First of all, we need to establish that this idea of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament didn’t come from Canberra.
The Voice referendum campaign was sparked by the 2017 Uluru Statement of the Heart, an invitation made by Indigenous leaders to the Australian people, to move forward and right past injustices. It was the culmination of 13 grassroots Regional Dialogues held across the country, each with 100 Indigenous community leaders in attendance. The Dialogues sought to find ways forward and address the issues faced by Indigenous communities. The reform they settled on unanimously was the Voice.
Brydie Zorz, Wiradjuri woman, activist and incoming UNSW Indigenous Officer told Tharunka the Voice ‘isn’t an Albanese invention.’
“He committed to it, but that was after decades of advocacy from First Nations peoples,” she told us, “and years and years of us pushing for a government to take the reforms from the Uluru Statement seriously.”
Zorz criticized media coverage of the Voice, due to its focus on politicians rather than the grassroots activists – primarily women – who led the campaign for the Voice in the first place.
“What we’re seeing is 80% of Indigenous people support this,” she explained, “And this is not only reflective of the Uluru Statement and the process leading up to it, but what we’re seeing on the ground in communities. That is never portrayed in the media.
“It’s always ‘a couple of First Nations people agree with this, let’s go and find the one person in this group that doesn’t.’ And then it portrays them as 50-50. And it’s not to say that Indigenous people voting ‘no’ is invalid or that their voices shouldn’t be heard, it also just brings into question – why are you constantly platforming it as an equal percentage of people, when it’s not?”
Indigenous people still face disadvantage and discrimination, especially those in remote communities. They are the most incarcerated minority on Earth, percentage-wise, and face numerous disadvantages in health and welfare. Out of fifteen Closing the Gap targets, the government’s primary initiative to address inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, only 4 are on track while 4 are backsliding.
As stated by Zorz, “the Voice, and the Uluru Statement more generally, was a call from grassroots First Nations people – not just the 250 delegates who signed the statement, but the thousands of community members that were consulted and the thousands of communities that were behind them and elected them to speak on their behalf.”
In a talk about the upcoming referendum, Indigenous activist and Uluru Dialogue co-chair Pat Anderson expressed that Indigenous communities were sick of ’government box-ticking exercises’ when it came to consulting them on the policies that affect them.
Zorz too echoed this – “I think we already are seeing that the approach we have right now, where governments hand-pick people to consult [on policy], and consultation is just to tick a box, is not effective.
“We’ve supposedly got so much money and funding … but I think next to none of it gets to Community, where it’s supposed to be.”
In 2022-23, over $5.36 billion was allocated to policies specifically for Indigenous people. Under the Indigenous Languages and Arts program, a Liberal senator’s non-indigenous wife received a $214 000 grant to teach pottery in a remote Aboriginal community.
“Our communities are more focused on getting clean drinking water,” Zorz said on this, “and getting better access to food and healthcare than some random non-Indigenous senator’s wife… y’know?”
“We know what we need in our communities,” said Zorz. “The voice is about giving First Nations peoples a platform to finally have a say on the issues that affect us. It is about recognizing us and our unique place in this country, but it’s also about giving us some self-determination and power over our lives to make better outcomes for our communities.”
She referred to examples such as Walgett, a town with no access to clean water, who were simply advised to ‘let the taps run’, as she put it, until the brown water ran clear. She believed that the Voice could help Indigenous people bring Parliament’s attention to these kinds of issues, allowing them to finally advocate for effective policy solutions that will meet communities on the ground.
It’s important to note that there have been 5 different national indigenous advisory boards since 1973, all of which have been subsequently choked of funding or dissolved by successive governments. The most recent body, the National Congress of Australia’s First People (NCAFP), existed from 2009-2019. In 2013, Tony Abbott created a new entity, the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council (PMIAC) and then criticized the pre-existing NCAFP for “duplicating existing Indigenous representative advisory bodies,” apparently referring to the PMIAC. He then defunded the NCAFP in the 2014-15 budget, leaving it with insufficient funds to operate effectively. Later, the PMIAC was never formally abolished but appeared to have ’ceased operating some point after the 2019 election’.
As said on the Uluru Statement website, in reference to the Voice, “Each of the five previous mechanisms which have been set up by parliamentary processes for this purpose have been abolished by successive governments cancelling programs, policies and investment with the stroke of a pen.”
Zorz stated that this precarity has been a large roadblock in Indigenous peoples’ ability to advise on the policies that affect their lives. “We know what we need in our communities,” she said, “but we haven’t had the chance to plan out longer than a 3-year cycle.
“I mean, that’s what the Voice will give us. It will let our communities plan for the long-term, where we haven’t previously.”
Indigenous people continue to face racist treatment when engaging with healthcare systems, and many still have deep-rooted issues of trust when accessing these services due to years of discrimination and punitive treatment. A 2014 study found that nearly a third of Indigenous respondents had experienced racism in health settings in the past year.
What’s more, while the government continues to spend money on inquiries and royal commissions, it continually fails to successfully implement recommendations into policy. This was evident in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, each state implementing less than 50% of the report’s recommendations to improve outcomes for Indigenous people.
The government has a poor track record when it comes to listening to Indigenous communities. This was evident in its response to the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report, which reported widespread child sex abuse in remote NT communities. Instead of engaging with communities and implementing the recommendations of the report, which included alcohol reform, better education for Indigenous children and better employment prospects for Indigenous communities. The Federal Government ‘sent the army into communities, demanded health tests for all Indigenous children, and banned alcohol, pornography, and gambling.’ This top-down approach has not led to substantive change over 10 years later. According to Pat Anderson, one of the authors of the Little Children are Sacred report, heavy-handed approaches such as these have contributed to a sense of cynicism and distrust towards the government in communities.
Zorz told Tharunka she believed that input from the Voice could help governments and institutions to finally implement the recommendations from reports such as these.
“A ‘no’ vote is saying that we don’t care about First Nations people enough to (even) but to recognize them and their culture and their history.
“I honestly don’t think we’re going to be able to make the changes we need in our communities if the Voice doesn’t get up. Because the government won’t be compelled to listen to us and they won’t want to, because the Australian people will have said ‘no.’”