough information’: Elder sounds warning on Voice ahead of Pope meeting

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Rome: A respected Aboriginal elder has warned proponents of the Indigenous Voice to parliament are not doing enough to convince remote communities of the proposal’s virtues, ahead of a historic vote to enshrine the body into the constitution later this year.

Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, a former Senior Australian of the Year, educator and artist from Nauiyu near the Daly River community of the Northern Territory, will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican later this week as part of her ongoing efforts towards reconciliation between the church and Indigenous Australians.

Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann at the Australian Embassy at the Vatican.Credit: SMH

The 73-year-old trained in a Catholic mission school in her rural community near Darwin and went on to become the first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher in Australia’s Northern Territory. She has been widely recognised for her contribution to education, environmental protection and the promotion of Indigenous culture and art.

Ungunmerr Baumann said she was “still getting her head around” the Voice concept but warned against assumptions it had the support of all Indigenous Australians or that it was the answer to their problems.

“There’s not enough information going to everyone,” she told media assembled in Rome on Monday.

“I’m in a remote community, and there are others that are in that situation. There should be more people coming in and explaining what it is, and how it’s going to affect us… in a good way or a bad way.”

“I don’t mind the Voice, that’s not the issue. It’s just, there’s not enough engagement with us.”

She said she expected the pontiff to ask her about the referendum, but said she was going into the meeting only seeking to “have a yarn” and to listen.

Ungunmerr Baumann’s presence in Rome during National Reconciliation Week, adds significance to a year which also marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Holy See.

On Tuesday evening (Rome time), she will unveil her new piece specially commissioned for the anniversary year, blending traditional Indigenous elements with Christian themes.

Indigenous elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann will meet Pope Francis at the Vatican.Credit: AP

In addition to a private audience with the Pope, Ungunmerr Baumann, who herself is Catholic, will also get a chance to meet with senior figures from the Vatican, diplomats, and representatives of Catholic Church networks in Rome.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who chose the NT elder to accompany him to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II last year, used a speech in Adelaide on Monday to counter claims he had rushed into the referendum, saying the voice and calls for Indigenous constitutional recognition have developed over decades.

“This hasn’t been rushed into. There have been no shortcuts. Nor is this something that began in Canberra,” he said in the Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration.

In November last year the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference also formally endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, acknowledging a push for the church to “honour and acknowledge the continuing deep spiritual relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this country, and commit ourselves to the ongoing journey of reconciliation”.

Among the key recommendations of the Uluru Statement is the establishment of a First Nations “Voice” to the Australian Parliament, and a commission to supervise a process of “truth-telling” between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Growing up, the nuns had taught me to learn about how Westerners lived, so I could learn to walk in two worlds,” Ungunmerr Baumann, a former member of the Howard-era National Indigenous Council, said.

“It is important for the people of Australia to know it is the right time now to walk with us. To walk alongside us, it is important that it begins as simply as sitting down, particularly on country, and listening to each other.”

Insistent that she did not want to be known as an Aboriginal activist, she said Australians of all walks of life needed to listen more to the experiences and stories of others, saying she had spent the majority of her life “walking between two worlds”.

‘Education can take you places far beyond what you can imagine.’

In 1975, Ungunmerr Baumann became the first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher in the Northern Territory. She spent 13 years as principal of St Francis Xavier School in Daly River, a remote settlement 220 km from Darwin.

She said teaching about culture, art and spirituality had taken her to have “some incredible experiences” and opened up opportunities she had never dreamed of as a young teaching assistant.

More than a decade ago, Ungunmerr Baumann launched the Miriam Rose Foundation, which she established in honour of seven young children from her Aboriginal community who died of suicide, including her own nephew.

“Education can take you places far beyond what you can imagine,” she said.

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