Walk for Awareness march in Adelaide, SA, in February 2023. Photo: Elena Pochesneva

The referendum on establishing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament has been set for October 14, so we only have a matter of weeks to speak with Australians about why a ‘Yes’ vote will be good for the nation.

We believe the case can be made that supporting the Voice is a responsible investment issue and should be viewed through this prism, in addition to being a positive social change. Put simply, we believe it will improve investment outcomes.

The way investment markets function is ultimately a reflection of the society they serve. As such, well-functioning markets should be underpinned by a fair, equitable and inclusive society that embraces diversity and doesn’t exploit one group at the expense of others. Without these conditions in place, we cannot reach our potential, either culturally, socially or economically.

Unfortunately, Australia’s history of indigenous reconciliation has not created a fair and equal society. A litany of statistics show that First Nations people continue to have poorer health, housing, educational, employment and incarceration outcomes than the rest of the nation.

This is largely the result of systemic exclusion since white settlement, with laws designed to disempower and disenfranchise traditional owners. This approach was all too successful:  from the concept of ‘terra nullius’ erasing their ownership of this land, assimilation policies, through to the failure of successive governments to make a treaty, First Nations peoples have been silenced and sidelined for over 230 years.

The underlying unfairness of these laws has at times affected the relationship between corporate Australia and First Nations people. The destruction of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia was the most visible (and dramatic) example of companies suffering legal, reputational and financial consequences as a result of conflict between traditional owners and corporates, in this case big mining companies. Through a series of events such as these, traditional owners have suffered ongoing pain, irreparable damage to sacred sites and continued disempowerment.

The best chance we have of addressing the disparity and disempowerment of traditional owners is by working with them to design a system that works for them. Such a system would embed the principle of free, prior and informed consent. It would include traditional owners in projects from day one and allow them to help shape the project and avoid sacred sites. It would allow for self-determination and make them partners at the table when projects are planned.

So, how do we fix this fractured system? To start, we must listen to the people who have been dispossessed. When Australia asked Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders how to move forward with a more meaningful reconciliation, they told us. The Uluru Statement from the Heart asked for a constitutionally enshrined advisory body – one that would work alongside government to address indigenous challenges with indigenous solutions.

If we reject this proposal for a Voice, we also reject an opportunity to address some of the flaws built into the fabric of this nation, including the assumptions that underpin the Constitution, by which governments know best, and have no requirement to listen to the views of the people they are governing.

Today, the significant gaps in education, life expectancy, health and opportunities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are bound up with the persistent failure to consider Indigenous viewpoints. We therefore need a mechanism that guarantees their right to be heard by the government of the day.

Constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations people, and the establishment of a permanent voice to parliament, are the starting point for addressing these inequalities.

The permanence of the Voice is the key – it will not be subject to the whims of successive governments, but instead provide a consistent presence whenever the future of our country is discussed.

Investors should welcome such a level of certainty.  It’s not long ago that Australian companies and investors were crying out for climate change policy certainty, so that we could get on with the work of decarbonisation. We know the difficulty of making business and investment decisions when the goalposts are always moving. The same goes for reconciliation.

Against this background, elevating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices can only improve the social and economic cohesion of our nation. By giving these voices a platform to contribute their unique perspectives, and by creating a forum to hear their views, we will have an opportunity to fix long-standing, systemic issues created by inequality, racism and exclusion.

We have an urgent challenge and a unique opportunity to create a more stable society, an economy that better positions us for successful investment outcomes, and to be better Australians.

Kate Turner is global head of responsible investment and Belinda White is responsible investment specialist at First Sentier Investors. The article reflects the personal views of the authors and not necessarily those of their employer. 

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