Later this year, Australia will vote on a proposed law to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
The Academy supports the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience a greater burden of disease than non-Indigenous individuals. These health inequities stem from social, cultural, environmental and historic determinants and lead to lower life expectancy among these communities.
A Voice to Parliament is a reasonable and modest request that would provide First Nations people with a permanent body to make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters that are of particular significance to their peoples – including providing advice on policies that are, or can be considered, harmful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their interests. These communities have historically been excluded from decision making on matters affecting their health and wellbeing. Such a body is an essential step to see meaningful and lasting progress towards improved outcomes.
In all our work, the Academy is guided by evidence-based best practice. In healthcare, as well as other areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have better outcomes when they are able to participate actively in decision making. The work of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and individual Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations is testament to this. When these services had a seat at the table during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rates of infection were 5.9 times lower among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than non-Indigenous people.
Research and healthcare led by First Nations communities in areas such as heart disease, diabetes, childbirth and infectious diseases has improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Such research demonstrates the value of ensuring First Nations people are empowered to contribute to, and lead, projects that impact them. A growing number of Indigenous health and medical researchers continue to build on this evidence base, and the Academy is committed to supporting this work. Many Academy Fellows and Associate Members have worked closely with community controlled services and peak bodies and have seen first hand how these processes have enhanced the quality, feasibility, relevance and impact of research.
While the referendum requests a simple “yes” or “no” answer from the public, we acknowledge that this issue is far more complicated and nuanced. A Voice to Parliament is only part of a journey towards reconciliation and truth telling, as outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which the Academy, jointly with the other Learned Academies and the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), supports and responded to. Similarly, the voice adds to and complements initiatives needed to Close the Gap in health – as a nation, we must continue and hasten these efforts.
The Uluru Statement declares: “We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. Australians will have an opportunity to do this when the referendum takes place later this year. It is important that any debate is respectful and evidence-based, acknowledging that people hold different views. We encourage those taking part in the vote to seek out information to guide their decisions, including prioritising First Nations sources.
Further information about the Voice can be found on the Uluru Statement from the Heart website, the Reconciliation Australia website, and the Together, Yes website. The Australian National University has compiled a frequently asked questions document, available online. Our colleagues at the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia have also collated some resources on their website.
Supporting Indigenous health and wellbeing is a priority for AAHMS and an area in which we continue to grow our activities. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples were the nation’s first scientists. The Academy values their contributions and is committed to respecting and amplifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ perspectives.
This statement was developed and approved by the Academy Council in consultation with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fellows.