The Voice is good economic policy too

The Voice is about recognition, listening and making sure the billions of dollars we invest in programs are getting value for money and improving lives.  

If we’re going to make responsible investments in the future that achieve what we need and what we want for our people, our country and our community, we need the Voice to get there.

The Voice is practical, meaningful recognition that has come from First Nations peoples themselves as a means to address the disadvantage their communities experience. 

The Voice is good economic policy too.

It will help government listen to locals and direct money to where it’s needed and working. 

The latest Closing the Gap data shows that we are failing future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Just four out of 19 targets are on ‘on track’.

We’re behind on delivering a sustained reduction in suicide. 

We’re behind on increasing the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track.

And we’re behind on our targets to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in incarceration.

As my esteemed colleague and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told the National Press Club earlier this month: 

“For too long governments have made policies for Indigenous Australians, not with Indigenous Australians. We need the Voice to change that.

“We need the Voice because we need to work in partnership with communities.

“We need the Voice because we need to do better.”

All of these sentiments were backed up by the latest draft of the Productivity Commission’s review of the Closing the Gap Agreement released this week.  

The PC showed how top-down, business-as-usual approaches aren’t working.

The message is clear – we need to start listening to First Nations people about what works in their community, and what doesn’t. 

Over the nine years the Coalition was in office, the investments made in closing the gap have failed to get us on track.  

In front of us, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get better value for money from our efforts to close the gap, and to leave behind a decade of failures in public policy which have cost taxpayers more but delivered less for First Nations Australians. 

The Community Development Program is a perfect example of this – put in place by the Abbott Government in 2015. 

The CDP was meant to be an employment and training scheme that contributed to around 1000 remote Indigenous communities across Australia. 

Instead, the CDP has become a barrier to employment for many people living in remote communities, with much criticism directed at the former government for a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Linda Burney has indicated that the Voice could have a role in ensuring a reformed CDP program is more responsive to the needs of communities.

As Empowered Communities, a group representing Indigenous leaders from 10 regions across the country, put it:  

“We need a new partnership built on constitutional recognition and the Voice to move Indigenous Australians from outside of power to a place at the table of power—giving us a voice in decisions made about us.

“If we’re going to improve lives, close the gap and get better value for our investments, we’ve got to do better.”

Australian Government spending on First Nations health and welfare remains significant, going from $2.46 billion in 2012-13 to $3.69 billion in 2021-22.

In total, the Commonwealth spent $2.64 billion last financial year aimed at closing the considerable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

But these significant investments aren’t driving the significant outcomes Indigenous Australians need and deserve. 

From all of this, one conclusion is clear; what we’ve done for the last decade hasn’t worked. 

If we’re going to shift the dial on closing the gap and get better value for our investments, we’ve got to do something different.

Through listening and collaboration – the keys to good public policy – the Voice will deliver a framework for a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. 

Better policy outcomes will deliver better economic outcomes. 

If we’re going to make the most of the defining decade ahead, we need to harness the vast potential of Indigenous businesses. 

Indigenous businesses like Logan-based PPE and uniform producer Gawun Supplies in my community and Hunter-based mining and civil projects supplier Blackrock Industries already make big contributions to our economy. 

We want to see more First Nations people grasp the opportunities on offer in the more robust, resilient economy that we’re creating but we know that Indigenous Australians often face barriers to jobs and building businesses of their own.

The Voice will help us facilitate better consultation with Indigenous communities and businesses so we can replicate the kind of success that businesses like Gawun and Blackrock Industries are enjoying.

We want to see Indigenous communities thrive with more young people finishing school, finding work and starting a business and that’s what the Voice will help to facilitate.

Constitutional recognition through a Voice lights the path to a better, stronger and more united Australia. 

There is no greater chance to make a practical difference to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia than by voting ‘yes’ for the Voice. 

Through recognition and through listening, the Voice will improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians and deliver value for money on our investments.

It’s a once in a generation opportunity to move Australia towards a better future – let’s grasp it with both hands.

This article was published in The Australian on 28 July 2023.