Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have an unrivalled 65,000-year history of continuous occupation that should be regarded as foundational in the fabric of our nation. Our cultures help shape our national identity. Yet in our nation’s recent history our voices have been largely absent in the decision making processes that govern our daily lives. The Government acknowledges this.
In a recent interview, Australia’s most respected paediatric epidemiologist, Professor Fiona Stanley, stated that because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people took control to protect our communities in response to COVID-19, our communities are doing better than almost any other in the world when it comes to resisting the spread of the deadly Coronavirus.
The tiny number of positive cases is a result of governments working with and listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. It is testament to our voices bringing local knowledge, and our extraordinary ability to meet challenges, as the decisive factor in the successful fight to keep our people safe.
An Indigenous voice is not a scary proposition. As the pandemic response demonstrates, a direct line from our diverse communities to decision-makers is effective and has, to date, beaten the biggest crisis to face our nation in generations. This success galvanised our commitment to the Indigenous voice co-design process, and provided the proof of concept to inspire our work.
Wednesday, 14 October, was a milestone in the Indigenous voice co-design process. The Senior Advisory Group held its final meeting before delivering our interim report to the Government. But it’s not just our work going to Government. The report will include draft proposals developed and endorsed by the National and Local & Regional Co-design Groups, along with our advice on how to undertake consultation and engagement across the country.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Australians from around the country - 52 people with a genuine commitment to co-design - have come to the table with the Government to look at how we can do this. Membership was determined by the Minister based on our advice, and with advice from the broader Senior Advisory Group and others. The range of experiences and views is broad, and no one has been expected to, or asked to, change their position.
Our group discussions have been frank and robust, and we have not always agreed. But this is what we wanted, we have drawn on the diverse experience, views and ideas from across the co-design groups to shape our thinking. We have contested ideas and challenged ourselves to consider what might work best now, and into the future, to ensure the voices of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation are heard by politicians.
We have spent the last nine months in an iterative process, through a series of more than 70 meetings and member discussions, working to build robust proposals that meet the needs of our diverse communities across the country. We are currently finalising our deliberations for the proposals for an Indigenous voice to be put to Government for consideration in November. What will come forward is a pragmatic approach to channelling our diverse voices to inform a national body that will ensure we are heard by Parliament and governments.
What is clear is that the landscape we are working within is complex, there is no one size fits all answer. Our proposals will provide a framework to support what is already happening in many areas around the country, although disjointed and lacking a national body, where existing Indigenous advisory bodies and councils operate. It will enhance shared decision-making and ensure we are heard at all levels, as no one level of government has sole responsibility for delivery of the programs, tools or funding that are needed to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
In July, in the midst of our deliberations, the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap gave us a shining example of genuine partnership between Australian Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations. In developing an Indigenous voice we have been highly aware of existing organisations and bodies, and their varied roles. Many members of our co-design groups are leaders from those entities, and we hold a deep appreciation for the wide variety of existing arrangements and their strengths.
The impact of an Indigenous voice will be greater through leveraging their expertise, knowledge, networks and experience. An Indigenous voice will complement their work, not compete with, diminish or replace it. An Indigenous voice is a continuation of the partnership approach governments have acknowledged is the new way of working with our people to deliver meaningful change.
But, the co-design process is not complete. Later this year, we will be ready to take the voice proposals across the country and all Australians will be able to have their say. This feedback will be used to further refine our work, to ensure we have the best possible solutions.
We are determined, now more than ever, to see this process succeed. We have an opportunity that we must grasp now to lay the foundation for a better shared future for all Australians, and an Indigenous voice is an urgent matter for redress on our journey to equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.