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Tuesday, 14 March 2000
Page: 12706

Senator FERRIS (2:57 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator Herron. Minister, as you would be aware, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is celebrating its 10th anniversary year. Will you inform the Senate of how ATSIC and the government are working together?

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank Senator Ferris for her question and for her continued interest in this portfolio. May I congratulate her on her own anniversary today in celebrating her birthday.

Senator Robert Ray —Name the date!

Senator HERRON —It is today. Madam President, she is not 10 years old. ATSIC celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. I want to record that and tell the Senate that I was honoured to attend a small celebratory function with ATSIC staff last week. I must say that meeting highlighted what a good bunch of people work in ATSIC, and I thank them for their warm welcome. ATSIC began operations on 5 March 1990, and I would like to congratulate all of those who have contributed to both the elected and administrative arms of ATSIC over the past 10 years. I am happy to say that I enjoy a positive working relationship with ATSIC's elected and administrative arms, and I am very pleased with the professional service provided to me by the many hardworking public servants within ATSIC.

ATSIC continues to be the government's principal source of advice on indigenous affairs. Madam President, as you would be aware, there may have been political differences in the past—and I am sure there will be some in the future. However, the relationship between the Howard government and ATSIC, especially Chairman Commissioner Geoff Clark, remains positive and productive. As honourable senators would be aware, ATSIC is an organisation in constant review, and it has been my view that the organisation should change with the wishes of the people it represents.

I am also of the view that ATSIC should pursue a new structure of regional autonomy and devolved decision making to the community so that decisions predominantly affecting communities should, where possible, be made by the communities. So it is pleasing that the new board, under its first fully elected chair, Commissioner Geoff Clark, has endorsed plans for a major restructure of the administrative arm. The restructure, which is being progressively implemented by ATSIC's Chief Executive Officer, Mark Sullivan, is designed to ensure that ATSIC's administrative arm is far more responsive to the people it represents. The restructure sits well with the Howard government's moves towards greater regional autonomy and the desire of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to see more authority devolved from Canberra to local and regional levels.

An example of this is the Torres Strait Islanders, who wanted to control their own destiny. They proved that they could manage their own affairs, and I am pleased that the government has been able to deliver to them regional autonomy and a budget independent from ATSIC—something that was not acted on by the previous government. They have been wanting this for many, many years; this government has delivered. Late last year ATSIC and I released a discussion paper on regional autonomy to see whether similar structures could be established elsewhere around Australia. ATSIC is now conducting a community consultation process on the discussion paper which involves discussions through zone meetings with regional councils, indigenous organisations and individuals.

Senator Forshaw —Madam President, I raise a point of order. Is it appropriate for the minister, in answer to a question without notice, to stand there for four minutes and read out a prepared statement? Surely he could ask to make a ministerial statement and we may consider giving him leave.

The PRESIDENT —As I understand it, ministers and shadow ministers are able to read material that other senators would not be able to read. There is no point of order.

Senator HERRON —Thank you, Madam President. As I mentioned, ATSIC are conducting community consultations and they will report to me with recommendations by midyear. There are many other areas where the government is working closely with the commission—and the interpretation of my question time by Senator Forshaw limits the amount of time that I can devote to answering the question, but I am happy to proceed in the time that is available to me. Suffice to say the government's focus will continue to be in attacking disadvantage by seeking better outcomes in health, housing, education, employment and economic independence. We are making inroads into these areas, but more work obviously needs to be done. With the good will of the government and ATSIC, I am confident that we can together, in partnership, achieve much more to the lasting benefit of indigenous Australians—much more than was achieved by the Labor Party in its 13 years of wasted opportunity.

Senator Hill —Madam President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.