How the Voice can help narrow the digital gap

In 2023, access to reliable internet, mobile coverage and decent radio signal is something many of us take for granted.

But make no mistake: it’s absolutely essential – just like electricity and running water.

Digital inclusion is the gateway to economic and social inclusion and opportunity: it keeps us connected with family and friends, helps us run businesses, and access services like tele-health when we need it.

But the truth is, while technology has brought many of us closer together, for some Australians the digital revolution is only causing further isolation.

There is a significant digital gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index provides data and ranks cohorts of Australians using a score of 0 to 100 to measure levels of digital inclusion across society.

While overall digital inclusion across Australia sits at around 73.0, the data shows a 7.5 gap for First Nations people.

When you drill down further into the data, those figures get worse: mapped against other Australians living in comparable remote and very remote parts of Australia, the gap blows out to around 21.0 and 23.0 respectively.

Where access to digital technologies sets at around 72.0 nationally, access for First Nations people living in remote communities sits in the high 30s.

These gaps remain despite overall rates of digital inclusion improving.

It’s clear the current approach isn’t shifting the dial enough.

Despite efforts of successive governments of all persuasions with the best of intentions and ongoing partnerships within the telco industry, we aren’t Closing the Gap.

Part of the problem is because we haven’t been listening to communities to find out what they need and to explore the solutions that will work for them.

There’s no point selling plans and products to First Nations customers in remote communities they don’t want, need or can’t afford.

Or rolling out technology without providing the support to locals to get the digital literacy skills they need to use the technology – particularly where users speak a language other than English.

I hear this time and time again from First Nations communities across the country – from Palm Island, to Port Augusta, to Yolngu peoples working in and around Darwin.

Making change means doing something different – and it starts with listening.

And that’s what the Voice to Parliament is all about.

The Voice is a simple and modest proposition that came from First Nations people: it’s about advice.

It will be a committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across Australia who will advise Government on matters that affect them.

It would mean local ideas and solutions coming from the bottom up – not the other way around.

By putting it in the Constitution, we are giving it the stability and independence to give frank advice, without having to navigate election cycles.

Listening means investing in the infrastructure local communities actually want and need.

It means funding solutions and services that make sense for each community.

It means a more efficient use of taxpayer and industry investment, which saves money in the longer term.

In my portfolio, it would mean we can finally start to close the digital divide.

That’s why I’ll be voting Yes to the Voice, and yes to making a difference.

The status quo just isn’t working, and we’re at risk of leaving First Nations communities behind.

For a wealthy, modern and tech-savvy country like Australia, that’s an outcome we should never accept.

Greater digital inclusion has the potential to transform communities through e-commerce, keep traditional stories, customary practices and languages alive through technology, and boost access to essential medical and educational services online.

We have an opportunity to work collaboratively, to combine the latest technology with the insights and local knowledge of the world’s oldest continuous culture, and to deliver economic and social opportunities for all Australians.

But it all starts by saying Yes.

This piece appeared in the Newcastle Herald on 31 August 2023.