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Tuesday, 26 August 1997
Page: 6878

Mr LIEBERMAN(4.18 p.m.) —On behalf of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, I present the committee report on greater autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders entitled Torres Strait Islanders: a new deal , together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr LIEBERMAN —by leave—It gives me great pleasure to table today the report by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs on its inquiry into greater autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders. The inquiry was referred to the committee in August last year by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator John Herron.

The minister asked the committee to examine whether the people of the Torres Strait would benefit from a greater degree of autonomy and, if so, what form that greater autonomy should take. The minister also asked the committee to examine the implications of granting a greater degree of autonomy to those Torres Strait Islanders living outside the Torres Strait region.

Torres Strait Islanders, the traditional inhabitants of the Torres Strait region, are a special and unique people. Their culture has developed from ancient traditions and beliefs based on their island culture and strong links with the ocean. Their traditional culture finds modern expression in Ailan Kastom, which forms a common bond between Torres Strait Islanders living on the islands and on the mainland.

Torres Strait Islanders have a sense of unity and strongly identify as a separate and distinct indigenous group. Not surprisingly, this has led Torres Strait Islanders to call for their own voice in indigenous affairs and greater control over the events which affect their everyday life.

The committee believes that Torres Strait Islanders should be granted a greater degree of autonomy. By greater autonomy, the committee means a greater degree of self-government and greater influence and control over policy and programs developed by Commonwealth, state and local governments for the region. Greater autonomy also refers to recognising and preserving the separateness of Torres Strait Islanders as a distinct culture.

However, giving Torres Strait Islanders a greater degree of autonomy would not just be a political or cultural nicety. There are practical reasons why the people of the region should be urgently given a greater say in the decisions that affect them. For example, the committee has been appalled at some of the health problems facing Torres Strait Islanders. The region also relies on public sector expenditure and watches as the profits of the region's major private sector enterprise—fishing—go out of the region.

The people of the region need to be given the opportunity and the means to improve their situation. They should be given the chance to determine the region's priorities and ensure that services are culturally appropriate, efficient and effective. This will be done far more efficiently by Torres Strait Islanders themselves than by external agencies in Canberra and Brisbane imposing external solutions. The committee is sure that, with greater control over their own destiny and the day-to-day decisions that affect their lives, the people of the region will be able to tackle issues such as their poor health status far more effectively.

The committee believes that one of the barriers to providing Torres Strait Islanders with a greater degree of autonomy is the excessive layers of bureaucracy. Aside from services provided in the region by mainstream Commonwealth and Queensland government agencies, there are 17 island local government councils, the Torres Shire Council, a state based indigenous specific organisation, a Commonwealth indigenous specific organisation and the involvement of ATSIC. These are all providing services to just 8,600 people.

Many of these agencies have overlapping membership and overlapping functions, and some cross-fund each other. The sheer number of separate institutions diverts scarce funds away from service delivery and leads to a lack of clarity about which services are delivered by which agency.

In response to these issues, the committee proposes a structure of governance and administration to deliver greater political autonomy for all of the people of the Torres Strait. The basis of the committee's recommen dation is the establishment of a joint Commonwealth and Queensland body to represent, coordinate and administer programs to the region's residents. The report calls this body the Torres Strait Regional Assembly. The committee believes that the assembly should replace ATSIC, the Torres Strait Regional Authority, the Island Coordinating Council and the Torres Shire Council, and undertake at least their functions.

While the committee believes that the regional assembly's form would need to be determined by the local people in consultation with the Queensland and Commonwealth governments, the committee has set out a recommendation for the representation of the new assembly. The committee proposes that the regional assembly consist of an elected representative from each island and a total of five representatives from the larger communities on Thursday, Prince of Wales and Horn islands. The regional assembly will represent Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginals and also the 20 per cent of the region's residents who are non-indigenous.

The committee believes that it is very important for all residents of the Torres Strait region to be represented and not just the indigenous inhabitants. There can be no real autonomy unless it applies to all the residents of the region. In practice, however, the regional assembly is likely to be dominated by Torres Strait Islanders, as they represent such a large proportion of the regional population.

The success of the regional assembly would depend to some extent on the funds made available to it. Funding to support services in the region currently comes from the Commonwealth and Queensland governments. Such funding should continue to be provided. Eventually, however, the regional assembly should receive untied grants from the Commonwealth and Queensland. The assembly should then decide how the money will be spent, although indigenous-specific funds would continue to be reserved for Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal purposes.

True autonomy will not be a reality until the people of the region have a greater say over the funding priorities in the region and how these programs are administered. However, such arrangements will have to be negotiated with the Commonwealth and Queensland governments.

One of the proposed functions of the regional assembly is the protection and promotion of the unique Torres Strait culture: the body of traditions, beliefs, art and practices which is Ailan Kastom. The committee suggests that the regional assembly establish a forum of elders from both the region and the mainland to be responsible for this very important function. The forum would act as a cultural council and a bridge between the islands and the Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland. It would be up to the regional assembly to determine the council's duties and how it would carry them out. Nevertheless, the committee has made a recommendation setting out a possible methodology.

I want to emphasise that many of the structural changes proposed in order to provide greater autonomy for the residents of the Torres Strait region are outside the Commonwealth's jurisdiction. A successful outcome will depend on the Queensland government's agreeing with the proposals. Consultation and negotiation between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments, together with the people of the Torres Strait, are essential.

I do not have time to detail a number of the committee's recommendations to increase the economic independence of the region, suffice to say that the committee thinks that it is very important for Torres Strait Islanders to become more involved in the fishing industry and better represented in public sector agencies.

The committee heard calls for Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland to be represented in the regional model I have just outlined. However, because the committee has proposed a political model for greater autonomy in the region, the options for including mainlanders in this regional government are necessarily limited. Nonetheless, the committee has done its best to propose solutions to give mainlander Torres Strait Islanders greater autonomy.

The committee is not satisfied that the current ATSIC arrangements for representing the interests of mainland Torres Strait Islanders are the best option for protecting and promoting Torres Strait Islander culture. The Torres Strait Islander population on the mainland is widely dispersed, particularly outside Queensland. It is therefore difficult for Torres Strait Islanders to gain ATSIC funding for their own programs and have an effective input into ATSIC policies.

The Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board, as it is presently constituted, does not seem to provide an effective voice for mainlanders, particularly as it is only advisory. Some mainlanders feel that they do not get a fair share of ATSIC program funds, but this criticism is difficult to substantiate because of the way funds are disbursed. The committee notes that ATSIC is attempting to deal with perceived problems and has commenced an evaluation of the level of access to ATSIC programs and services by Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.

Despite difficulties with the current arrangements for Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland, the committee does not favour a separate commission for mainlanders. Such a solution would be inefficient and wasteful. In addition, many Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland also identify with Aboriginal ancestors. They do not wish to choose be tween their Torres Strait and Aboriginal heritages.

Because of these factors, the committee recommends that the interests of Torres Strait Islanders on the mainland continue to be protected by ATSIC. It suggests ways this can be done more effectively, by promoting greater awareness of Torres Strait Islander issues by ATSIC regional councils and by strengthening the TSIAB.

While the report focuses on greater autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders and the structures for facilitating this, it must not be forgotten that community control will be enhanced by improving access to mainstream services. This issue is particularly pertinent for mainlander Torres Strait Islander communi ties. The committee recommends a strategy for encouraging them to take up issues directly with those making decisions and implementing them.

It remains for me in the time left to thank the people who have helped us conduct this inquiry. I thank all of the many Torres Strait Islanders in the region and on the mainland who were so generous with their time in helping members of the committee understand what it is to be a Torres Strait Islander.

I would also like to thank the representatives of the Queensland government who gave evidence to the committee. Their spirit of cooperation with the Commonwealth augurs well for the future of the Torres Strait. I would also like to thank my colleagues on the committee from both sides of politics—and especially the local member, Warren Entsch, whose knowledge and leadership was of great help to me personally in this matter—for their contributions to the inquiry and the report.

On behalf of the committee I would like to thank Hansard and SAVO staff for their work during the hearings and visits. Thanks also to the RAAF crews who flew us to the Torres Strait and had to use short landing strips. Last, my thanks go to the members of the secretariat for their support—particularly to James Catchpole, the inquiry secretary; Judy Middlebrook, the committee secretary; Claressa Surtees; Natalie James; and Jan Wootton.

In conclusion, I commend this report to the House. The issue it addresses—greater autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders—is very significant. We hope that our suggestions will encourage other indigenous communities on the mainland to also develop strategies to increase their own autonomy and self-reliance. The goal is to give people greater control over and responsibility for the events that affect them so that they can enrich their lives. That, we believe, is no bad thing for all Australians.