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Thursday, 18 June 2009
Page: 6524


Mr ABBOTT (11:23 AM) —If you go to a remote Indigenous township you will invariably find a school, a clinic, a store and a council. Under the aegis of the council, you will invariably find municipal services, employment services and housing services. These are a lot of governmental institutions to operate in what are often quite small communities. In, for argument’s sake, a community of say 500 people you will often get 50 to 100 resident officials or professional staff staffing the school, the clinic, the store and the various services run by local councils. While there are well-developed vertical lines of command between, say, the school and the educational authorities in the state capital and between, say, the clinic and the health authorities in the state capital, there are often not well developed lines of horizontal communication and coordination between the various governmental bodies and agencies in these places.

Indigenous communities often provide very powerful illustrations of the defects of services in silos. This is a well-known problem with the delivery of governmental services generally, but it is particularly acute in many Indigenous places. Indeed, Indigenous places are often characterised by an abundance of government but an absence of authority generally. If you look at these remote Indigenous communities, you often see in the lifetimes of the older people resident in them transitions from traditional authority to mission authority to virtually no authority. It is a real problem. One reason why so many of these places are hotbeds of social dysfunction is that there is very little effective authority in them. So often we have committed idealistic young officials and professionals going into these communities and returning after six or 12 months defeated and disillusioned, because they feel that nothing really changes. Those who are there for the long term have begun to think that nothing really matters anyway.

This problem of disorientation and disillusion in Indigenous communities—especially among the people who deliver services to Indigenous communities—is very serious and needs to be tackled. This bill to provide for a Commonwealth Coordinator-General of services to remote Indigenous communities is the government’s attempt to move in this direction, and I want to commend the government for its good intentions.

There is the potential here to make a significant difference, because the Coordinator-General will have the power under this legislation to require people such as state and federal officials to provide information and documents, to require people to attend meetings and to request assistance from Commonwealth, state and territory agencies. It is envisaged that the Coordinator-General will have the power to—metaphorically, at least—bang heads together where problems are not being addressed in an attempt to make a difference. As I said, this is a worthy move on the part of the government. The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs has said that the establishment of this office is long overdue, and I have to say that I am inclined to agree with her.

I should point out, though, that as part of the intervention in the remote townships of the Northern Territory the former government did establish in virtually each of the 73 remote communities affected by the intervention the position of government business manager. The idea behind these government business managers was that they would be people with the authority of the Commonwealth government who would be in a position to try to ensure that all the services and agencies in this town were working together rather than pulling in different directions. So, if the teachers were not talking to the doctors and nurses, the government business manager would be able to have a quiet but authoritative word in the ear of all of them and try to ensure that common sense prevailed.

I have to say that, in my opinion, even better than the establishment of one coordinator-general based in Canberra would be the establishment of a whole series of mini coordinators-general in every single remote Indigenous community. In my opinion, the establishment of a senior Commonwealth officer in residence in each of the remote communities would be an even better step than this. But I do think that this is a step in the right direction.

I hope that the coordinator-general, once appointed, turns out to be a person of great natural authority as well as a person who is widely respected by the Australian community and widely experienced in getting things done—in making a difference. I hope that, in looking for people to fill this job, the government might consider former senior military officers, for instance—former senior officers of those institutions and establishments which do not muck around but get on with things and are used to being treated with respect and taken seriously, because that is the kind of officer that we need in this role if it is going to make a difference.

The coordinator-general has to be focused on the actual delivery of services on the ground. The coordinator-general has to be focused on trying to ensure that the people on the ground are absolutely committed to their role. That is what is necessary if this job is to start to make a significant difference to what can often be ghastly conditions in our remote Indigenous communities—the Third World in the midst of what is otherwise one of the greatest countries on earth. I do not want this coordinator-general to end up being just an addition to the bureaucracy; I would like to think that this coordinator-general is going to spend most of his or her time out in the remote places of our country actually making a difference where it matters. I commend the bill to the House.