OPINION: We make better decisions when we listen

DEAR News Of The Area,

THE Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament is based on the simple principle that listening to people about matters in their lives can drive better policy, deliver practical solutions, and ultimately improve lives.

Some people say to me “well aren’t you listening already?” – the simple truth is not always, and sometimes not at all.

I had reason to reflect on this when I visited the town of Yuendumu shortly after the election as the new Minister for Infrastructure.

I was there to talk about an election commitment to fix their, and other communities, local football ovals.

Footy is important in the Territory – it keeps young people active, builds bush community and provides opportunities for young people to come together.

I have travelled a lot in the Territory and know its beauty and its challenges, but I had not been to Yuendumu before.

Members of the community proudly took me to their oval, which in a desert community is not the green grass of most home towns but hard packed earth.

It is part surrounded by a broken fence, no toilet amenities, no change rooms, no stand for fans to watch and certainly no shade.

I was also taken aback by the sheer volume of used plastic water and soft-drink bottles. Why were they there?

As community members discussed what they intended to do to improve the oval and why AFL was such a big part of their community, one community member very gently said to me: “We are very grateful for your contribution to our oval”.

Then following a pause he said: “But we don’t have clean drinking water.”

Yuendumu struggles to access bore water and even when it does it is contaminated with uranium from the surrounding soil at levels too unsafe to drink.

Now the empty water bottles made sense.

Here I was all new and shiny as a Minister excited about a football oval upgrade and there is no clean drinking water.
This wasn’t a new problem.

The last few Infrastructure Australia reports have consistently told us that First Nations communities’ access to clean drinking water across the NT and WA is inadequate at best.

On hearing this, direct from the community, the government acted.

In July, the Northern Territory and Commonwealth Governments came together to invest $15 million in water security in Yuendumu.

I cannot help but think how much better it would have been if that community had been listened to earlier.

This is just one example, because despite the best intentions of politicians, progress on closing the gap is too slow – just four out of 19 closing the gap targets are on track.

Indigenous Australians have an eight-year life expectancy gap compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

They have poorer education, health and social outcomes.

We can’t accept more of the same – it is just not good enough. It’s clear to me politicians don’t know best – we need to listen to local communities about what they need to close the gap.

A Voice to Parliament is about advice.

It would be a committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country who would give advice to the government of the day about what really works in their communities.

Practical solutions that will mean better, more targeted spending and lead to outcomes which often cost less.

Putting the Voice in the Constitution gives it stability and independence, now and into the future.

This means the Voice can give frank advice, without getting caught up in short-term politics.

In my 22 years as an MP in regional Victoria, I know that listening to my community makes me a better local member.

I regularly meet with local councils, head out in my mobile caravan to towns and suburbs across my electorate and visit community groups big and small because the decisions I make are better when they are informed by local voices.

I can see how a Voice would inform better decisions across government.

I believe that Australia wants to take the next step in closing the gap towards reconciliation.

A yes vote for constitutional recognition through a Voice gives us all a chance to be part of a better future.

The Hon Catherine KING MP,
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

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