The economic case for a Voice to Parliament

The moral case for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament is powerful. It is an opportunity to recognise that Australia is home to the longest continuing culture in the world – two thousand generations of Indigenous Australians have lived on our continent.

But there is also an economic argument for constitutional recognition. Put simply, policies work better when policy makers listen to those people who are affected.

This isn’t just a theory. When schools are updating playgrounds they talk to the P&C committee. When councils are considering new developments, they speak with neighbours to get their views. When state governments are updating bus routes, they ask commuters to find out the underserved areas. When the federal government is designing tax policies, we meet with stakeholders to avoid unintended consequences. The point is decisions and outcomes are better when we listen to people.

As a federal member of parliament, I’ve expanded the consultation with my community from more conventional approaches, such as street stalls and emails, to new engagement strategies, including telephone town halls and deliberative forums. When I was first elected, I thought consultation was mostly about helping my constituents. I soon came to recognise that I gained just as much, and became a more effective member of parliament through listening.

Plenty of consultation is top-down. As Assistant Minister for Charities, I organised town hall meetings across Australia to consult with charities about our plans to build community. But there is a desire from the community to have their voices heard.

That’s the case for the Voice to Parliament, which originated from the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 449-word statement that included the words ‘We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.’

What will a Voice to Parliament advise upon? Like any other committee it will be guided by the needs of the communities it represents. When I speak with my electors, they don’t spend much time asking about British politics, the latest Pizza Hut menu or whether we prefer Barbie to Super Mario Bros. Instead, the focus is on things that the national government can affect, including infrastructure, childcare and wages.

A First Nations Voice to Parliament is about advice and will take the same practical approach.

Putting the Voice in the Constitution gives it stability and independence. This means the Voice can give frank advice, without getting caught up in election cycles.

Knowing that they have finite resources, the Voice will be concerned with matters related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Health. Jobs. Schooling. Housing.

If you want to know what the priorities of a Voice to Parliament will be, the best place to start is the nineteen Closing the Gap targets. In the latest update, just four of the nineteen Closing the Gap targets are ‘on track’, eleven targets are ‘not on track’, and four targets can’t assess a trend.

Successive governments’ failures to Close the Gap are costing the entire community. There is an eight-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. There are poorer education and health outcomes. Each statistic represents human suffering, but there is a cost to our society as well.

We can go through each of the Closing the Gap targets and reach the same conclusion. Access to schooling helps children grow and provides them with opportunities where they can fulfil their potential, and be productive citizens. Higher levels of Indigenous employment adds to the tax base.

Healthier Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people means less cost to our hospital system.

The best reason for Closing the Gap is that it’s the right thing to do. But it also has an economic payoff. Without listening to those most affected, we’re less likely to find solutions that work. We’re all better off when government doesn’t spend money on programs that aren’t working.

So if you want a fairer society, vote yes. If you want a healthier democracy, vote yes. If you want your tax dollars spent wisely, vote yes. And if you want a strong economy, then there’s only one answer on polling day. Vote yes.

Originally published in the West Australian on 30 August 2023.