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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 21

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (10:29 AM) —As we appreciate, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2005 gives effect to the government’s decision to abolish ATSIC and the ATSIC regional councils. In speaking to the bill I clearly indicate that I think it is time to abolish ATSIC, but the issue is what you do in making that transition. I listened with interest to the comments of the member for Goldstein. Interestingly, whilst he reflected on the Indigenous community, he failed to reflect on the failures of government. In dealing with the issue of Wadeye, he failed to reflect on the failure of government to provide decent public housing in the Wadeye community, better known as Port Keats to many in the Northern Territory. There you have an average of 20 to 25 people living in homes, which hardly raises the prospect of increasing school retention and making a real impact on the capacity of young people to make some progress in education and skilling.

It is interesting that he failed to give a real comparison between the level of government services in Wadeye, one of the fastest growing towns in the Northern Territory, and the township of Tennant Creek, largely a white township. On the provision of policing services, Wadeye is inferior in the resources provided to local police to do their job compared with the resources provided to police officers doing a far less onerous job in the township of Tennant Creek. It is interesting that in the township of Tennant Creek there is a fully serviced hospital while in the community of Wadeye we have difficulty attracting nurses and nursing assistance, let alone the capacity to access a full-time doctor.

So, yes, I say there are problems in Aboriginal communities. It is correct that we give some people the opportunity to do something for themselves. It is also about time that we as politicians at local, state and federal level faced up to the fact that we got it wrong. Wadeye is a prime example of how we got it wrong, because the services provided by government to a black community are largely and significantly inferior to those of the white communities throughout the length and breadth of the Northern Territory—something that members of the government have failed to confront in this debate.

That is why I say that this bill is a step back. Unlike most on the other side of the House who have chosen to have something to say in this debate, I have been a frequent visitor to what I describe as black communities over the last 25 to 30 years. I have a very close working relationship with them, especially throughout the length and breadth of the Northern Territory, having represented them as a trade union official. I have also gone out of my way as a representative of the Commonwealth parliament to do what I can to make progress with respect to the injustices that we as a white community have imposed on them and perpetrated against them for century after century.

It is about time we accepted that this bill is not the way forward. It is about concentrating in the hands of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and mostly white bureaucrats in Canberra the power to determine the future of Indigenous people in Australia. It ignores what I regard as a clear principle if we are to make progress with respect to the injustice that exists in Indigenous Australia at the moment: the principle of self-determination. This bill treats the Indigenous community in a patriarchal, subservient way. It shifts the balance of power away from a regional delivery of services—which is the only way we will ever make progress—to a centralised, top down, Canberra driven approach. It is all right to give the communities beyond Indigenous communities empowerment through area consultative committees to determine their future, but when it comes to Indigenous communities we are going to drive it from Canberra and we are going to make the decisions from Canberra. I contend that, having accepted that ATSIC should go, it is about time we consulted them on what is the best way forward. I therefore argue that the model proposed by the government in this legislation will do very little to solve the issues faced by Indigenous Australians.

It is going to do nothing to actually reduce poverty and social disadvantage such as exist in the community of Wadeye. Yes, a swimming pool is a breakthrough; but, gee, it is off a very low base. It will make things worse, if anything. It potentially takes us back to the assimilation days of the 1960s. The model being proposed by government is about mainstreaming the provision of services for Indigenous communities so that services will be provided out of Canberra rather than out of local communities. We would not cop it in our local electorates, yet we are saying to Indigenous communities, ‘Cop this because you’ve got no choice.’ In essence we are saying: ‘You don’t have the capacity to make decisions for yourselves. Leave it to us white boys and girls in the Commonwealth parliament to make those decisions for you.’ If anything, it is a form of racism.

The government’s way of engaging with local communities will be through shared responsibility agreements or SRAs. The government suggests that it is going to establish some 80 SRAs by the end of 2005. This model does not take into account in any way best practice models from around the world. It does not recognise the benefits being achieved through self-determination for indigenous peoples. By adopting this model, the government is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the right and ability of Indigenous communities to manage their own affairs. The government has not done the real work that is required to ensure that Indigenous Australians enjoy the same quality of life as the rest of the Australian community. That is what the debate should be about. How are we going to guarantee that all Australians, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, have the same quality of life? There is a huge difference at the moment, and Wadeye is just one example of our failure as a community.

The truth is that Indigenous Australians are doing it tough. Let us consider a few statistics. It is interesting that very few members of the government put these statistics on the table in the context of this debate. Let us talk about some of the disadvantage actually experienced by these communities—for example, the issue of income. In 2001 average household income for the Australian community was $585 per week. Guess what it was for the Indigenous community: 62 per cent of that or $364 per week. In remote areas of Australia—that is where Indigenous communities are largely concentrated, often without any job opportunities—it was equal to only 43 per cent of the weekly income of non-Indigenous Australians.

On the issue of employment, we tend to define ourselves as a community by our capacity to have a job—to get up each day, go to work and come home having worked in a workplace that is safe. At a time when the government is talking up its employment credentials, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians is 23 per cent. The government thinks that is insignificant; I think that is huge. It is 43 per cent if the CDEP participants in the states are counted, which is some 37,000 people.

Then there is health. We are all living longer: us whitefellas and white girls can now expect to live longer. But let us go to the Indigenous communities. Life expectancy among Indigenous males born between 1999 and 2001 is 56 years compared to 77 years for the broader community. Life expectancy for Indigenous women born in the same period is 63 years compared to 82 years for the broader community. The truth is that Indigenous Australians are more likely to die from certain health conditions: for example, death as a result of respiratory disease in Indigenous communities for people aged 35 to 40 is 20 times higher for males and 10 times higher for females than across the broader community. Indigenous communities have a very high fertility rate; it is the only thing holding up Australia’s fertility at the moment. Infant mortality in the Indigenous community is 10.6 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 5.6 deaths for the wider Australian community.

The measures of disadvantage speak for themselves. Be it housing, education, health, quality of life or whatever, we have failed as a community. But the Howard government chooses to address this by reducing the ability of the Indigenous community to determine its own future. I am not here to defend ATSIC. I am talking about the transition. We would not tolerate this situation in any other ethnic group in Australia. We say to those ethnic groups, irrespective of which country they come from, that life is about opportunity and we are going to give you the capacity to fully participate in the Australian community.

But this bill and the broader administration of Indigenous programs and services, it is interesting to note, were considered last year by the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. The committee rejected the Howard government’s assertion that self-determination has been a failure. Indigenous communities provided evidence to the committee—and the strong message was that ATSIC was not the only problem. All of a sudden, because it suits the government’s agenda, ATSIC becomes the fall guy for the failures of state and federal governments of all political persuasions. In many cases these failures have been in fundamental areas such as health and education, which interestingly were never the responsibility of ATSIC but the responsibility of politicians.

Problems identified with ATSIC could have been addressed in a way that would have allowed self-determination for Indigenous Australians to succeed. Evidence presented to the committee suggested that the regional structures that exist under ATSIC, which were pursued in the second reading amendment by the opposition—and this is the important point—have served many communities well because they have had the power to determine their own future. They have provided important links between the communities and the state, territory and Commonwealth bodies.

The key to the future is regional emancipation. I believe regional structures are essential if regional communities are going to be able to determine their own priorities and effectively negotiate the proposed regional agreements. You cannot do it from Canberra—and we say that for regional development generally. But when it comes to regional Indigenous communities we say that Canberra can do it because it is about Indigenous people, not whitefellas and white girls. How wrong are we as a community. That is why Labor has moved the amendment. This amendment is about the transition—extending the life of the ATSIC regional councils by six months. It is not a big ask. It is a key recommendation not of the opposition but of the Senate committee. That is where the recommendation comes from.

I think the amendment is important because, in essence, by propping up the regional organisations for six months to work out their future, we as a parliament are saying that we recognise local leadership, accept regional delivery of services as the way forward and acknowledge the importance of the social indicators in ensuring that we finally work out how, collectively and in a non-political way, we can start working towards eliminating disadvantage in Indigenous communities.

Labor believes that regional models are about giving Indigenous people a voice in their own future. Many of the ATSIC regional councils have a high level of respect in the Australian community. Over a long period they have been successfully delivering grassroots representation and bringing about meaningful consultation with the communities they represent.

It is also interesting to note that where we have been successful at a local level we have made more progress in overcoming social disadvantage because those people have taken hold of their own problems and worked out their own solutions. What they need from Canberra is a bureaucracy that is prepared to respond to local priorities, not one which determines local priorities, in essence, by saying, ‘We know better.’ I tell you what: we do not know better. The social indicators prove beyond any doubt that we do not know better. For example, on health and education, ATSIC has not had the power to determine those issues; it has been the central bureaucracies in Canberra. It is not about being Canberra-centric; it is about building regional partnerships—real partnerships that work. It is about emancipation. It is about empowerment. It is about building capacity. I must say that, in the building of that capacity, Indigenous women are more than ever emerging as the leaders who are prepared to tackle the problems. We have to give those women all the possible support in the world. They are prepared to accept leadership positions and take on the struggles in their own local communities to get people to front up to their responsibilities. Our responsibility is to give them the capacity, support and commitment to enable them to do their job.

The opposition wants to work with the Indigenous community in a bipartisan way. Let us remove politics from the debate and work together collectively to improve people’s lives. It is about time we understood that this is not an academic debate about this or that model; it is a debate about people’s futures. It is about real people and real families. It is about a work force that many in communities, such as the mining and resources employer communities, have suddenly discovered is untapped. The work force is there, waiting to be trained, and it can overcome some of the skills shortages in Australia. How will you do that unless you make progress at a local level on fundamental issues such as health, nutrition, education and skilling? Let us not disenfranchise Indigenous communities. Let us stop vilifying Indigenous leaders. Let us start talking to them through their communities.

Indigenous communities are concerned about their future. They do not understand this high-falooting debate about ATSIC, but they know their local problems. All they want is for us to understand their local problems and to say, ‘We are prepared to step back and to work with you.’ The truth is that they have no understanding of what will replace ATSIC. They might be critical of ATSIC, just as I am critical of ATSIC, but prior to taking an axe to ATSIC I would have engaged the local communities and worked out with them the best model for the future. I would not have sat in Canberra and, based on the ideology of a particular party, determined that I knew best. In essence, mainstream services will still be provided through a head office arrangement in Canberra.

We could end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The government should have a serious think about the amendments approved by the Senate, which extend the life of regional councils by six months. Let us try to address some of the risks of taking an axe to the regional councils at the same time that we take the axe to ATSIC, to give regional bodies time to think about structures and resources and how they want to go forward as a local collective in a constructive and cooperative way. Labor’s amendments are about providing transitional capacity to Indigenous communities. The amendments are about providing certainty and stability to people and ensuring that the changes are worked through at a local level.

The opposition calls on the government to give its commitment to real capacity building by giving an extension of six months to regional councils and developing a proper regional delivery model that is not driven by Canberra but through local ownership by Indigenous communities. The message from Indigenous communities around Australia is that no-one has a problem with mutual obligation, but they get sick and tired of sermons from the mount—from the white house on the hill in Canberra. They have had a gutful of this place determining their future. They want to determine their own future, because we have failed to understand their future needs.

In summary, I urge the House to accept the opposition’s amendments as approved by the Senate. The amendments are about a transitional process and emancipation and empowerment of local Indigenous communities. It is the 21st century. Surely we have enough confidence in their ability to give them a go. If we fail to do this, we will have to accept that, because of our failure to give Indigenous communities decent opportunities in life to fundamental services such as education, employment and transport, we have condemned them to being second-class citizens in the Australian community. All the indications are that they are a mile behind what is acceptable in my local electorate. We as a nation can no longer accept that situation. (Time expired)