Indigenous affairs

Productivity Commission says that Voice to Parliament outcome will not change the focus or mandate of the Closing the Gap Agreement

The result of the Voice to Parliament referendum will not change the focus or the mandate of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, Productivity Commissioner, Natalie Siegel-Brown, has told a CEDA livestream audience.

The result of the Voice to Parliament referendum will not change the focus or the mandate of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, Productivity Commissioner, Natalie Siegel-Brown, has told a CEDA livestream audience.

“If the Voice comes about through the referendum, we’ve suggested that it could augment or support holding governments to account under the Agreement,” said Ms Siegel-Brown.

“A Voice shouldn’t mean…that governments resile from any of their commitments under those priority reforms or…under the targets.”

Facilitated by Australian Unity General Manager for Indigenous Business and Community Engagement, Trish Oxford, the Productivity Commission Chairman, Michael Brennan, and Commissioners, Romlie Mokak and Natalie-Siegel-Brown, joined CEDA to discuss the outcomes of the latest Closing the Gap draft report, released in July 2023. 

Mr Brennan said that although a constitutionally enshrined Voice would potentially help to bolster the National Agreement’s accountability mechanisms, other avenues will be explored if the referendum does not pass.

“It’s really about us remaining nimble and noting that the importance of this Agreement is sustained, irrespective and whatever the outcome, we have to make sure that we’ve got the right architecture to achieve the promise…at the heart of the 2020 Agreement,” Mr Brennan said. 

“The Agreement isn’t just words on the page, these are commitments…firm commitments made by governments in partnership with the Coalition of Peaks, as representatives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait organisations and communities,” Commissioner Romlie Mokak said.

The National Agreement’s four priority reforms centre around improving shared decision making, strengthening the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector, transforming government and giving more access to data and information at a regional level. 

Mr Mokak discussed the importance of the third priority reform, which aims to improve government and mainstream institutions. 

“Priority reform three…is so critical to the [National Agreement’s] success…our overall assessment is that governments haven’t quite got the depth of what is required in order for there to be structural and systemic reform…there are positive examples of change, but these are in pockets," he said. 

Focus on establishing cultural safety, challenging unconscious bias and eliminating racism within government institutions was also described by Mr Mokak as instrumental in helping to close gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, calling on the public for feedback while this first report remains in its draft stage. 

The Productivity Commission panel highlighted that the continual participation and feedback of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is imperative to the ongoing success of the National Agreement. 

Mr Mokak explained that the promise of the National Agreement lies in the four priority reforms that aim to tackle the “how,” rather than just the “what.”

“The fears that a lot of our people have is that this will just be yet another agreement, often articulated as a broken promise…many of our mob, we’ve been on this business for a long time…advocating a long time for these improvements,” he said.

Mr Mokak also said that “of the 180 odd meetings two-thirds of meetings [so far], 120 were with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations,” noting the importance of Indigenous people’s perspectives, knowledge and lived experience as the key driver to the National Agreement’s success in enacting systemic change and closing socio-economic gaps.  

This Closing the Gap report marks the third Annual Data Compilation report and the first draft of tri-year reports set to outline progress since the Coalition of Peaks, all Australian governments and the Australian Local Government Association signed the National Agreement on Closing the Gap in 2020.

When asked about the aims of the National Agreement and the Productivity Commission’s involvement in the review process, Chairman Michael Brennan said the Commission has two roles: reporting on the progress of the National Agreement’s 19 socio-economic target areas and compiling tri-yearly reports, with the first currently being at a drafted stage before it is handed down to the Joint Council in December 2023.

“We thought for the first of these three yearly review processes that we should focus not so much on the socio-economic outcome areas because it is too early to track progress on those, but perhaps focus a little bit more on the four priority reforms…and how the governments are going about delivering on those,” Mr Brennan said. 

The panel also acknowledged public criticism around the Commission’s data mostly being extrapolated at a national level, lacking potential nuance around the circumstances and progress of different states and territories. 

“We are hearing calls from all over the country for some of [our] data reporting to actually be at the state or even the regional level to give it true meaning,” Ms Siegel-Brown said. 

“The point around data is very important. We want to hear from those hidden cohorts,” Ms Oxford said.

Watch the full discussion below: