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Wednesday, 11 September 1996
Page: 4035

Mr MELHAM(5.36 p.m.) —The opposition supports the amendments that have been returned from the Senate. Today is a victory for indigenous people. Let us be under no misapprehension. These amendments do represent a backdown by the government from its initial hardline approach towards ATSIC. It has resulted in cross-party support for these amendments. I think there have been discussions in recent days of goodwill from all the parties. There has been cross-party support. There have been a different emphasis and different points of view.

But I think it is fair to say that this compromise which has been reached—and it is a compromise as there have been concessions by all parties, and that needs to be acknowledged—is the appropriate way to go. For the first time since the election of the Howard government, we have actually had the politics taken out of ATSIC and people of goodwill coming together and reaching, I think, results that can be justified on policy terms—results, frankly, that were sorely needed to send a signal to the community that it is time we had cross-party support.

The tragedy is that some five months ago the first cabinet meeting of the new government was held, a cabinet meeting that considered proposals on the run from the minister—and I do not hold the minister responsible for this—who had not been properly briefed. From then on, it has been mayhem in terms of the indigenous community. Five months on, a number of the allegations that were raised by the Sunday program have been investigated. As a result, the crisis in ATSIC, the alleged corruption and the alleged mismanagement have failed to materialise.

We said at the time that the government's proposals were heavy-handed and over the top. Today vindicates what we said back then. The government has withdrawn the proposal for an administrator; it was never necessary. A proper reading of the act shows that the minister has adequate powers under the general directions section of the ATSIC Act to direct commissioners—he has adequate powers. An administrator is not required, for a number of reasons. The government has to be applauded for withdrawing that proposal. It should never have been there in the first place.

That is what these amendments have done: removed the administrator. It is a major concession that has to be acknowledged. We say it was never required. We would never have supported it, and we are glad that proposal is no longer there.

A further concession is that now there is cross-party support for the election of the ATSIC chair. This is enshrined in legislation to take effect after the 1999 ATSIC elections. For the first time, every major political party will vote for ATSIC commissioners to be able to elect their own chairperson, after the 1999 elections. That is the way forward. This is achieved by a sunset clause. It is a sunset clause that acknowledges there has been a change of government; that there needs to be a cooling-off period. It is a sunset clause that acknowledges that the minister—and he did this in his second reading speech today—will welcome the input of opposition parties on the appointment of the next ATSIC chair and is also inviting indigenous people to consult with him on the issue, with there being no veto on consultation, which is the way it should be.

For the first time the Liberal and National parties are voting for the principle of an elected chair for ATSIC. That is why we support that amendment. There are 94 Liberal-National Party members in this House and 37 senators in the other House. In 1993, when the original proposal went through, it was opposed by the then opposition, the Liberal-National Party. The government introduced these amendments. So that is a concession—but it is a concession we welcome.

Also, I think there has been a compromise on the part of the opposition because it is questionable whether this proposal could have got through without cross-party support. We will never know. It should not have got through in a partisan way. The benefit of this package is that is it has cross-party support.

I know that there are one or two in this place and in the other place that might not be happy with this. My preference is for an elected chair now. However, I say to those listening that this is a better way, because what we now have is cross-party support. Whoever wins the next federal election, we now have cross-party support for the principle. That is better than winning one way or the other.

I think this is a benefit for ATSIC. The worst thing that could have happened was for an elected chair to be involved in a long-running argument with this government over the next three years. I know there are some people who are worried about that proposal. But I say, in the current climate, in the current circumstances, that is a reasonable compromise—and the Labor Party are prepared to put their name to that compromise. That is why we support this amendment.

However, in fairness to the government, they have also come to the party as well. For the first time they have given up and conceded that in three years time there will be a fully elected chair for ATSIC, as there should be.

In relation to the regional council reductions, people need to understand that, again, there have been concessions on both sides. When the bill was first introduced, we opposed the wholesale reductions in terms of the size of regional councils.

But I must say, in fairness to the government, that their proposal arose at least out of a policy document—a review of the 1993 elections. This was a document of March 1995 that suggested this very reduction—a document where there was a panel comprising the commission chairperson, Lois O'Donoghue; Trevor Willson of the Australian Electoral Commission; Kenneth Wyatt, the Acting Manager of Aboriginal Education from the Western Australian Education Department, an Aboriginal person appointed by the then minister; Mr George Trevorrow, Coordinator of Camp Coorong, Meningie, South Australia, an Aboriginal person appointed by the minister; and Mr Doug White, Acting General Manager of Australian Land Surveying and Land Information Group. So at least that proposal emanated from a review.

Our objection at the time was that there had been a reduction in the number of regional councils from 60 to 36 after the 1990 election, and that had resulted in the number of regional councillors being lowered from 809 to 593. This current proposal will result in 593 being reduced to 397. We felt that it was a drastic reduction because it was only based on a mathematical formula. Our consultation showed that some remote communities, some distinct groups might miss out.

The compromise has been—and it has been put in legislation—that the minister now has the power, in consultation with the commission, to appoint additional regional councillors if the case can be made out. One of the amendments that was passed through the Senate this morning that we have before us today is that there will be a review after the current round of elections to look at ways of looking after those remote communities.

The other problem we faced was that there were $8.2 million of budget savings allocated on the reduction of regional councillors. If that proposal were not compromised by us, that $8.2 million would have come out of programs. I believe that this is a sensible compromise.

In the atmosphere of goodwill in which these amendments are going through, if a genuine case were made out to the commission and the minister, the minister will act. The minister has been acting in goodwill. He is not the centre of my discontent in relation to some of these issues. I said at the time that the cabinet, in its original decision, had handed the minister a poisoned chalice. That is exactly what has transpired.

We have no problem with that amendment and support it because it goes further than the review of electoral systems of March 1995 recommended to protect remote communities. So let us not say that there was no consultation; there has been. People have been listened to and there has been a response. We referred to it as a safety net.

We have no hesitation in supporting the proposals that are before the parliament. I repeat the offer that I have made from day one since I have been shadow minister: this portfolio should be above politics; the Labor Party is prepared, through consultation with indigenous communities, indigenous people and all interested parties, to entertain reasonable, constructive amendments. We do not want the continuation of an ATSIC bashing exercise.

The colour of someone's skin should not be the basis of a policy for an individual or a political party, and it should not be something that individuals or political parties take advantage of. I feel that in recent times there has been a new, subtle form of McCarthyism. These proposals provide an appropriate mechanism that sends a signal—a signal responding to two eloquent speeches by the Governor-General. The first was at the Vincent Lingiarri lecture delivered on 22 August 1996, which I had the honour and privilege to attend as a representative of the Labor Party. It was the 30th anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off. The second was a speech on 4 September in Melbourne on the occasion of a national conference of the Council for Homeless Persons, where the Governor-General challenged, in the first instance, the parliament to recommit itself to reconciliation. I think these amendments go a long way towards doing that.

They also show that the Senate—the major parties, the Labor Party, the Democrats, the Greens and the Independents—will not countenance being run over roughshod. In this instance it has acted as a filter to produce a better bill for this House to consider.

A number of people across the spectrum deserve credit. There will be some criticism, which is fine because sometimes you need to make hard decisions in the interests of everyone. Sometimes you have to take a backward step to take two forward steps in the long run. That is what these amendments do.

It would have been quite easy for the government to keep its head in the sand, but then 80 per cent of this bill which originally had the unanimous support of both sides of the House would have been discarded. It also shows that the Leader of the House (Mr Reith) was wrong on the last occasion not to deal with the Senate bill because we could have utilised 80 per cent of it.

The Labor Party does not back away from being associated with this package and endorsing it. We have made some concessions and we do not apologise to anyone for that. In the long run, we have attempted to take ATSIC and indigenous people out of the line of fire. There is no excuse for the continued attack on ATSIC. It is put up or shut up time. What happened before is not the way to run a sensitive portfolio.

These amendments are an acknowledgment by both sides of the sunset clause. They are a concession by us to the government that it won the last election, that the ball game has changed. In the current climate, in return for consultation, we have agreed that there will be an elected chair in 1999. I think that is a sensible compromise.

I commend the minister and those involved. I do not commend all members of the government because some of them who were pretty outspoken in the early days are pretty silent now. They have had five months. The reason there has been a bit of a backdown is that commonsense has prevailed. The people who made all sorts of allegations have not been able to deliver.

I wholeheartedly support the compromise. It recognises that there is a bit of a way to go in this portfolio. As I go through each of these proposals, I reject the argument that it represents an attack on self-determination. Taking away the administrator is not an attack on self-determination; it is a recognition of it.

A final acknowledgment by every major political party that in 1999 there will be an elected chair of ATSIC is a recognition of self-determination, and that is an advanced step. Acting on a report from ATSIC in relation to regional councils is also consistent with the principle of self-determination. We have improved on that recommendation. I thank the House for its indulgence.