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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 79


Senator JOHNSTON (5:45 PM) —In talking on this very important piece of legislation—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005]—I commend those in this chamber who have contributed up to this point. This area of public policy is one of our most challenging and, indeed, I am disappointed that more senators have not participated in this debate. The needs, requirements and exigencies of Aboriginal communities should occupy this chamber and have this parliament’s full attention probably more than any other issue. I say that because, when one looks at the outcomes—and the outcomes over a very long period of time under both Liberal and Labor administrations—one sees that they have not been good. When I look at one of the principal reasons—not the only reason—for that failing, that shortcoming, one has to be drawn in an even-handed way to say that ATSIC as an experiment has been a failure.

I participated in the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, which investigated—and I am abbreviating the terms of reference—the abolition of ATSIC. Both Senator Crossin and I, together with you, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, sat through a number of hearings. Sadly, I was away on other committees, but I attended as many as I could. The thing that amazed me was that in Alice Springs and Darwin, and all around Australia, there was no outrage or opposition to ATSIC’s abolition. There was no indignation. There was largely apathy and an expectation that we can do better. That is a legitimate expectation—an expectation that knows that ATSIC, with a voter turnout of 20 per cent, is not only unrepresentative but simply failing to understand the diversity of its constituency.

ATSIC had no great mandate and, therefore, had no great accountability to firstly remote communities, which are very difficult to understand, to legislate for, to provide services for and to administrate. It then had no real understanding of the difference between remote communities and regional communities. Central wheat belt towns in Western Australia, for example, are totally different from outback, isolated, remote communities in the central reserve. They are absolutely chalk and cheese in their day-to-day functioning, in their facilities and in the integration that they have with the wider community. ATSIC never came to terms with that difference. Lastly, of course, it is fair to say that ATSIC never really came to terms with urban communities, although it was dominated by and preoccupied with them, particularly in Sydney, Melbourne and, to some extent, Perth and Brisbane.

That is the great irony of this, at the end of the day. I said to Geoff Clark in the committee hearing: ‘Mr Clark, how is it that, when the legislation is introduced, you don’t appear to have a friend in the world? The Labor Party are not willing to side with you; the government has certainly had enough of ATSIC. Nobody in public administration is prepared to put their hand up and say, “We must preserve this institution.” How has it come to this after such a long time?’ The answer I got—and I am paraphrasing what he said—was, ‘It’s not our fault; it’s everybody else’s fault.’ Leadership in this institution has failed, and it has failed for any number of good reasons. It simply failed to understand its constituency, and it was not determined to see good outcomes.

No-one is sad at ATSIC’s passing, and people particularly in Western Australia are looking forward to the changes. It concerned me that a number of commissioners who came before the committee were quite angry at ATSIC’s demise. But when I realised what it meant to them on a personal level—they lost substantial amounts of income and allowances, usually approaching figures in excess of $200,000—I understood why they were some of the loudest opponents to the demise and abolition of ATSIC. I hasten to point out that it is not about the fee. I do not mind paying the fee. The fees—the travel allowance, the living away from home allowance and all that—are fine, if I thought they were doing the job, if I thought there was an outcome, or if I thought there was some earnest application of public administration, skills and ability but, sadly, there was simply not.

We have outrageously high rates of child mortality, and we have domestic violence figures that are absolutely appalling. Indeed, we have two reports that absolutely stagger any semblance of proper public administration. We have Third World health conditions and chronic unemployment. The outcomes were against the backdrop of the ATSIC budget, which in 2002-03 was $1.1 billion—that is, $A1,100 million was given to ATSIC in 2002-03.

That is not the end of the matter, because the Australian government had a total expenditure, independent of that figure, of $1.3 billion. So $2,400 million was spent on Aboriginal and Indigenous programs and affairs in one year, yet we still have this failure of public administration. Let us be perfectly frank: it is not all ATSIC’s fault. The changes that are on foot in this legislation are the beginning of a new dawn, the beginning of a new day and they are positive in the face of the hand wringing and platitudes that we get from the opposition and from senators in the minor parties.

I am trying as hard as I can to be the least bit provocative in terms of politics but, by any measure related to health, education, housing, child welfare or domestic violence, ATSIC was a failure and had to go. The first person to come out publicly from the other side and say that and bring the debate to a head was the former Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham. He said: ‘It’s got to go.’ This legislation would not be here if it had not been for the Labor Party coming to the conclusion that ‘enough was enough’.

This legislative framework was put in place in 1989 by the then Labor government. It has all the hallmarks, all the similarities and all the foibles and complexities of the national native title legislation. We all know, and those people who have some empathy with Aboriginal people in these areas all know, what a chronic failure it has been in terms of having expectations dashed, in terms of holding out the torch of self-determination just to see it not work, because the organisation and the institution became subverted in peculiar, internal political wrangling.

I want to talk about the new start. The current Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Vanstone, needs to be heartily congratulated on grasping this very difficult nettle. The legislation focuses on outcomes, it focuses on funding from the ground up, not the top down—which was the ATSIC model—and it focuses on direct funding into communities. It provides a better capacity to address the diverse needs of Aboriginal people. The people in the central reserve of Western Australia, the people up in the Kimberley, the people living in Redfern need a certain degree of understanding and a perception of what their requirements are in order to make the funding meaningful and to get a good bang for the buck that we put into Aboriginal and Indigenous affairs. The minister must be congratulated on her approach. As I said, we can do better and I believe that this is the first step on the right path towards doing that.

I pause to say what that means in terms of parliamentary oversight. We all participate in the estimates process; we all go along to Senate committees. The opportunity that this presents to ordinary members of the Senate back benches to go along to estimates hearings, and to scrutinise what is happening in individual communities, to raise issues, to follow them up, is an opportunity that we have not had before. The principal reason why we have not been able to get to the bottom of the problems in the management and the public administration of Indigenous affairs is that ATSIC has been totally unaccountable. It has been funded entirely by the Australian government—of whatever political colour—but it has not been accountable to the parliament.

We go along to estimates, we go along to our inquiries, we can call the witnesses and we can see that mainstreaming achieves the intended outcome. We can ride behind the Commonwealth officers, the senior departmental secretaries, the SES officers and we can ask: ‘How many times have you been out into the communities this year? I want to know whether you have been to Balgo. Are you going to Balgo? Are you ever planning to send anybody to Balgo?’ Balgo is a very important Aboriginal community. I want to know whether public servants will do the right thing and see that the services that we all hope will get delivered to these places are actually being delivered. We have never had that opportunity.

This legislation, this scheme, this plan gives us a chance to be there, to be part of the game and to seek the outcomes that we all want. That is why I think this legislation is very good. I think it is interesting that the opposition come into this place and say, ‘It’s terrible that we’re going to forsake the democratic institution of Indigenous people.’ The only reason this legislation is here today is because Mark Latham committed the Labor Party to support the abolition of ATSIC. That is why it is here. We would not get the legislation through if it were not for the opposition and the minor parties. We have it here because Labor has realised that the system is not working. When you have people’s livelihoods, their health, their future, their education—those sorts of things—in the palm of your hand, Senators, that is when you need to act. I say to Labor—notwithstanding that it is trying to dress it all up and hide behind some sort of Clayton’s abolition of ATSIC—congratulations; support the abolition. Let us get on with this new scheme and let us see if we can deliver some outcomes to Aboriginal people that are long overdue.

I am looking forward to attending estimates and I am looking forward to visiting communities, with senior public servants, to see that delivery is taking place. I am looking forward to asking departmental heads: ‘How many times have you been to Redfern? How many times have you been out there talking to Aboriginal people on the ground?’ I am looking for a much greater engagement between Commonwealth and state departments. We now can open up that dialogue. I think that has been a problem: ATSIC has not been able to communicate with state departments. There has been a ‘my empire versus your empire’ attitude: ‘Don’t get on my turf. We do this.’ I am hoping that a lot of the emotional guardianship of one’s turf is now coming out of the argument and we can look to delivering services properly. I hasten to say that none of this is easy. I look forward to joining the opposition in scrutinising government on how we deliver services to Aboriginal and Indigenous communities.

I have great respect for many members of the opposition. Senator Crossin, Senator McLucas and indeed Senator Moore are just a few people who take the time to come along to the Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund, sit up all hours of the night reviewing annual reports and do the sorts of things that Aboriginal people need us to do to ensure that they are getting a fair crack of the whip out of what is a very successful economy. We all enjoy a magnificent standard of living but we can do better about what Aboriginal people are seeing in terms of their slice of the pie.

The need for change has been explained. In saying why we had to move in such a way I refer to the Gordon inquiry report to the Western Australian state parliament, and to a further report which was produced in Sydney, entitled Child sex abuse in rural and remote Australian Indigenous communities. Those two very interesting reports indicate the urgent need for this parliament to arrest what has been a failure in the delivery of service with respect to a number of fronts, particularly state and federal and ATSIC. ATSIC is the first step; we are on the way to really getting stuck in to fix this matter up.

I now turn to the Labor Party’s approach. I have complimented them on the fact that they are supporting the abolition of ATSIC. I see a number of amendments come floating through. That is not the way to deal with Aboriginal and Indigenous affairs. It is not the way to go forward to give a proper lead. You have to have a plan; you have to have a policy. What is Labor’s policy? We have seen that ATSIC was unrepresentative of people all over Australia. We have seen that the funding was not delivered; it was a top-down scheme that simply did not get off the ground, such that none of its constituents lamented ATSIC’s passing. So where is the great Labor plan? If they do not like what we are doing about a representative institution, where is their model? Where is the work that they have done to say, ‘We think we can do it better’? The bottom line is that they have not done the work and they have not approached the hard questions.

The report that was put forward by the select committee was full of political platitudes designed to be a Clayton’s support for the bill—that is, they do support it but they really want to show Aboriginal people that they are very unhappy about supporting it. The fact is that Aboriginal people are not unhappy about the legislation. They are looking forward to a new day. The Labor Party need to understand, as Senator Ridgeway indicated, that they should get on with the job. They should accept this legislation for what it is. It is a new start and it is a better way of doing things.

I pause to say that, from talking to people on the ground, I know that the Western Australian experience was that ATSIC was wholly and solely irrelevant to and unrepresentative of them. Western Australia has by far the largest population of Indigenous people in this country but their representation on ATSIC was one of the smallest. Indeed they did not fit into the political paradigm that evolved inside the walls of ATSIC. They did not have the chance to do the networking, to play the part and to assert themselves that eastern states members of ATSIC had. So Western Australia was at a huge disadvantage when it came to being part of what was an experiment in self-determination. In fact ‘self-determination’ was simply a euphemism for the strongest over the weakest and for the most articulate dominating the inarticulate. That is the failure on the ground in Western Australia.

Senators have said that I said that we did not go to Western Australia. We went to Western Australia back in June or July—


Senator O’Brien interjecting—


Senator JOHNSTON —We went to Broome before the parliament was prorogued. It is a whole new parliament. We did not go to Carnarvon, Meekatharra, Kalgoorlie—where there are literally thousands and thousands of Indigenous people—Perth, Bunbury, Albany or Geraldton. That is the most outrageous thing about the Labor Party’s approach to this legislation. They wanted to hold an inquiry but almost half of the constituents were left out of the loop. That is a very sorry, sad and lamentable fact.

In closing, I sincerely hope and believe that the legislative scheme that is before the Senate today is going to be a better deal for Aboriginal people. I believe it will give senators a much greater opportunity to scrutinise, to observe and to be part of the process of improving the lot of Aboriginal people, be they living in the cities, wheat belt towns, agricultural centres or some of the most remote communities in the world. I commend this legislation because the minister has done a good job. (Time expired)