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Why The Voice will lead to better government decision-making

Cathy Freeman takes stand on Voice

Olympic champion Cathy Freeman has called on “all Australians” to vote Yes for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament while declaring her support.

Why The Voice will lead to better government decision-making

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament will result in systemic and sustainable change in government decision-making and policy formulation affecting First Nations peoples. Here are four reasons why.

This article concentrates on the proposed new section 129(ii) of the Constitution, which provides that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice ‘may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’.

There are four ways the Voice will improve government decision-making.

Inclusion and cultural authority in government decision‑making

Peter Shergold, a distinguished career public servant, wrote of these as ‘wickedly‑complex’ issues and asserted ‘yet, after two decades, the scale of relative disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians remained as intractable as ever. I can think of no failure in public policy that has had such profound consequences’. As two centuries of poor outcomes of law and government policy have shown, existing institutional structures are inadequate to formulate and bring change for First Nations peoples.

First Nations peoples have a myriad of different lived experiences – ranging from their connections to country and life in communities that are out-station, remote, regional, or urban. Likewise, the needs of Aboriginal communities can differ from those of Torres Strait Islanders. Similarly, individuals impacted by the Stolen Generation policies will have unique needs, especially as they age and may face the prospect of institutionalised care where there has been a lifelong distrust of institutions.

Best‑practice policy formulation and decision‑making about any particular group in society should only occur after extensive consultation with diverse representatives of that group. This sentiment has been articulated as ‘nothing about us, without us’.

As a matter of institutional logic, there needs to be a national mechanism to advise the national government. After all, the famously successful 1967 referendum gave the national government power to make laws concerning First Nations peoples. Any alternative proposal for local and regional voices would therefore be incomplete and unbalanced.

The executive currently has the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) as part of the public service. The NIAA was created by an Executive Order signed by the Governor‑General on 29 May 2019, and could just as easily be abolished. We saw this with the repeal of legislation for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

Equally ineffective is the suggestion that First Nations individuals and communities have the capacity to make representations themselves directly to the relevant government department. Rather, the Voice would be an institution that has the time, resources, and knowledge of how to navigate the government.

Evidence-based government decision‑making

The second way the Voice can improve government decision‑making is to embed a best evidence‑based approach to policy formulation. In Australia, the public service values mandate all public servants to be impartial (amongst other values). Impartiality is explained as requiring the public service to be ‘apolitical’ and to provide the government with ‘advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence’.

The Voice provides a mechanism to ensure that policies and decisions affecting First Nations peoples are founded on information that is the best and latest available and is also ‘place-based’. Rather than policy being developed and founded on ad‑hoc or anecdotal consultations, the Voice will create a structural change. The existence of The Voice will dissuade any ‘top-down’ policy formulation or decision‑making and prevent reliance on organisations or individuals that match policy agendas.

Trust in government decision‑making

The third way the Voice can improve government decision‑making is by increasing trust in government. This is a two-directional proposition. The first direction is the trust held by First Nations peoples towards the government. This has been low, given that it is eroded by a history of lived experience in policy failures and poor individual decisions. The second direction is the self‑belief of public servants that real and meaningful policy reform is possible and that they can effectively implement it.

Trust in government and the structures created for society, such as parliament, the judiciary and the executive, remains fundamental to the existence of democracies. As the recent Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme explored, our institutions are the bedrock of stability in governance.

The Voice will be able to perform an advocacy role at the highest levels of the executive and will build capacity towards self‑determination as centrally enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart acknowledges, there is a transformative potential in the Voice to ’empower our people’ to ‘take a rightful place in our own country’ and that ‘when we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish’.

Accountability in government decision‑making

A final way the Voice can improve government decision‑making is through improved accountability for government decisions. As Megan Davis explained:

A Voice … will not be another layer of bureaucracy, rather a Voice that will hold the bureaucracy to account, that will reduce waste and make sure policies actually work.

The Voice would advocate that government money be spent in ways that deliver practical outcomes to First Nations peoples. The Voice would facilitate the removal of layers from the bureaucracy (such as the NIAA) and provide a direct and rapid avenue for feedback and refinement of government policies and decision‑making.

Conclusion

This analysis has articulated exactly how the Voice will result in systemic and sustainable change in government decision-making and policy formulation affecting First Nations peoples. The Voice will be able to have a direct, practical, and long‑term effect on the lives of First Nations peoples. Better policies lead to better decision-making and measurable outcomes for First Nations peoples and communities. The Voice will enhance Australian democracy and improve the executive’s ability and legitimacy to engage appropriately with First Nations peoples.

A longer version of this article was first published Sep 14, 2023 in the AusPubLaw Blog
Narelle Bedford

Narelle Bedford, is a Yuin woman and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law at Bond University. Her area of expertise is Administrative Law, concentrating on all forms of accountability over government decision-making. Prior to academia, she was Judge’s Associate, and a public servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Attorney-General’s Department.

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