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Pat Turner: Indigenous leader a passionate voice for the voiceless

Her career spans decades in the public service, including a four-year stint as chief executive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) from 1994 to 1998. In 2016 she was appointed to her current role as head of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

More recently, Turner – who has just been included in the Australian Financial Review Magazine‘s 10 most culturally powerful Australians – has been a driving force in negotiating a new framework for the Closing the Gap strategy in her role as convener of the Coalition of Peaks, an alliance of more than 50 Indigenous peak bodies.

In July, she stood beside Prime Minister Scott Morrison to unveil a new Closing the Gap agreement. It was heralded as “a real turning point in Indigenous affairs”, whereby governments would work in partnership with First Nations people.

What happened this week?

Delivering a blistering speech for the annual “Australia and The World” lecture, she labelled the government’s Voice co-design a “disjointed, conflicted and thus counter-productive” process that was likely to cause divisions between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“What is now unfolding is a convoluted and flawed process,” she said. “It is high on rhetoric and well-rehearsed: co-design, empowerment, doing things with us, rather than to us. But if we look closely, the practice continues to be poles apart.”

Pat Turner: A supporter of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Pat Turner: A supporter of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.Credit:Joe Benke

Turner traced the fight for Indigenous self-determination from first contact to the present, noting that anything resembling a voice has historically been dismantled the moment it becomes uncomfortable for the government.

She pointed to the Closing the Gap agreement as an example of “shared decision-making” between governments and Indigenous people, but claimed the Voice co-design was not following the same process – relying instead on hand-picked groups to advise on, rather than help negotiate, options on what a Voice might look like. She said the commitment to shared decision-making was “not to be applied only at the discretion of governments”. Turner surmised that the Voice proposal was “doomed to fail” unless these issues were urgently rectified.

Why is it important?

First Nations people in Australia have long sought to have a meaningful voice in their own affairs. As Turner notes, other liberal democratic nations such as Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Finland have better-developed institutions and structures that allow Indigenous peoples to be heard.

After centuries of struggle, the landmark Uluru Statement from the Heart put forward three reforms in 2017 to “empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country”. At the top of the list was a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.

Supporters of the Uluru Statement say a constitutionally-enshrined voice is an integral step in eliminating Indigenous disadvantage, by ensuring First Nations people have a say in shaping the laws that affect them.

The proposal was rejected by the Turnbull government. Last year Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt instead embarked on a “co-design” process for a voice to government, rather than Parliament, which would not be enshrined in the constitution.

When asked on Wednesday whether she would accept any model that falls short of the proposal in the Uluru Statement, Turner’s reply was a concise “no”.

Wyatt established three advisory groups as part of the design process. Turner is a highly respected and prominent member of the senior advisory group. Her comments will likely cast a shadow over the Voice co-design process at a crucial moment. This is the first time she has made her concerns public.

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In response, Marcia Langton, the joint leader of the senior advisory group, said it appeared Turner had misunderstood the process for creating the Voice, and claimed the partnership with the government was working well.

Wyatt has defended the process, saying any body set up to advise the government cannot be developed independently of the government.

What happens next?

Options for how the Voice should be structured and operate are on the verge of being delivered to the government. The cabinet will decide which of them will be put to the community for feedback, likely later this year.

Turner says she will continue in her role on the senior advisory group, noting “it’s better to be inside the tent making the argument”.

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