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HomeIssue 39Pat Turner AM: Australian Government is kicking the can down the road...

Pat Turner AM: Australian Government is kicking the can down the road on the Voice to Parliament

For Australia to have a strong human rights leg to stand on when it comes to engaging with other countries on their records – for instance, China on its treatment of the Uighurs – it needs to do a whole lot better in its relationship with its own Indigenous peoples.

This would require full implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, announced with fanfare by Prime Minister Scott Morrison together with Pat Turner AM, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

And it would require meaningful progress on enshrining the Voice to Parliament in the Australian constitution – a demand of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart that Indigenous Australians be heard on laws affecting them. The ‘Voice’ process now unfolding is convoluted and flawed, lacking in transparency and accountability, especially to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This is the view of Ms Turner expressed in the annual “Australia and the World” lecture, delivered to the National Press Club this week. Alice Springs born and raised, daughter of an Arrernte man and a Gurdanji woman, for decades now she has worked on policy at a national level.

The following is an edited version of her lecture, prepared by Kieran Finnane.



Australia is lagging behind other liberal democratic nations with Indigenous minorities, when it comes to having structures that ensure Indigenous peoples they will always be properly heard by the relevant nation state:

In Canada, section 35 of its Constitution recognises the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to self-government.  

There are currently 25 self-government agreements in operation across Canada. A further 50 or so negotiations are ongoing and in many cases are being negotiated in conjunction with modern treaties.

In New Zealand, the signature [of] the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 was followed by its dismissal by the British colonists. They failed and the Maori were not silenced.

The 1975 decision of the New Zealand Parliament to establish the Waitangi Tribunal reinvigorated the treaty process and led to a swathe of negotiated settlements and compensation packages. That process is ongoing.

In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, the Sami people have access to their own elected Parliaments, sub-national bodies with subsidiary functions to promote political initiatives for Sami and to carry out the administrative tasks delegated from national authorities.

These structures do not, of themselves, resolve the differences between the dominant and the Indigenous peoples. But they do provide a mechanism where those differences can be articulated, considered, and ultimately addressed.

Australia does not have these mechanisms but should have.    

Apart from the ethical arguments in favour of alignment with other liberal democracies, there are pragmatic reasons for Indigenous Australians to be properly heard: Australia’s capacity to project influence and shape external events is, to a significant extent, a function of how we are perceived by the international community.

One of the most obvious and oft-used metrics is Australia’s racist past and its current treatment of its First Nations peoples.

The men, and they were all men, who drafted our Constitution overwhelmingly held views we consider racist today. Our Constitution was, and continues to be, a document built upon racist foundations.

How can we confidently raise concerns about human rights, whether it be the treatment of Uighurs in China, or the death penalty in Iran, or mass incarceration and police over-reach in the US, or the restraints on freedom of expression in Hong Kong, while failing to hear the cries of Indigenous Australians for justice, fairness, and equality?

The response from government to the Uluru Statement was, once again, not to hear our cry, reinforcing and confirming the torment of our powerlessness, to borrow a phrase from the Statement.  

But we persist. We always do.

Achieving national agreement on Closing the Gap

 In late 2018, a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak organisations – covering health, legal services, child protection, native title, land, disability, healing and education – joined together to be heard on Closing the Gap.

Closing the Gap is the headline government policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, initially agreed only among Australian Governments in 2008. Its aim is to achieve equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with other Australians.   

 It is a policy that governments say is for us, about us, but until now we have had no formal way of having a genuine say and being heard.

To his credit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison heard us. He agreed that we needed an urgent and different approach.

Without strong and public leadership from a Prime Minister, the task for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be heard is that much harder, nearly impossible.

The Prime Minister led the Council of Australian Governments, as it was then, to agree to a formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled representatives to share decision-making on Closing the Gap. 

We formed the Coalition of Peaks. That Coalition now has over fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders community-controlled member organisations spanning our key interests across the country.   

It was formed on our terms, as an act of self-determination.

We decide our own membership criteria, we set our own rules for how we operate and make decisions, and we have our own secretariat that is accountable to us, providing policy advice furthering our interests, not that of governments.

None of the Coalition of Peaks members or the people who are at the table, sit as individuals. We are accountable to our boards and our members, and we act in their interests.

We were not chosen by nor are we accountable to government – a critical precondition for Indigenous peoples being heard.

Together with all Australian governments, including local government, the Coalition of Peaks negotiated two vitally important Agreements, committing governments to change the way they work with us:

the Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap, which commenced in March 2019, and cements the partnership agreed to by COAG;

and the National Agreement on Closing the Gap which was negotiated under the Partnership Agreement and was launched on 30 July this year by the Prime Minister and me.    

This is the first time that intergovernmental agreements have been agreed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives.

The National Agreement does not include everything the Coalition of Peaks wanted, nor everything our people need. It was a negotiation after all.

However, it does include historic commitments that go to Indigenous peoples being heard and to strengthening the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sectors to deliver services and programs to our people. 

It is increasingly accepted that our community-controlled organisations get better engagement, deliver better outcomes and employ more of our people.

What is less understood is why.

The community-controlled sector is built on Indigenous people being heard.

The National Agreement also includes new levels of accountability on governments and a high degree of transparency for the way they work with us.

However, words are never enough: the National Agreement on Closing the Gap still has to be implemented.   

And in the meantime, there are several high-profile instances where Indigenous voices are still being ignored, set aside, and not heard.

But Indigenous voices still being ignored

The recent decision by Rio Tinto to destroy the caves at the Juukan Gorge, and the failure of both the Western Australian and Commonwealth governments to protect this site of international significance continues to reverberate.

While the Senate inquiry is welcome, Indigenous peoples are yet to be provided with a convincing explanation of how and why our voices were ignored – not just by Rio Tinto but also by the responsible Indigenous and non-Indigenous cabinet ministers. 

That site, like so many others, is now gone. It cannot be replaced.

The pain and suffering are magnified because those landowners responsible for the country were not heard.

While the Western Australian government is reviewing its legislation, there is no formal way for Aboriginal people to be heard properly and to share decisions on a draft Bill to protect our heritage

Aboriginal people are being treated like any other stakeholder and on a similar basis as the mining industry but without the resources or political clout that the mining industry has in its dealings with governments. 

The next key example is the Commonwealth government’s latest response to the cry for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

It is high on rhetoric and well-rehearsed: co-design, empowerment, doing things with us, rather than to us. But if we look closely, the practice continues to be poles apart.  

After the initial rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, what is now unfolding is a convoluted and flawed process.

This process involves government selecting its own advisers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, three separate committees, including a Senior Advisory Group, with potentially overlapping roles, and terms of reference that impose limits on wider discussion by participants.

I am one of those individuals appointed to the Senior Advisory Group.

That we are there as individuals – not representing or accountable to our own constituencies, organisations, membership or cultural groups – appointed by the government – to support the Minister – immediately compromises the strength of our voices.

The secretariat support for the groups – steering the process – is provided by the Commonwealth National Indigenous Australians Agency, which is accountable to the government.  

It is important to note that these arrangements are not consistent with the commitments from governments to shared decision-making in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

It is true that the Minister for Indigenous Australians has committed publicly to an engagement process with our peoples and other Australians on models for the Voice.

But the options that will be put for a national conversation will be decided by the government, not by us, and final decision making on our Voice is to occur behind closed doors by government. 

Further, the model being envisaged by government is not one that is constitutionally enshrined, not one that would speak to Parliament and is unlikely to be based in legislation. 

It would be a Voice that speaks to government.  

How this intersects with the partnership structures set up under Closing the Gap and how it will work with the now well-established role of the Coalition of Peaks is not clear and needs to be openly discussed.

It is also not clear, and needs to be openly discussed, how another Voice to government will intersect with the roles and relationships of our already many voices to government, that have been established over decades, and strengthened since the demise of ATSIC.

There are many voices to government: CLC delegates 2016.  A Voice to the parliament would be different. Archive photo, supplied.

This includes Land Councils, the National Native Title Council and Representative Bodies and other community-controlled peak bodies, like NACCHO and SNAICC (the national voice for our children). It also includes the many regional governance models that have been established.   

What will happen to these dedicated, expert subject matter, and regionally based voices? Will government get to pick and choose whose voice it listens to, when and on what, leading to a silencing of some.

We were not asked about ‘Voice to government’ model

A compelling case for shifting away from a Voice to Parliament to a Voice to government has not been made. It was a decision by the government, and we were not asked or involved. 

Most concerning of all is the risk of considerable division arising between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in respect to the government’s Voice – and this is unacceptable.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being able to negotiate with governments to agree on an outcome has happened before in Australia, when the Native Title legislation was negotiated in 1993 and of course on the Partnership and National Agreements on Closing the Gap. 

However, notwithstanding the new partnership being heralded, it is not happening in respect to the government led process for establishing its Voice.

 I am reminded of my schooldays, watching boys kick empty cans down a dusty road in Central Australia. 

As I see it, we must address three key challenges.

The first challenge relates to the full implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which is binding on all governments.

The commitments within those Agreements require a complete overhaul of the way governments do business.

 Every policy proposal must start with the question: how does this meet the obligations in the National Agreement?

Anything less is a failure to deliver on the potential in the National Agreement.

The second challenge relates to the proposal on a Voice.

Indigenous peoples must always choose our own representatives. And those representatives must negotiate and agree with governments on a model that will give rise to our genuine voice.

The third challenge is to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a challenge I apply to myself.

To seize the opportunity in front of us, we must act in our collective interests.

We are the best form of accountability, and we must hold governments to account.

In considering how we take forward the government’s proposal for a Voice, we must openly debate the options in front of us.

We cannot be single minded, rejecting or talking down the efforts or ideas of others. A pursuit of a singular vision will only limit what is possible.

Anything less will leave us vulnerable to a short-term structure that can be dismantled following an election or the receipt of uncomfortable advice.

My uncle, Charles Perkins, who was also my mentor, never lived a comfortable life.

Charlie was a fearless spokesperson. He said what needed to be said, at the time it needed to be said.

His life was uncomfortable, and he made all Australians uncomfortable.

But progress was made because all of us were prepared to listen and respond.

If First Nations peoples are not able to be heard, Australia will continue to be diminished at home and in the world.

Images: At top, the forecourt to the Australian Parliament, featuring the mosaic based on the painting, Possum and Wallaby Dreaming, by Michael Nelson Jagamarra, image sourced from the APH website. • Photos of Pat Turner AM, supplied.



  1. Pat, you were the CEO of ATSIC in 1995. When it was created by Paul Keating in 1990 it was known as the Black Parliament, the national voice for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
    It was created by Federal government statute.
    CEOs Bill Gray, Peter Shergold, your goodself and Mr Clark had the perfect opportunity over the next 17 years to unite all First Nation Indigenous Australians to cement that institution within the fabric of Australian government to advance your peoples’ very best interests.
    This did not happen and ATSIC crashed and burned in the ashes of lost opportunity.
    In light of your experience in this failed model of self government, my question to you is – what model of self government do you now propose? The Canadian model?
    If you make demands on the Federal government to step up to the plate with an agreement, do you think it is incumbent on you to have a proposed model that you plan to put in place? To put to the government and to the Australian people?

  2. You and your mob have had 232 years to form some sort of alliance with “white” Australia.
    Italians, Greeks, French, Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Germans, Bolivians etc, etc, etc have all blended in and have been absolutely accepted by the people of Australia.
    What makes you and your mob so hell bent on forming your own government?
    Australia already has a government for ALL of us and that includes you. I have lived and worked in west New South Wales, outback West Australia, North of South Australia, Central Australia, North East Northern Territory and Arnhem Land and may I suggest you start cleaning up your communities, demand your children attend school, encourage a work ethic and make sobriety the number one on your list of things to achieve.
    If these comments give you a feeling of guilt, thank me and take on the tasks listed above. Forget about the head in the clouds self government nightmare.


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