The Voice Referendum is just the beginning

by | Oct 12, 2023 | Ability News, Canberra, Disability Community

One pollster, a person sympathetic to the voice, says there’s little doubt about tomorrow’s result.

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“Opinion polls can be wrong by one or two points either way, but not by the sort of margin that’s been shown in recent polls,” they explain. “Sure, some people are saying they still haven’t made up their minds. It’s very difficult, however, to believe that enough of these undecideds would vote ‘yes’ to push this amendment through.”  

So what would this result mean for People with Disability – particularly the large community of First Nations People with Disability? 

Firstly, perhaps counterintuitively, it means nothing. 

If it passed this referendum would simply have approved one specific model, one that would have given a constitutionally enshrined voice to Aboriginal people. The important point is that if this referendum fails, nothing will change. Parliament still has the capacity and ability to legislate such a body into existence. The only difference is that any organisation Parliament subsequently establishes won’t be framed by the constitution. 

Even if the referendum passes, it’s the government that will effectively decide what sort of ‘Voice’ is established. But even today there’s nothing to stop it legislating for whatever sort of Voice it wants. There’s no need to change the constitution to do this, and that’s why there is already a similar body in South Australia – one that was brought into existence without constitutional change. 

Prime Minister Albanese says he won’t enact a voice if there’s a ‘no’ vote. That’s fine: it’s his choice. But sulking shouldn’t prevent the government from going ahead and acting to change the lives on offer for Indigenous Australians, or the opportunities open to them.  

A critical part of this project will be creating new pathways for First Nations People with Disability. 

The Royal Commission into Disability provided a number of detailed and specific recommendations to accomplish exactly this. 

An entire section of the report was devoted to the needs of First Nations people with disability, noting that even this term – ‘disability’ – was contested. 

The Final Report said that an indigenous “understanding of disability does not easily align with Western concepts of disability, particularly the tendency to focus on individual impairment over collective wellbeing”. 

It went on to say “many First Nations people with disability prefer a cultural model centred on inclusion. This recognises that inclusive participation in culture and community has a positive impact on social health and wellbeing, and moderates the harm of inequalities experienced in daily life.” 

There is nothing to prevent these words being given practical meaning, regardless of the result of tomorrow’s referendum. The report went on to outline two particular elements it insisted were vital in dealing with disability in indigenous communities: a community-based approach and alternative funding models. It then spelt out exactly what it meant by these words – a possible return to block-funding of disability services in regional and remote areas. 

It also called for the NDIS Act to be urgently amended so that at least one First Nations person would sit on the Board at all times. 

Similarly the report called for the establishment of a special Forum to address a lack of diverse voices. 

As a community-led organisation, this “would drive policy and service reforms, ensuring culturally safe and appropriate responses for First Nations people with disability”. This will be a challenging finding for many people, because it firmly asserts that disability – or more specifically, methods of dealing with disability – is, at least in part, a cultural phenomena. 

The good news is that there is absolutely nothing to prevent any of this occurring at once, no matter what the result on Saturday. 

The need today is to act. The Disability Royal Commission should not be ignored and used as a doorstop. It’s still possible to change the lives of indigenous Australians with disability. 

The time to start is now.