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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10443


Mr ZAHRA (10:09 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 . Let me preface my remarks by congratulating the member for Indi for his remarks and for his chairmanship of that committee. I have often been criticised as a savage political opponent of the Liberal Party, but I find it appropriate at this juncture to congratulate the member for Indi for his generosity of spirit towards the Aboriginal people of Australia and for the integrity with which he has conducted himself in his dealings with Aboriginal people.

Speaking on this bill provides me with an opportunity to provide a few ideas about how we can bring ATSIC closer to the people whom the commission seeks to represent. I think that we can go some way towards doing this by devolving authority from ATSIC to the local communities which it seeks to represent.

I, like many other people in this parliament, read with great interest the paper delivered by Mr Noel Pearson to the Brisbane Institute some months ago. Noel Pearson, as many people in this place would know, is the director of the Cape York Land Council and a prominent Aboriginal leader in Australia. His paper offered a great insight into the ways in which governments might be able to relate to Aboriginal communities in the future.

Mr Pearson spoke about an interface between Aboriginal communities and the state government and the federal government. So he was talking about moving away from some of these joint committees which exist and these departmental responses to the problems which Aboriginal communities face. He is talking about making a radical departure from that and starting again with something new, something over which the people in that community can have greater control and which would give greater responsibility to the people in those communities. I congratulate Mr Pearson on making those remarks. He has been very courageous, certainly politically courageous in the context of the constituency which he speaks for. I congratulate him on that initiative.

One of the things which ATSIC needs to consider in the future is regional offices. I come from Victoria and had the good fortune to work as the chief executive of the Central Gippsland Aboriginal Health and Housing Cooperative, in Morwell, where our primary responsibility was the delivery of an Aboriginal health service to the people there. We were not a large organisation; we had, I think, only 16 or 17 staff at any one point. But our dealings with ATSIC, whilst very good in the context of trying to negotiate the best outcome for the people we sought to deliver services to, would have been made better if we had had an ATSIC office based in Gippsland, as opposed to an ATSIC office based in Melbourne. We need to encourage the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to consider more closely whether or not this would be practicable.

I know that many of the Aboriginal people in Gippsland with whom I have the good fortune to be friends consider ATSIC still an organisation far away from their needs and aspirations. I think that placing an office there, of whatever staffing would be considered appropriate, considering the size of that Aboriginal community and also the community's needs, would be a step in the right direction. It would give the likes of the Central Gippsland Aboriginal Cooperative, the Ramahyuck Aboriginal cooperative in Sale, the Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Cooperative in Bairnsdale, and the Aboriginal cooperative in Orbost much closer links into that very important organisation, which still is responsible for delivering a large number of programs to Aboriginal people. I mention that today, not in the context of trying to impose the view which I have about the way that Aboriginal services should be delivered in regional parts of Australia, but rather offering it as an idea based on the experiences which I have had in the delivery of Aboriginal services in Gippsland.

In considering the bill and its provisions which relate to the democratic provisions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, there are a few important points which need to be made. The first is the very low rate of participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in elections. We have such a small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the Australian Electoral Commission rolls. When members here go through their polling booths on election days—as I think most people do; they visit the various polling booths in their constituencies—I would just ask them to consider how many Aboriginal people they ever bump into as they are doing the rounds of their constituencies. The truth is probably not many, even though many of us have significant Aboriginal communities in our electorates. This is something which we need to address very seriously.

I noted with some alarm that there were substantial cuts to the Australian Electoral Commission Indigenous Enrolment Program in 1996. I would urge the government, in the best bipartisan traditions of this place, to urgently reconsider whether or not it would be appropriate to reinstate that program as a way of encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in general elections in this country. I think that we are all the better for having those people participate in the democratic process.

I cannot tell you how much it pains me when I go and see Aboriginal people in my constituency and talk to them about an election coming up—as we have just had in Victoria—only to find that there is indifference in some people's minds about the fact that there is an election on and many people still are not registered to vote. We have a great democratic tradition in Australia. We need to seek to extend that democratic tradition to include all people in our community, and especially Aboriginal people who, for so long, have been marginalised from the political process.

A second point I want to make is that little is being done to empower Aboriginal people to participate in the entirety of the democratic process. It concerns me that so many Aboriginal people still feel very locked out from that process. I am talking about not just encouraging people to vote but also encouraging people to participate fully and wholly in the democratic process.

It was with some enthusiasm that my office advised me that a number of people involved in the land claim which is being pursued by the Gunai/Kurnai people in Gippsland have made an appointment to see me at my office in Moe this Friday. I am fortunate in that many Aboriginal people in our community feel confident coming to see me in my electorate office and, I hope, feel that they get some service from me.

I am very pleased indeed to see that that group of people—a group of people who are usually marginalised from the political process—had the initiative and, in many ways, the courage to go and see a local member of parliament to discuss this claim. Often local members of parliament are seen as people who will not be supportive of the cause of Aboriginal people in their community. It is a shame that that has been the case for a long time. I am very pleased that that group of people has had the confidence—and the confidence in me—to come and see me to discuss the issue of their land claim.

There tends to be a lot of talk about empowerment, but I think we need to be careful not to allow that talk to just be the shrill banter which politicians can go on with from time to time. I notice, with some concern again, that the Community Training Program, which is worth about $67.2 million, has been cut. I think this has undermined the efforts of people on both sides of parliament who are committed to genuine participation by Aboriginal people to try to encourage more Aboriginal people to be involved in the process.

I think it is worth reflecting on what the Community Training Program aimed to achieve. In the ATSIC Annual Report1996-97, the objective is listed as follows:

To improve decision making and service provision by Aboriginal organisations, through training which aims to increase skill levels and enhance employment prospects.

I think most people in this place would agree that this is a very important objective. In describing community training, the document lists a few dot points, one of which is as follows:

. provides assistance to selected individuals to enable them to undertake specific accredited training or education courses.

It continues:

The component had three elements:

. community training funded through ATSIC Regional Councils;

. Inwork, funded through ATSIC State and Regional Offices; and

. Full-time Professional Study Grants, funded through ATSIC Central Office as a national program.

So it is a shame that this Community Training Program has lost $67.2 million worth of Commonwealth funding and will now be unable to be delivered to Aboriginal people. I think it is worth noting as well that cuts to ATSIC, totalling nearly half a billion dollars, have occurred and have undermined Aboriginal self-determination.

Whilst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission regional council elections will take place in October this year, we need to consider what the government has done to empower Aboriginal people to participate more fully in this process. It is worth considering the program that existed previously to encourage more Aboriginal people to get onto the electoral roll. I can remember that the Aboriginal organisation which I used to work for had some great posters up around the place encouraging Aboriginal people to participate in elections. We had these posters up all around the organisation, and as people came into the organisation they would say, `Here we have an Aboriginal organisation'—these were all funded by ATSIC—`giving us encouragement to get involved in the political process.' As a result of that and of having some Australian Electoral Commission enrolment forms around the place, people were certainly encouraged to get involved and to have their say in ATSIC elections and also in the general election process at both state and federal levels.

Most people would understand that the advantages of having more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participating in the democratic process are huge. By having more involvement by Aboriginal people in democracy, we end up with much more representation at federal, state and local levels. This can only be a good thing in making sure that the interests of Aboriginal people who have traditionally been very marginalised from the political process are not forgotten.

I think it also encourages more understanding by Aboriginal people of the democratic process of local land councils, for example, and also of health services and cooperatives which are often charged with the responsibility of delivering various services to Aboriginal people. It is worth noting that in the past a number of problems have been encountered by organisations delivering services to Aboriginal people which have been run along democratic lines.

Questions have to be asked about how realistic it is to expect Aboriginal people to deliver services to their own communities using the democratic processes of cooperatives, elections for land councils and all the rest when not enough effort has been made by Commonwealth or state governments to try to engender greater understanding amongst Aboriginal people of the democratic process. We cannot just set up an organisation to fail and then wash our hands of it saying simply, `We gave the funding to a democratic Aboriginal organisation. Unfortunately they did not run it correctly and therefore we are not to blame; they are to blame.' That sort of approach is clearly unacceptable.

We should use the opportunities we have through funding to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to try to encourage people to participate in programs which engender within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community a greater awareness of the role of individuals in the Aboriginal community in electing directors onto Aboriginal health services and local Aboriginal land councils and in electing people to serve on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander regional councils.

I think we have a great responsibility. If we are going to take it seriously, we have to look at empowering some of those organisations which deliver Aboriginal education programs and encourage and support them in delivering programs to the Aboriginal community of which they are a part. For example, in my own electorate there is an enormous amount of good work done by the Koori unit at the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE. This group of very hard-working people deliver programs in adult literacy as well as in a whole range of other programs such as computer literacy and Aboriginal child care and assist Aboriginal people to access mainstream programs.

We need to talk, through ATSIC, about how we might ask the Koori unit at the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE, or other organisations, to deliver some type of management training or community leadership training to Aboriginal people. We talk a lot about the need for leadership in communities. Members of parliament who represent regional areas hear regularly that there is a need for community leadership to come from the regions so that the regions may seek the opportunities which are available to them. We talk a lot about the realities of globalisation and how regions are competing against not just other regions in Australia but regions in other parts of the world. However, we have not put in place processes which will allow Aboriginal people in regional areas to step forward as leaders in their own communities to take advantage of the opportunities that exist to put in place empowering practices for communities—not the type of paternalism we have seen in the past but empowering practices. We need to look seriously at the way in which we can deliver those services to Aboriginal people and encourage the likes of the Koori unit at the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE to be a participant.

An important point is that the government is letting Aboriginal people down through its inaction in this area. We need to be serious about preparing Aboriginal people for leadership roles in management, assisting them to understand their roles and responsibilities in the positions of director in the various organisation which I have mentioned.

There are some opportunities for director training for Aboriginal people. I note that ATSIC, some years ago, produced a very informative video titled So You Want to be a Director. It was in plain language and very easy to understand format—I myself found it very useful—and provided clear indications of what the responsibilities of being a director would be. I think that sort of service delivery—that type of appropriate education—is something that we should try to encourage more.

In conclusion, I will speak briefly about a great dream that I have and which I hope some day will be realised—that is, that we will have a system of Aboriginal scholarships in this country which will be genuinely available to ordinary men and women and their children in Aboriginal communities right across Australia and that this would be something which Aboriginal communities could control themselves and therefore have responsibility for. Aboriginal communities would choose the leaders of the future and would have a stake in it. People in those communities would be able to undertake the type of management and leadership training which would empower them to be able to go out and seek new opportunities for their community, which they need to take advantage of if they are to succeed as a people in the future.

We have some great Aboriginal people and some great Aboriginal leaders in this country. Noel Pearson, whom I mentioned earlier on, is a great example of that. If we had a process in place which was able to produce Aboriginal leaders with experience and training in management, in accounting, as well as in director training, we would be going some way towards meeting our responsibilities—giving Aboriginal people the tools of empowerment. This is an area in which we are not going anywhere near far enough. I think everyone would agree on both sides of the parliament that there has been far too much paternalism in terms of Aboriginal service delivery in the past. We need to relate to Aboriginal people as partners in the process. Only by including them as partners in the process can we possibly hope to assist them to choose a better future for themselves and for their children. Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important matter.