One of the strangest aspects of the debate over the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament referendum is the lack of curiosity about those efforts to address Indigenous disadvantage which already exist.

Everyone is in broad agreement that the gap in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in education, health, income, and well-being is vast. We know there are issues that need addressing, that things are not working.

But we also know that in this week’s Federal Budget nearly $2 billion has been provided for various Indigenous-related programs and services. That’s $2 billion that doesn’t include ongoing funding for various initiatives and individual welfare and housing payments. The total of federal funding to assist Indigenous Australians is much higher.

Importantly, though, advocates for the Voice have been very clear that none of the existing programs and funding should be dispensed with if the Voice is established.

The National Indigenous Australians Agency – which, interestingly, states that its explicit purpose is “to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a say in the decisions that affect them” – will stay in place; the Closing the Gap agreements and funding will stay in place; the extra funding for health and education services in remote communities will stay in place.

Now I don’t propose that these programs should be cut or removed either – again, the premise that Indigenous Australians, especially those in remote communities, need an extra hand up is undisputed by both sides of this debate – but this state of play leads to some confounding questions.

How was the current series of funding arrangements arrived at? Who was consulted and who developed the programs? The premise of the Voice is that Indigenous Australians haven’t had a say on the matters that affect them; that decisions have been made from on high. But is that true? The last two Ministers for Indigenous Affairs were Aboriginal Australians.

The NIAA’s purpose is to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a say in the decisions that affect them. So did they?

What about the Closing the Gap agreement of 2019? It was signed by many of the same people who are now strongly advocating for the Voice – indeed some, like Marcia Langton, have been instrumental in the likely design of the Voice – so were they listened to? Is what they signed up for working?

Anyone can check this, of course. So I did. The 2019 agreement was signed by the leaders of the State and Commonwealth Governments and the “Coalition of Peaks”. Here’s who the Coalition of Peaks are, as defined in the agreement:

The Coalition of Peaks:

  • are national and state and territory non-government Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak bodies and certain independent statutory authorities which have responsibility for policies, programs and services related to Closing the Gap
  • have their governing boards elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and / or organisations which are accountable to that membership.

That last point is key. The Coalition of Peaks is a body that was elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. So what does that mean in the context of “having never had a voice”? And if there is no intention of reviewing – or indeed abolishing – a body like this once a Voice is established, how is this meant to work?

You could go line by line in this weeks’ budget and ask similar questions, but the headline question is this: how will the Voice change any of this?

Advocates of the Voice seem to simultaneously argue that the Voice is a game-changer and will finally give Indigenous Australians a say in matters which will lead to better outcomes and that the Voice is subject to the Parliament; the Government has no obligation to listen to them, and it won’t affect our system of government at all.

This is incoherent and bears no relation to what the current situation is. There is a whole industry for consulting with Indigenous Australians when the Government makes policy and passes legislation. Many of the Voice activists have been in the room, have signed agreements, and argued the case for these policies.

It follows, then, that the only way the Voice can be different is if it does affect the system of government, if the intention is – in spirit if not in law – to absolutely oblige the Government of the day to follow their advice. It only makes sense as a constitutional body at all if it is meant to be powerful.

This is why advocates of the Voice tend to keep the debate in the abstract – it’s all about the vibe and feeling good. It’s also why technical legal questions are largely a sideshow. Because without understanding in rigorous detail how things work now, we can’t understand how the Voice will change things.

In fact, there is no sound reasoning or defence of the very premise of the Voice: that Indigenous Australians haven’t had a say and that this will give them one and it will make a positive difference.

So when writers like Margaret Somerville ponder the ethical dimension of the Voice they aren’t even asking the right questions. It’s putting the cart before the horse. There are ethical concerns; but we’re a nation, not an NGO. There are real decisions being made right now that help Indigenous Australians, there are voices being heard already, we have a real constitution and real money being spent now. Where is it all going?

Samuel John is a Melbourne-based writer and commentator. He has previously worked as a political staffer, ministerial adviser, and in government relations.