On 14 October 2023, Australians will vote in a referendum ‘To alter the constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.’ Since the announcement, debate has become increasingly divisive with allegations of scaremongering and dishonesty escalating fears for the future. What, if anything, do those of us who work with individuals, couples, families, and their wider world have to offer?
Is there an Analogy to Guide our Thinking?
Imagine a family who seeks therapy to help them resolve a difficult situation following marital separation. The family consists of separated parents, their children, and one new partner. Bitter divisions appear due to one parent and their partner believing they are now the ‘real’ family as they have more financial resources and offer the children a home with two adults. They argue that the other parent is not required and engaging them in any dialogue about the children is difficult, uncomfortable, and time consuming. They are concerned that if they speak together, they cannot predict the direction this dialogue could take, given the deep differences between the two parents. This belief has fueled the alienation of the other biological parent who is increasingly excluded from ordinary conversations about children and their lives. That parent is hurt and angry. They argue that they have a right and responsibility to be included in the dialogue about the decisions to be made about the future of the children.
What Would we Say?
It seems unlikely that we would agree that the less advantaged parent should be excluded. Looking beyond the immediate debate about who can make the best decisions we would speak to the impact on the children of fracture and our knowledge that finding themselves caught between will be much more destructive than the debatable merits of one parent’s choices over the other. We would address the risk of the fracture escalating to the point where the children feel compelled to choose one side and in so doing lose what is good on the other. We would work to find a way for all parties to speak respectfully, to listen to each other, to create a richer, more inclusive world where things are not always predictable but may be better for that.
Neutrality or Taking a Stance?
One of the guiding principles of systemic practice is that of neutrality, better described as even-handed, doing justice to each person, their perspective, and the question of change. This is a highly effective stance which allows for a fair and equitable engagement by all parties in the therapeutic process. Neutrality has its limits. When a practitioner recognizes that the conduct of one person or group is detrimental to others, the practitioner has a responsibility to review their participation in this process and take a position in favor of the less advantaged party. Similarly, practitioners do not usually take a position in relation to political debate. However, there are times when an understanding of systems and the potential consequences of decisions makes speaking up a responsibility.
In order for the analogy to truly reflect the current situation we would need to appreciate that this ‘marriage’ was forced upon the less than equal party who entered it with no choice, and that it was always an exploitative, unequal relationship characterized by deprivation and unrelenting disadvantage. Whilst we do not know what the dialogue in this country will look like if we say ‘Yes’, we do know that exclusion, and the silencing of this Voice will fuel a fracture that will cause deep injury to all of us. Voice, Treaty, Sovereignty. ‘Yes’, will allow the nation to enter this dialogue on more even terms.
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