The intent of the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament is to elevate and strengthen our input across the country in laws, policies and programs that will impact Indigenous Australians.
A crucial question is how exactly the Voice process will proceed gather input from local and regional Voices and turn them all over to the federal parliament.
The question of the design of these representative systems is crucial. Opposition leader Peter Dutton called the current plan a “Canberra Voice” in his announcement last week that the Liberal Party opposes the proposal.
But while we disagree, this is a reason to be completely against the Voice, but this position does highlight the question of how the Voice can be truly representative of the many people who deserve to be heard.
Read more: The Voice: what is it, where did it come from and what can it achieve?
The Kimberley region in northwestern Australia is far from Canberra. Indigenous people here want assurance that our voice will be carried to the national capital and that our uniqueness as a region will be respected.
Regional and distant voices are often not heard
The voice co design report recommends:
local and regional Voices would provide advice to all levels of government to influence policies and programs, and advise the non-government sector and industry.
But the effectiveness of governments in delivering solutions on the ground in remote Indigenous communities has been patchy at best.
Aboriginal communities in remote New South Wales were left without food and medical supplies during the pandemic. And in the KimberlyAboriginal communities and organizations were excluded from COVID-related planning and decision-making processes.
The impact of the recent floods in downtown Kimberley was made even more catastrophic by a lack of coordinated planning between local, state, and federal agencies.
Hundreds of people living along the Fitzroy River were left homeless by the disaster and their trauma was compounded by pre-existing levels of overcrowding in the remote town of Fitzroy Crossing.
Politics in the Kimberley
The cultural and political landscape of the Kimberley is rich and complex. More than 93% of the region is now covered by 41 native title provisions. Most of these provisions reflect different land areas, language groups and histories – and each has its own legally established organization.
The big question for this region – and other remote areas across Australia – is how a vote of parliament can capture the diversity of aspirations of different Indigenous groups in a way that respects Indigenous political organisation, and is truly inclusive and representative.
This question is not new. Indigenous peoples in Australia have a long history of continued efforts by governments to incorporate Indigenous input into local and regional development priorities.
As such, the Kimberley now has one decades of history of the call for a good form of regional representation. Various models of regional governance have been proposed since the late 1970s, and some have been realized.
But if the Voice referendum produces a yes vote, it will be the first time such regional governance frameworks have been permanently implemented.
Stability in this regard would be welcomed by regional leaders. But the durability of these models makes it even more important that their design reflects local and regional ways of working signs up the existing evidence show what works and what doesn’t.
In recent decades, the problem has not been that indigenous peoples do not have the ability to “advise” governments. Rather, the mechanics of actually delivering solutions on the ground in remote Indigenous Australia have been far from straightforward.
There are no incentives for many agencies – in local, state and government jurisdictions – to identify duplication of programs or to consider whether to invest resources in minimizing the burden their demands for consultation place on remote communities.
Meanwhile, remote communities, especially in the Kimberley, are falling through the cracks in terms of delivery of services. Many people have persistent problems with basic needs such as housing, water And electricity.
This is clearly a failure of delivery rather than consultation, as it should be clear to everyone that communities want safe and functional homes to live in.
How the proposed Voice could draw on regional representation
Australia already has many First Nations organizations operating as regional entities. Some of them are ongoing, such as the Torres Strait Regional Authorityand the Murdi Paki Regional Assembly in northwestern NSW.
How the Voice will interact with the existing regional mechanisms is not yet clear. But, as delegates at the 2017 Uluru Dialogues made clear, it should follow a principle of subsidiarity, whereby a central Voice authority should only perform those tasks that cannot be done at a more local level.
Read more: First Nations people have made a case for ‘truth telling’. By recognizing its past, Australia can finally help improve our future
What is certain is that if The Voice is to prove its worth, it must prioritize practical results and reduce bureaucratic duplication at all levels of government that deliver programs to Indigenous Australians.
A mechanism that allows clear articulation of aspirations from the ground is only one side of the equation. The other is a coordinated response from all levels of government to those ambitions.