Why a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament is essential to social security rights and access for First Nations peoples in Australia

Leanne HoSocial security rights review

Sophie Trevitt, Change the Record and Catherine Liddle, SNAICC

Social security policy is a key area of federal government decision-making impacted by discriminatory policies – policies that have a grossly disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.[1]

As Australia’s only national First Nations led justice coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies and non-Indigenous allies, Change the Record calls on the government to choose to end the inequality that is “driving mobs into prisons and instead fund affordable housing, social security and services for everyone”.[2]

As part of its 2022 election platform, Change the Record called for specific social security reform, including to:

  • Raise the rate of Centrelink payments so no one is forced to live in poverty
  • Abolish racist compulsory income management schemes
  • Abolish punitive mutual obligations.

While considerable work is ongoing under the National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap, we need to ensure that Governments put priority into changing the way they work with our organisations and our peoples.

A constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament (Voice) would provide a foundation for ending the inequality between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous peoples in Australia, including the inequality currently embedded in Australia’s social security system.

As noted in the Indigenous Voice Discussion Paper, “the National Voice could be proactive in providing advice, and would not have to wait for a request or invitation”.[3] While the new Labor Government has now introduced legislation to end compulsory participation in the Cashless Debit Card program, having a constitutionally enshrined Voice would mean that communities would have been empowered to provide ongoing input, proactively, via the Voice to Parliament structure. Without that Voice, First Nations communities’ input has been restricted to ad hoc local consultations at one end of the spectrum, and high-level submissions to Senate Committees at the other. 

As the national voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, SNAICC knows this limitation all too well. After 25 years of advocacy, SNAICC is still struggling to get governments to change their approaches, to recognise that underlying systems are stacked against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.

That being said, Federal, State and Territory Government commitments to the Closing the Gap agreement, the promise of the Uluru Statement, and moves towards real partnerships in decision-making, are far from symbolic gestures. They can represent a deeper shift in attitude and practice by governments that actually drive system changes that can turn the tide and empower the community to hold governments to account.

In addition to high level policy programming issues such as the compulsory income management and the community development program, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are disproportionately impacted by a range of ongoing systemic and access issues which have existed for decades but have not been addressed. These issues include:

  • Disproportionately high rates of mutual obligation non-payment penalties for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Disproportionately low rates of Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment claims and grants, especially in remote communities, despite disproportionately high rates of disability and chronic health issues
  • High rates of disengagement with the social security system in remote communities, including among vulnerable young people with disabilities (including young people with cognitive impairment) and older people with multiple chronic health issues
  • High rates of social security and family assistance debt among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – particularly among women, and including women experiencing domestic violence
  • Disproportionately low rates of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, despite high rates of adverse decisions.

First Nations community peak organisations have highlighted these issues in consultations and in response to inquiries over many years; however, while there are efforts to address some of the systemic access barriers via policy guidelines, resource development and targeted outreach, these deep-seated issues persist.

The voices of the communities beset by these fundamental social security issues, along with a plethora of interconnected health, housing and access to justice issues, need a platform at the national level so that government may hear directly from communities regarding the manifold impacts of particular social security measures. The Voice to Parliament would empower First Nations people to raise social security economic justice issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the national level.


[1] See, for example, Economic Justice Australia’s submission to the Senate inquiry into the application of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia, 23 June 2022, accessible here: https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/inquiry-into-the-application-of-the-united-nations-declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples-in-australia/ and Economic Justice Australia’s submission in response to the Indigenous Voice Discussion Paper, 30 March 2021, accessible here: https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Indigenous-Voice-submission_Economic-Justice-Australia_30-March-2021.pdf.

[2] Change the Record 2022 election campaign platform, https://www.changetherecord.org.au/electionplatform

[3] Indigenous Voice Discussion Paper, 5 January 2021. Accessible here: https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2021-01/apo-nid310489.pdf