A road to reconciliation

The case for a voice to parliament

Zoe Staines, Sean Gordon

Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

11 July 2019

If Australia is serious about reconciliation, the Uluru Statement from the Heart presents the nation with a pivotal opportunity to empower First Nations peoples in the policymaking process, Zoe Staines and Sean Gordon write.

There is a long history of proposals made by First Nations Australians for a stronger voice in policy-making.

From the Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963 to the Uluru Statement in 2017, Australia’s First Nations peoples have consistently recognised the need for greater power over the institutions that govern them. They’ve also repeatedly called for truth-telling about the devastating and ongoing impact of colonisation.

The Uluru Statement has three parts: Voice, Treaty, and Truth. ‘Voice’ refers to including an Indigenous voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution, ‘Treaty’ to Treaty-making with First Nations peoples, and ‘Truth’ to establishing truth-telling processes that properly acknowledge and recognise Australia’s true history.

The Voice proposal seeks a seat at the table for First Nations Australians to have direct input into policy decisions that affect them. Treaty-making between Australian governments and First Nations peoples would restore much-needed sovereignty, and truth-telling is a key foundation for real — not just rhetorical — reconciliation.

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Sovereignty, as the Uluru Statement sees it, is spiritual: the ancestral tie between the land and the people who were born therefrom. “It has never been ceded or extinguished,” says the Uluru Statement, “and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.” Sovereignty sets the context for Makarrata, or the coming together of all Australians after a period of conflict.

The Uluru Statement is a call for Australia to mature — to bravely confront our ‘psychological terra nullius. It asks us to move towards greater fairness, justice, and self-determination. While the Uluru Statement poignantly expresses hope for a brighter future, we must also pay attention to what we have in the absence of these reforms.

Successive governments have been profoundly inept in lifting First Nations peoples out of poverty. In many ways this is no surprise, as policies are still overwhelmingly developed and implemented in a top-down and non-consultative manner — in contrast to the ‘partnership’ approach that so often appears in political rhetoric.

Those groups who are part of the process often experience ‘consultation fatigue’, where they are repeatedly asked to provide input, but their advice is consistently ignored — giving the impression that consultation is a mere rubber-stamping and not a genuine dialogue.

The cumulative failures of major policies in Indigenous Affairs for the last 50 years is a testament to the fact that this system does not work.

Trawling back through the reams of government inquiry reports produced over the past few decades into the countless failed policies that have been thrust on First Nations Australians is like reading a dystopic novel.

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Review after review calls for greater participation, better consultation, deeper partnerships and more, but these recommendations have been largely rejected for decades by consecutive governments.

This is a governance challenge, one based on the continued injustices felt and lived by Australia’s First Nations peoples on a daily basis. It creates a culture of policymaking that continually fails to recognise and hear Indigenous voices. In doing so, it perpetuates continued subjugation, impoverishment, and increasingly poor life outcomes.

Poor responses to this governance challenge are reflected in policies like the Community Development Programme (CDP), which — even though more than 80 per cent of its participants are Indigenous — was developed by non-Indigenous bureaucrats without consultation.

Rather than improving employment outcomes, like it is apparently supposed to, the CDP has led to widespread harm, disempowerment and deepened poverty for many remote-living Indigenous Australians. This is but one example among many.

The system is broken because it fails to live what it talks about: the best people to decide on First Nations policies are First Nations peoples. Policies which embody that principle will deliver better outcomes.

Meanwhile, the unassuming 183 x 160 cm canvas that contains the Uluru Statement and its initial 250 signatures of support has been traveling across Australia, tucked away in a modest cardboard postal tube, gathering momentum and waves of support as it goes. Political responses have, nevertheless, wavered.

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The Uluru Statement was initially rejected by the Turnbull Government in late 2017 amongst mistruths about what it proposed. In the lead up to the 2019 federal election, both the major parties expressed support, and the Government earmarked $7.3 million in its 2019–20 Budget to explore co-design options for a Voice to Parliament. However, more recent statements by prominent ministers have been confounding.

Although Scott Morrison did not initially support the Uluru Statement, he has recently committed to “getting an outcome”. Despite some fears that a change would not receive public support, the government has announced plans for a referendum in the next three years. How well the details of this plan will meet the vision of the Uluru statement remains an open question.

It is, of course, crucial that the timing is right; very few referendums have succeeded in Australia’s history. But this does not mean we presume to know the result and simply give up. Nor does it mean that Australians should accept a second-class, diluted alternative. The proposal for a constitutionally-anchored Voice is critical because it means it cannot be silenced or dissolved, like so many Indigenous advisory mechanisms that have gone before it.

Greater clarity is needed around what the Government proposes to do with the opportunities presented by the Uluru Statement, but it is contingent upon all Australians to demand continued bipartisan support as we embark on this pivotal journey in Australia’s history. This is an opportunity to move beyond symbolic tokenism and towards real and meaningful change. We must grasp it with both hands.

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