Dr Terri Janke, Professor Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, Geoffrey Winters and Denise Bowden laugh together at the front of a lecture theatre

Indigenous leaders support a Voice

29 September 2023
Proposed body to build on success of First Nations-led policymaking
The Voice is an opportunity to realise at a national scale the proven benefits of community-driven policymaking, say a panel of Indigenous leaders convened by the Sydney Policy Lab.
Uncle Michael West from the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council speaks into a microphone

Uncle Michael West, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council

Uncle Michael West invited the audience “to learn, to think, and ask the questions you need to” as he welcomed guests to Gadigal country on Monday evening, just three weeks out from the Voice to Parliament referendum.

The panel, chaired by Wuthathi, Yadhaighana and Meriam woman and lawyer, Dr Terri Janke, drew on each panellist’s experience leading Indigenous organisations.

Geoffrey Winters, a Kamilaroi man and CEO of Just Reinvest NSW, shared the success of giving Aboriginal young people in Mount Druitt the lead on policy making as they worked together to address problems with the criminal justice system.

The more we can move along the process of making decisions closer to those affected by the outcomes, the better.
Geoffrey Winters, Just Reinvest NSW CEO

Winters believes a Voice to Parliament will “start to sand away at this very abrasive relationship between Aboriginal Australia and society”.

“We're not trying to amplify the voice of Indigenous people, we're trying to fix the hearing of non-Indigenous people,” reflected Professor Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, Yorta Yorta woman and Elizabeth Todd Chair of Vocal Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

When soprano and composer Professor Cheetham Fraillon established Australia’s first Indigenous opera company, she found non-Indigenous people were as enriched by the work as her Indigenous collaborators and audiences. “Not only are our people richer for the experience, but audiences who keep coming back time and time again and telling me they are richer for that experience,” she said.

We can change so much by adding our voices to the mix. I’ll vote yes on the fourteenth because it is a step in the right direction to have our people in the room.
Professor Deborah Cheetham Fraillon

For Denise Bowden, a descendent of the Tagalak people who was born on Jawoyn country and is now CEO of Yothu Yindi Foundation and Director of the Garma Festival, the Voice would be an “investment and a saving at the same time”.

Denise Bowden, CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, speaking into a microphone

Denise Bowden, CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation

She highlighted the success of the Dilak Council, a cultural authority and decision-making body that has brought together thirteen clan groups in northeast Arnhem Land for thousands of years. “We're getting 80% school attendance rates at our school and we had to wrestle that away from government,” she said.

If you believe in the community and the community is telling you this is the way we would like to operate, then go with the flow, don’t resist it.
Denise Bowden, Yothu Yindi Foundation CEO

Alongside improved social outcomes, the economic efficiencies a national Voice could create were a common thread among the speakers. Dr Janke told the audience the Voice would help address the lack of policy consistency that has led to “inefficiencies, poorly informed policies, a waste of tax dollars and a perpetually disenfranchised Indigenous population”.

By giving it a permanent place in the constitution, “the Voice will guide governments to who are the right people to speak to, set up systems, and maintain consistent relationships,” she said.

Looking ahead to the 14 October referendum, Bowden had a simple message for non-Indigenous people wanting to help: “You just need to be informed and understand what people are asking for.”

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