Submission: First Nations Voice
In my professional and personal life I have engaged with First Nations peoples in many parts
of Australia. For 4 years I worked as a Homelands Co-ordinator in Ramingining, Arnhem
Land. Then for 12 years I was a manager in the Wagga Wagga ATSIC office working with the
Binaal Billa Regional Council. Finally, I worked for 10 years with NSW Family and Community
Services as a Director in Western Region.
Why a Voice
ATSIC was the last of the big experiments in a national Aboriginal representative body
advising government. For example, it was able to support the development of regional
services which did not really happen before or since. Projects like Tirkandi Inaburra which
addresses Recommendation 62 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
to keep First Nations children out of the “justice” system. It has been operating effectively
for 15 years re-engaging high school age boys in the education system, building their
resilience, cultural knowledge and respect, and addressing systemic failure. Without an
Aboriginal Voice and advocate like ATSIC with a regional dimension and capacity it would
not have happened. What it has achieved is largely ignored and not emulated. It drew
funding from the State government as this was where responsibility sits.
Why a Voice to Parliament
It needs to be a Voice to Parliament and not just to government. There could be
opportunities to address and provide input to Parliamentary committees on all matters that
affect First Nations peoples. There should be an annual opportunity to address both Houses
of Parliament in joint setting at the national level. This should also be reflected at the State
level. I see no reference to how the Voice to Parliament could be effected.
This Voice needs to be adequately resourced to monitor and offer evidenced critique, to
assist them in holding governments to account, and to contribute to policy and strategic
What ATSIC struggled with was when Regional Councils were given project funding
allocation delegations. This was setting up to fail because it is not accepted anywhere in our
system of government that elected people should control what projects are funded, recent
“art form” pork barrelling notwithstanding.
It is important that there is enough focus on how the Voice works with government
departments that fund mainstream services. This is important as ATSIC became the
whipping boy for the failure of government agencies at all levels, yet having no capacity to
I can understand the felt need to create an ethics advisory body. I would only support it to
the extent that it is in place for all levels of government. No doubt that is beyond the brief of
this inquiry but perhaps when we finally have a meaningful equivalent there may be some
credibility and equity in this move.
Voting versus non-voting of Voice Representation
One person, one vote is our neat understanding of how democracy is based. This fits a
culture based on a very narrow definition of the rights of an individual. It often does not
work that way in a First Nations context where the very extended family is critical. The key
point is whether communities have confidence that they are represented.
Through the time of ATSIC and since, a more sophisticated range of regional and community
structures have emerged. It would certainly be wise to build on those. There is a need for
care in finding the best role for service delivery peak bodies. They certainly have a role but
represent particular interests and focus. The overall priority setting has to come from
elsewhere, especially regional and local committees or working parties with a more holistic
Conclusion: Why Constitutional Recognition
I understand that this is out of scope for this group, but because there was no commitment
to neither improve nor replace First Nations representative bodies in the past there were
long gaps in having an effective voice to government or parliament. All of these were
discarded, being at the whim of the political winds of the moment. For 15 years since the
demise of ATSIC there has been no body that commands the ear of government, let alone
Parliament. Mainstream politics continues to fail the interests of this key minority to our
national identity and our future. The bar needs to be raised to guarantee a Voice from here
I understand it the reference in the Constitution to a Voice would be simple and not specific
to the current model. It should refer to its being a representative model and its broad roles
such as advice. The current model simply allows the country to see what the Voice would
mean at this time. It should not be put to Parliament for debate until after a referendum.
It is time for change. It will need to be bipartisan between the major parties in order to
succeed at referendum. If one party does not support it then of course it will fail. The
coalition government needs to take courage and take this to referendum as soon as we
have a draft Voice legislation. Otherwise, there are big risks that a legislated Voice will
actually cause people to think that there is no need for a Constitutional guarantee.
Further as the legislated Voice proceeds it will have lots of teething problems. Given the lack
of a propensity to mislead and the negative intentionality of some sections of the media a
referendum will never see the light of day. The best moment is when the people see the
reality of a draft Voice and how it will work.
Once on the ground and with Constitutional recognition the Voice can be reviewed with a
commitment to improve it and keep it relevant to the day, as we go. In contrast, ATSIC was
reviewed with the express purpose of its elimination. I don't think anyone would contest the
fact that the LNP government had always had that intention but did not have the numbers
in the Senate until the ALP finally supported them.
It is going to take much political courage to make the changes needed now. It is always the
right moment to make a change of this importance. From history it is clear that change
follows courage. How many lives have been lost or damaged because in more than 2
generations since the 1967 referendum we have actually made so little progress when
viewed against what still needs to happen. We can turn a big page with Constitutional
recognition of a Voice. If there is bipartisan support, public support will grow beyond
already high levels, and it will succeed.