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The Pandemic Reminds Us of the Need for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. Here's Why.



Linda Burney MP


From the very beginning of the pandemic last year, the Government was warned that First Nations people were particularly vulnerable to serious infection from COVID-19. The spread of the Delta variant throughout First Nations communities has demonstrated the real- world consequences of the neglect by government in failing to prepare and protect us.

But more than this, it has further exposed the great disparity which exists between First Nations and non- Indigenous Australians: the overcrowded housing; the lack of access to health services; food insecurity; challenges of geography and remoteness; and the communications gap between government and First Nations communities.

The Government’s knee-jerk reaction to First Nations COVID cases has revealed the Government’s complete lack of understanding of First Nations perspectives; historical interactions with government and authorities, and the mistrust that has arisen.

It began in March last year when a prominent Aboriginal medical service wrote to the federal Government of the unique geographic, social and cultural challenges in protecting First Nations communities.

The Prime Minister promised that First Nations Australians would be a priority, at the front of the line. But almost seven months after the vaccine rollout commenced, First Nations people continue to lag behind, with First Nations doses 25 per cent behind the general population. And that gap continues to widen.

The Government’s First Nations vaccination program is set to go down as one of the greatest failures of public administration of our time. One that was completely avoidable – if only the government was willing to listen, engage and work with First Nations communities.

First Nations organisations, health experts and community leaders have been telling the Government what is needed to lift First Nations vaccination rates for months. They have the capacity and they have the willingness, they just need the backing from government. It is a broader symptom of the Government’s unwillingness to empower First Nations people and foster self- determination.

For over two centuries of colonisation, dispossession and misguided and paternalistic policies, First Nations people have not been the master of our own destinies. If we want to see real progress and lasting progress in ending the disparity, we must trust First Nations people are best placed to understand and address the issues and challenges that affect us. The Government’s botching of the First Nations vaccine rollout reminds us why Labor must continue to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

It’s been almost four and a half years since the delivery of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in which First Nations leaders and communities called for a First Nations voice to the parliament enshrined in the constitution; as well as a national process for treaty-making and Truth-Telling.

In its essence, the Uluru Statement from the Heart helps us understand and explain the causes of inequality and injustice, and enables us to work together to fix them, by placing First Nations people at the very centre of decision making on the issues that affect us.

It could very well have played an important role in advising the government in its response to the spread of COVID in First Nations communities.

Treaty-making and Truth-Telling are critical to understanding that the injustices of the past did not simply remain in the past.

The consequences and trauma of those injustices have transcended generations can still be seen and felt today. This brings into light the legal structures, policies and programs that have dispossessed and oppressed First Nations peoples.

And a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament will give our people a greater say in the decisions, policies and laws that affect us.

The Government continues to dismiss the very reasonable and generous aspirations outlined by First Nations people. And cynically, they continue to string First Nations people along, kicking the can of constitutional recognition and co-design of a voice to government down the road.

While the Government refuses to step up, Labor remains ready to realise the desires of the Uluru Statement in full. From the very beginning, Labor has been committed to a First Nations voice to the parliament, protected in our constitution, and safe and secure from the whims of the government of the day.

But we will also make the Treaty and Truth elements of Uluru a priority in government. An Albanese Labor Government will establish a Makarrata Commission. It would have oversight of Truth-Telling and would include inquiring into matters of national significance, from colonisation to present day, as well as supporting local Truth- Telling projects with local government and community organisation.

And it would have oversight of Treaty and would include developing a framework for federal treaty-making, taking into account existing state and territory processes.

The future of a more reconciled Australia depends on putting voice, treaty and truth into practice. Not only in the context of this pandemic, but for the sake of the broader and unacceptable gap that exists between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians.


Linda Burney is the federal Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians.