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After the Voice, there is a way forward

18 October 2023

News and media


A image of an indigenous painting

By Geoff Richardson PSM, Co-director of ANZSOG’s Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms program

Many First Nations people in Australia and their supporters are grieving the rejection of the Voice proposal in the referendum last weekend. But I know we are a resilient and patient People. We have become accustomed to rejection and getting on with the business of surviving. Many of my people will be more disappointed by the outright racism and the denial of our history and our existence as this nation’s First Peoples during the campaign than by the result.

The referendum debate has been a difficult time for many of us and our supporters. It’s been a bruising debate that has seen misinformation and concerted attacks on First Nations people and our cultures, attacks that were often bereft of understanding of the complexities associated with closing the gap between our life outcomes and those of the rest of the nation. Now that it is over, we must refocus on work that has the support of First Nations people across Australia and has been recognised as the way forward by all Australian jurisdictions.

The Voice referendum has not succeeded but the change that is happening in First Nations policy will continue. The momentum towards working in partnership with First Nations, as typified by the National Agreement on Closing the Gap [1] and the beginning of Treaty negotiations in most states, is too strong. As Michelle Grattan [2] writes, “there is a structure in place that could be used in this post-referendum phase. The 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap, forged between federal and state governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, provides for shared decision-making through partnerships.”

Incorporating the voice of First Nations people in policy must be done at all levels. Implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap is the responsibility of all public servants.

Every public servant needs to understand the National Agreement and the Partnership Agreement under whose principles the National Agreement was negotiated, and take responsibility for incorporating these principles into their agency’s work.

The inclusion of the four Priority Reforms in the National Agreement makes this agreement significantly different to the one it replaced. Briefly they are:

  • Priority Reform One – Formal Partnerships and Shared Decision-making
  • Priority Reform Two – Building the Community-Controlled Sector
  • Priority Reform Three – Transforming Government Organisations
  • Priority Reform Four Shared Access to Data and Information at the Regional Level

Implementing the Priority Reforms effectively with First Nations people will require a change in mindset and a new set of public sector capabilities – business as usual is not an option.

Building the capabilities required will be the focus of the professional development program Professor Althaus and I will deliver in November – Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms. It has already attracted significant interest, and I encourage you and your colleagues to join us to strengthen your understanding of new approaches and the skills required to deliver them.

While the opportunity to establish a Voice in the Constitution has passed, all public servants have the opportunity to listen to First Nations people, to build shared decision-making partnerships. We are at an exciting time in First Nations policy and this generation of public servants has the opportunity to deliver real change.


[1] The National Agreement on Closing the Gap
[2] View from The Hill: There is a way forward to tackle Indigenous disadvantage after referendum defeat