PHAA’s Administration and Memberships Officer, Amber Rowe, and CEO, Adj Prof Terry Slevin
The Voice Referendum is a compulsory vote on 14 October. All registered voters in Australia need to turn up. As a result, and as the date nears, more people are turning their mind to the referendum and what it means. Conversations are being held in homes, in social and community settings, and questions are being asked.
Some of the questions below, which have been put to a PHAA staff member in recent weeks, might make some people uncomfortable. Yes, there is deliberate misinformation behind the No campaign. But we should acknowledge that there is genuine ignorance and misunderstanding in the community about what the Voice is, how government works, and what a Voice would mean to government. There are varying views in the general community – we believe far less so in the public health community – about the Voice proposal. Our CEO, Adj Prof Terry Slevin, attempted to answer them. Maybe they will be of use for your conversations about the Voice referendum.
There has been very little information provided to the Australian public. How can the Australian Government put a question to us over something as important as changing the Constitution and refuse to give any details on how the Voice to Parliament will be established, and what its role is?
The proposed change to the Constitution is clear and succinct. In essence, it requires all future governments to have in place an organisation that allows Australia’s First Nations peoples to “make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
That is all.
Language in the Constitution must be clear in the principles it expresses, and it must be succinct. A Constitution sets out principles, values and rights. It doesn’t go into detail about how each elected government implements them. If it did, governance would be almost impossible and would detract from the democratic process. It would stop governments from evolving and adapting to the times and the circumstances. No constitution can go into detail as to how current and future governments make those principles a reality. That is not a constitution’s role.
The Australian Government spends billions of dollars annually on consultants. Is this going to be yet another cost? If the Voice is just an advisory body that makes recommendations, why do we need a referendum for it?
The problem with the growth of money spent on consultants is in no way connected to the Voice to Parliament. Successive governments have paid consulting firms to provide answers to questions in all areas of government, largely as a way of keeping the number of public servants artificially low.
A referendum is required because the Constitution states that if any changes are made to this overarching set of principles by which the national government functions, the people need to have a say in the form of a referendum.
Money spent on consultants has been about the operations of different parts of government. Furthermore, such consultants often provide advice on Indigenous Affairs when it should not concern them, because they cannot speak for communities.
It appears that the Voice is about legally splitting Aboriginal peoples from the rest of the population. Could voting yes & implementing an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament lead to some sort of sovereignty (legal or otherwise) of Aboriginal peoples? For example, as Aboriginal people own or have some form of special rights over a large proportion of Australian land, after the Voice has been instituted is it possible that overseas companies could be dealing directly with the Aboriginal owners of the land and bypassing the Australian Government?
The proposed change “recognises” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “as the First Peoples of Australia.” That is a simple historical fact. There is no sovereignty of any kind that, for Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people, that could be or will be changed as a result of establishing a Voice to Parliament. Nor is there any possibility that the Voice can influence how land is owned or controlled. The Voice can ONLY provide ADVICE. It does not in any way change anyone’s land rights anywhere in Australia.
If the Government is so intent on giving Indigenous people a Voice, then why aren’t there more Aboriginal Members of the House of Reps and the Senate (as the Labor Party have implemented with women i.e. 50% quota). The Labor Party should be doing more to increase Indigenous party membership.
The people of Australia vote to determine who are the members of the Parliament in the House of Representatives and the Senate. All political parties determine their candidates who’ll run in elections. Whoever is elected is meant to represent all of an electorate’s constituents. If that electorate is unhappy with the way they are represented, they can vote them out and vote someone else in. Any Member of Parliament who ONLY represents a small proportion of the people eligible to vote for them is unlikely to be re-elected. Aboriginal people comprise less than 4% of Australia’s population. Some may feel there should be more First Nations peoples who are put forward as candidates. But the Voice looks to enshrine a way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can simply make representations to the government on matters that affect them.
Billions of dollars per year is spent on Indigenous populations. It can be hard to find information on where the money is going. How is the Voice going to improve the transparency of this and improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?
About $30.3 billion is spent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples each year (Productivity Commission, 2016). However, it is routinely allocated by government based on what it considers to be the priority and/or the solution, instead of being informed by what communities actually need, and with solutions that they know will work. The Voice is a mechanism by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can make representations to the government to inform how the money can be better spent on community-owned solutions.
While there is no guarantee those representations will be accepted and acted upon by any current or future government, it at least ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ views are clearly stated and understood by decision makers. In so doing those people will be given the respect they deserve to make their case about the things that are important to them. It is an important and essential first step.
How does the Voice intend on improving health outcomes and crime rates for Aboriginal people in regional and remote communities?
If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ voices are given a clear opportunity to be heard, it increases the chance that funding that is allocated and policy decisions that are made will be of benefit to the people they are intended to help.
There is lots of research to show that people with less influence on key decisions that affect their lives have worse health outcomes. That has been shown for people who are poor, people who work low status jobs, people who do not have a vote, or other representation. If people can influence their own future, they tend to do better. The Voice aims to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples more influence on their own futures.
Who would pick the Voice representatives? As they have a large scope to be able to speak on issues to influence the Government, public service, and agencies and even the Reserve Bank, will all representatives have the right level of expertise and qualifications to inform decisions on this level? And what is the limit to the types of decisions they can inform? Will they be consulted on every single decision made in Parliament? This seems inefficient.
The model that has been proposed involves Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples exercising a democratic vote on who represents them through the organisation that will be known as “the Voice”. It will ensure that the many geographic and cultural groups, people from remote parts of Australia and those in the urban centres all have a say on the people who represent their views. Just as the current members of Local Government, State Parliaments and the Federal Parliament have a range of educational and vocational backgrounds, it is likely that the representatives of the Voice will also come from diverse backgrounds. Also, not all decisions made by government will have input from the Voice, only those that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
If implemented, what are the tangible outcomes that can be tracked to ensure this is making a positive difference? What happens if it is not?
There are many metrics and measures collected that allow monitoring of progress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, from health to education and many more. All of these will continue to be monitored so that progress can be identified. Where there is inadequate progress, a focus can be shifted in areas that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples consider important. That is the point of the Voice: that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can determine for themselves where the most important areas of focus and effort are required.
In conclusion, this referendum is a once in 122-year opportunity to recognise the 65,000+ years of First Peoples’ cultures in Australia’s Constitution, and to create a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. With around 20-30% of voters still undecided, we all have an important part to play in influencing the final outcome of this referendum. The biggest way we can help is by having conversations with those around us. Keep the conversation going with these helpful conversation tips and guides from the Yes23 website, and find out more with these resources from Allies for Uluru.