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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Professor Marcia Langton holds the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, and was co-author (with Professor Tom Calma) of the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process report to the Morrison government. She has been a fighter for rights and progress for Indigenous Australians for decades, and she’s one of those at the centre of the yes campaign for the Voice. Her own voice is always forthright and formidable.

Langton admits she isn’t “entirely confident” where the referendum stands at the moment but is more positive as the debate continues. “I’ve been gauging the response of the general public by reading a lot and having a look at the social media, and I think most people can see that this is a very simple and modest proposition and that it will make a difference. And what I’m seeing more and more is most people realising, yes, well, why don’t Indigenous people have a say about policies and the laws that affect them?

“They realise when they think about it that this has gone on for too long, where all of these laws and policies that seem to be universally ineffective in closing the gap, and causing more suffering, have been imposed on us by non-Indigenous people. […] I think most people are still very embarrassed about the Northern Territory intervention initiated by John Howard.”

While Langton admits she doesn’t agree with Julian Leeser’s preference to alter the proposed wording of the constitutional change, she believes Leeser – who has quit the opposition frontbench to campaign for the yes case – has shown “integrity and decency of the kind that most Australians aspire to. You can see from the response that he’s getting from across the political spectrum that he’s now even more respected for his stance.”

One key issue in the debate about the Voice is how extensive will be the issues on which it would be able to make representations.

Langton says a point “widely misunderstood […] is that the voice will be a statutory body. And like any other statutory body, it should be treated according to the standards of non-discrimination. If no other statutory body is restricted on the basis of race or gender or age in making representations to government, then to restrict the Voice in making such representations could be seen as racially discriminatory.”

A key question being asked is how people will be selected to represent their communities. Langton says: “We have to accommodate an already existing Indigenous governance landscape. So across the country we have an enormous number of existing bodies, none of which have any assured way of advising governments. None of them are provided with a formal way to advise governments. I’ll give you two examples.

“One is the Torres Strait Regional Authority. And the other is the ACT Indigenous elected assembly. Now, indeed, both of them can give advice to the state governments, and that’s a good thing. But they don’t sit in an integrated framework. […] We developed a set of principles for the creation of such bodies as the Indigenous voice arrangements.

“Those principles are:

  • Empowerment
  • inclusive participation
  • cultural leadership
  • community-led design
  • non-duplication and links with existing bodies
  • respecting long-term partnerships
  • transparency and accountability
  • capability driven data
  • evidence based decision making.

“Those are the principles, and it was our preference that those principles be legislated so that each body that is created, should we be successful, complies with those principles.”

A major point for debate around The Voice is whether it will deliver practical outcomes. Langton illustrates by example.

“As for the kinds of problems that the Voice would be able to tackle much more effectively than governments, I give you the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first people to respond effectively, long before governments did so, were the Indigenous health organisations […] The Indigenous community-controlled health sector leaders had dealt with two epidemics in recent history and one in particular had a very high mortality rate. So in response to that, the Indigenous health sector wrote an epidemic plan, and that was about ten years old, but it was easily revised to become the pandemic plan. So they went straight into action when we began to hear the news from overseas about COVID-19.”

“So who was first to close their borders? Not the states and territories. It was the Aboriginal landowners on advice from the Indigenous health sector that closed their borders to stop travel in and out of Aboriginal lands to keep their populations safe.

“Because the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19 were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations with pre-existing health burdens such as chronic diseases, diabetes, kidney disease and so on.

“We expected, you know, an enormous death toll in the Indigenous community, we expected at least 3% of the indigenous population to contract the disease. 27,701 cases was the prediction.

“But because the Indigenous health sector rushed to implement the pandemic plan and set up a national taskforce with public health advisories that went out across our media sector, translated into at least 18 languages, we were able to stop the deaths. And so in the first year of the pandemic, I think we had one death as opposed to 27,000. And so we were the most successful group in the world, I would argue, in preventing COVID-19 from taking lives. So up until January 2021, there were only 148 cases of COVID among Indigenous people nationwide, 15% hospitalisations, one case in ICU and no deaths. And there were no deaths in remote communities and no cases associated with the Black Lives Matter marches because of our public health advisories.

“So I think that’s, you know, a very good example, of why Indigenous people in control of their own affairs is much more effective than governments. And we can see the terrible mistakes that governments across the country made, even though they were advised by the very best of our epidemiologists, is because they don’t have the reach into the local population that our Indigenous health sector has.”

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Politics with Michelle Grattan: Professor Marcia Langton on the Voice’s powers and potential –