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Indigenous leaders criticise Labor for backing away from regional and local voices

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous leaders have criticised a decision by the federal government to move away from treaties and a focus on regional voices by choosing “practical” measures in the latest budget. 

On Tuesday, Labor revealed the $20 million set aside for regional and local voices would be redirected, whilst remaining coy on the future of their commitment to the Makarrata Commission.

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said the government was delivering practical measures to accelerate progress in Closing the Gap. 

These include focuses on housing - via a $4 billion remote housing program for the NT announced in March - jobs - via a $770 million remote jobs program to replace the old CDP program - health, education, and justice.

“We’re taking a common-sense and responsible approach, one that has listening to First Nations communities at its heart,” Minister Burney said. 

However, Indigenous groups have urged the government to not abandon the process laid out in the Uluru Statement of the Heart, and to not take the path of least resistance by leaving consultative bodies up to state governments. 

In Victoria, the First Peoples’ Assembly will begin Treaty negotiations with the state government later this year, whilst South Australia recently had elections for their Indigenous representative body in Parliament. 

Other states have outlined truth-telling inquiries as the first stage to treaties, but they have been thrown into doubt with the Liberal-National Party opposition’s saying they no longer support a treaty process. 

Coalition of Peaks Acting Lead Convenor, Catherine Liddle, said any decision surrounding the relocation of funds set aside for the Voice should be in line with the Government’s commitment to share decision-making with Indigenous people — under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. 

“Any significant changes to the Indigenous Affairs policy agenda and decisions on taking forward elements of the Uluru Statement would be subject to an open and transparent process,” Ms Liddle said.

“We cannot close the gap unless governments change the way they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We need genuine partnerships, not tick-a-box consultation.”

Ms Liddle said a “big bag of money” for some sectors was not being wisely invested if others missed out, arguing “they are all pieces of the same puzzle, and we need to figure out how they all work together".

The Australian reported respected Indigenous rights campaigner Tom Calma had urged the Labor government to not leave the consultative bodies up to state governments, arguing Indigenous affairs was still a “political football".

“This can’t be just the states and territories. If you don’t have the three tiers of government working on these initiatives collectively, there can be inefficiencies, duplications or the worst thing you can have is a gap,” he told The Australian

The 2021 Calma-Langton report advocated for local and regional voices as consultative bodies.

Professor Calma said a Makarrata Commission was ­needed to investigate whether the commonwealth could enter into treaties, and with whom. 

The government said previously they would commit to implementing the Makarrata Commission but have been coy after the Voice referendum defeat. 

In February, Ms Burney said the government would "take things as fast or as slow as the community wants to," noting whilst Labor completely accepted the referendum result on Voice, it did "leave the truth-telling and treaty components".

"Issues like regional voices are something I know are being discussed in places like the Kimberley," Ms Burney said at the time. 

Advocacy group GetUp previously criticised the Albanese government for "passing the buck" on a treaty process by seemingly delegating the process to the states and territories.

Chief executive and Widjabul Wia-bal woman Larissa Baldwin-Roberts said at the time the government needed to better communicate their plan for a treaty process.

"After another year of failed outcomes in the Closing the Gap report, what is clear is that it's time to do something new and the Albanese Government needs to articulate their plan for a federal treaty process," Ms Baldwin-Roberts said.

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