Indigenous Voice Risks Perpetuating A Long History Of Failure

An opinion piece published in The Australian, March 4, 2023

In Noel Pearson’s recent article in The Weekend Australian, “Conservatives eat their own words on voice” (25-26/2), he argues the concept was born from constitutional conservatives who he now describes as characteristically “fickle”.

The concept may have begun in 2014 as a collaboration between constitutional conservatives and Indigenous leaders but with the help of a senior adviser on the voice committee, Marcia Langton, it has morphed into an entity she argues should compel government to listen to it, otherwise it would be a “toothless tiger”.

Contrary to Anthony Albanese’s suggestion that it wouldn’t have the power to challenge government in the High Court, Langton is adamant that is exactly what it should be able to do. No constitutional conservative in their right mind could now support such a concept.

Pearson might find it cathartic to attack conservatives he claims once backed the concept of the voice, but his comments fail to argue what he perceives to be the merits of this gargantuan race-based constitutional change.

He once supported my fight to maintain the cashless debit card for vulnerable Australians – now abolished by the government he supports on the voice. He has since publicly denigrated my opposition to the voice.

At least the conservatives he has expressed disappointment in provide a sound argument to the dangers of the Yes vote; as opposed to making personal attacks.

Contrary to the argument by voice proponents that Aboriginal Australia has been “voiceless” and needs an overarching entity to hold parliament and executive government to account, Pearson himself is among those who have had a seat at the table for decades.

He has been a key player in the Indigenous policy space since the early 1990s. Through the establishment of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership during 2011 to 2016 alone his efforts have attracted more than $47m in government funding for the design and implementation programs to advance communities.

Pearson has had the ear of many prime ministers of both Labor and Coalition governments over the decades. His has been a prominent voice to parliament, despite never taking the opportunity to run for a seat himself.

Another proponent of the voice, Pat Turner, who is currently the head of the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations – a body many would consider is a voice to parliament – has also in her own words, “held senior leadership positions in government, business and academia for more than 40 years, and had extensive experience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs”.

In fact, over those decades her roles included deputy secretary of the Department for Aboriginal Affairs, deputy secretary for Prime Minister and Cabinet which oversaw the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation; chief executive of the now dismantled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission for four years, senior managerial positions in Centrelink and the Department of Health, and chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations body since 2016. As head of NACCHO, Turner has been responsible for the delivery of services to the tune of more than $27m in grants funding.

In more recent times, Turner’s influence on federal parliament has ensured a redesigned Closing the Gap process. During the 2023 anniversary of the apology, she presented a fresh set of plans. Addressing the entire senior executive of the Albanese government she exclaimed, “we know that outcomes for our people can be much better when central agencies are playing a leadership role”. With her influence, Turner has convinced the Albanese government to increase investment toward Closing the Gap by $242m.

She has been a vocal advocate for more financial investment into Aboriginal disadvantage despite the more than $30bn investment made year in, year out, regardless of who’s in power.

In a recent interview with ABC’s 7.30 Turner argued that governments fail to invest and that a voice to parliament would, “keep on saying what we’ve been saying for decades, ever since we’ve all been involved because of the lack of investment by governments”.

Turner goes on to say that, “having a voice won’t stop the need for the investment by governments in programs – governments still have to do that”. In other words, the voice is not a new approach to solving disadvantage but simply the current framework of voices that exist in various different “central agencies”, corporations, advisory committees, land councils – and so on – that will be embedded within our Constitution.

These are examples of merely two influential voices to parliament, but there are many more. Within parliament itself, four very senior Aboriginal parliamentarians – minister Linda Burney, senator Malarndirri McCarthy, senator Patrick Dodson and member for Lingiari Marion Scrymgour – now argue a constitutional amendment is the answer to Closing the Gap.

What does it tell us that these four members of parliament who have 65 years of collective experience within state, territory and federal parliaments both in opposition and in government as Indigenous Australians now argue a voice to parliament is the only answer?

If we want to make a difference in the lives of our most marginalised, we have to begin by putting a stop to treating Aboriginal Australians differently.

The structures that have existed and failed, despite the billions of dollars of investment, are systems that have been built on the ideological premise that Aboriginal Australians are to be treated differently and separately and are inherently disadvantaged as a result of racial heritage.

The abovementioned powerful voices are clear evidence that any human who can gain an education can take advantage of what our nation has to offer and this is not a determination of race. None of these leaders required a voice to parliament to succeed.

In 2016 the Centre for Independent Studies uncovered that of 1082 Indigenous-specific programs identified in a review of government and non-government programs, only 88
(8 per cent) had been evaluated. And of those programs that were evaluated, few used methods that actually provided evidence of the program’s effectiveness.

On the whole, Indigenous evaluations are characterised by a lack of data and an over-reliance on anecdotal evidence.

I will continue to argue that we need to forensically audit the current systems that have been funded to “close the gap” to determine the successes and discard the failures. As long as an industry exists to “close the gap”, the gap will not close.

Constitutionally enshrining the very voices that exist within the structures that perpetuate the ideological notion that Aboriginal Australians are inherently disadvantaged, is constitutionally enshrining failure.