Having recently returned “down south” from almost a year spent living and working in the Northern Territory, I could not be more opposed to the proposed voice to Parliament.

Like many other Sydneysiders, I used to support the idea. I was persuaded by slick messaging from public figures, activists and sections of the media claiming that the voice was endorsed by all indigenous Australians and was the best way to “close the gap” in living standards between indigenous Australians and the rest of the country.

But then I took a job helping to organise the Country Liberal Party’s campaign in the federal division of Lingiari, a seat which encompasses the entire Northern Territory save Darwin and surrounds. I spent two months travelling across vast stretches of the Outback, trying to understand the real issues facing the most disadvantaged indigenous communities in the nation.

This changed my mind on the voice.

I was not a tourist – I was in remote Aboriginal communities speaking alongside our candidates with elders, traditional owners and community leaders about what issues they faced and what solutions they proposed.

Crime and antisocial behaviour, drug and alcohol-fuelled family violence, an extreme undersupply of remote housing and rapidly declining education and literacy rates are but some of the issues plaguing these communities.

In the town of Tennant Creek, I spent an evening sitting with the Jurnkkurakurr Volunteers. This group of local elders, mostly women, have used their cultural authority to discourage and repel the violence and vandalism of the town since their only grocery store was burned down by primary school children in 2020.

I met a schoolteacher in the community of Wallace Rockhole who looked after the local school of 50 students. That day, only two of those 50 had come to school. Apparently this was the norm.

After spending time with one of the directors of an indigenous art centre in Wurrumiyanga, in the Tiwi Islands, I learned that amateur gambling was rife across the region and was one of the root causes of antisocial behaviour on the island. I witnessed countless card games taking place in the streets of the community. It was so bad that a community leader would not accept a gift from me, knowing they would inevitably end up in a punter’s game of some sort.

Driving to Gunbalanya, in Arnhem Land, I experienced the desperate need for road upgrades on the Arnhem Highway and beyond. Unsealed dirt roads hundreds of kilometres long separate communities from their closest neighbours and hinder access to basic needs.

I spoke with a stern school administrator whose role it had been to allocate boarding school opportunities to local indigenous students. He was sacked prior to the elevation of his students to their final year of high school. In his absence, not a single member of that cohort attended Year 12.

Then there is the civil war in the Daly River community of Wadeye, the largest Indigenous community in the Northern Territory, about 420kms southwest of Darwin. Horrific stories have been front and centre in the local news about its 22 clans fighting each other. In this small community, over 100 houses have been burnt down, people have been speared to death (yes, you read that correctly) and others have gone missing or have been displaced. It has more in common with Bakhmut than with Sydney.

In Yuendumu, in the central desert region, I witnessed family violence caused by disagreements over royalty money paid out to a traditional owner family. It was not uncommon to hear about large sums of money (in the tens of thousands) essentially disappearing within days of a payout due to various forms of “humbug” and financial illiteracy.

Not a single community leader I spoke with ever voiced support for the Voice to parliament or saw it as a real or practical solution to the chaos. From Kakadu to the Tiwi Islands, from Areyonga to Santa Teresa, from Darwin to Katherine, and from Alice Springs to Yulara; the Uluru Statement from the Heart was not even an afterthought in the remedies and solutions articulated by so many indigenous leaders.

Non-indigenous people “down south” assume that the hundreds of indigenous cultural groups from across our vast nation are in favour of the voice. This is naive.

I came away from my time in the Territory with an appreciation for the issues and priorities of remote indigenous Australia. They are very different from the priorities and rhetoric of our cultural and political leaders.

Supporters of the Voice to Parliament say that listening to indigenous voices will change the abysmal social indicators.

But Mr Albanese wasn’t listening when the leaders of nine influential indigenous organisations urged him to reinstate the Stronger Futures legislation banning alcohol and pornography. He didn’t listen to his Labor member for Lingiari, an Aboriginal woman from a remote community, who has also spoken strongly in favour of reinstating alcohol bans?

It seems as though those most vocally in favour of the Voice to Parliament are the least willing to listen to real voices in remote communities.

Unfortunately, this anarchy is not confined to remote communities.

The town of Alice Springs, the third-largest in the Territory with 25,000 people, has been described as a war zone. Mr Albanese was forced to pay a quick visit there to placate the locals. They needed it.

In January, there was a crisis. Scores, hundreds, of children, some as young as five, were roaming the streets at night, many drunk. A grocery story was forced to close one night when a 13-year-old entered waving a machete. The mayor, Matt Paterson, asked the Federal government to deploy the army or federal police to his town. “This is no different to a flood or a storm – this is a crisis,” he said. “It’s happening every single day, it’s a slow burn here, and we need help.”

Even in Darwin, the Territory’s capital city, crime is a huge issue. Declan Laverty was working the evening shift at a liquor shop when he was brutally stabbed to death. Declan’s death has plagued my mind and shaken my core; it occurred metres away from where I worked.

Earlier this month in Darwin, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi student at Charles Darwin University was bludgeoned to death in his apartment by a home invader.

The student association organised a “demonstration against violence” where the vice-chancellor conceded he could no longer tell prospective students “that Darwin was a safe place to live”.

The ongoing “anti-crime” protests in Darwin have attracted thousands upon thousands of residents. They call for the government to act and they mourn the growing list of lives lost too soon.

The Northern Territory’s two senators and the member for Lingiari are all indigenous women from remote Aboriginal communities – three-quarters of its federal representatives. In the Territory parliament about one quarter of representatives are indigenous, about the same proportion as in the electorate.

If there is anywhere in Australia where Aboriginal people have a “voice to parliament”, it is the Northern Territory. Nonetheless the crime, violence, and educational outcomes are no better. In fact, they seem to be getting worse.

Voices from remote communities are being ignored; the voices of scared and mourning Territorians are being disregarded. The Territory’s indigenous parliamentarians are asleep at the wheel.

What difference will a voice to parliament make to the most vulnerable in Australia when so many voices aren’t being heard at the moment?

A voice is not needed to articulate the problems afflicting our indigenous communities; those problems are plain to see. Problem gambling, alcohol abuse, family violence, a failing education system, financial illiteracy; these are the problems in our indigenous communities. While proponents of the Voice continue to debate high-brow constitutional provisions, the real issues in these communities will continue to be ignored.

John-Paul Baladi

John-Paul Baladi is the former Territory Director of the Country Liberal Party.