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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 96


Senator BARTLETT (7:02 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This report is historic in its own way. It is the final annual report of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which wound up on 23 March last year—flowing on from the report that I was just speaking about, the annual report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, ATSIS. I note that the description sounds almost like an obituary: ‘ATSIC, 1990-2005’—perhaps we could add ‘rest in peace’. I can certainly say from some of the feedback that I am getting from Indigenous communities that there has not been a lot of peace with regard to what has happened since the abolition of ATSIC.

The report talks about how in 2002 the government began a wide-ranging review of ATSIC which found that many Indigenous people were ‘uncomfortable’ with a government imposed structure and preferred to ‘deal at a community level as directly as possible with funding bodies’. I certainly do not dispute that finding. Of course, if we look at the reality, what has happened is that government is more remote than ever and funding bodies are also more remote than ever from Indigenous communities.

This was a million-dollar review. A million dollars of taxpayers’ money was spent. Former minister Bob Collins, well-known Indigenous leader Jackie Huggins and a third person went around the country reviewing the operations of ATSIC and brought down a report about what should happen. What did the government do? It ignored the whole lot and abolished ATSIC—with the encouragement, unfortunately, of the opposition. Indeed, in some respects, the lead was shown by the then Labor leader, Mark Latham. As this report states, the government’s response included abolishing ATSIC and ATSIS based on ‘governments coordinating their efforts’ and ‘real engagement with Indigenous people at the local and regional level’. This is another example of the government making very lovely sounding statements about real engagement with Indigenous people at the local and regional level. But what have we seen since then? We have seen far greater disengagement.

ATSIC got a lot of bad press—and some of it was very deserved. I have to say that it is an area where Aboriginal people were badly let down by some of their leaders. But that should not obscure the fact—and the original government review of this did not obscure this fact—that there was a lot of good work being done at a regional level. Good work does not get the headlines; scandal and controversy do. The expertise and mechanisms for—to use the government’s own term—‘real engagement at the local and regional level’ that were there with ATSIC have been lost, and that is coming through time and time again. What has also been lost is representation for Indigenous people in public debates at the local level, the regional level and the national level. That is something that needs to be addressed. It is a need which the government has been quite happy to leave unaddressed.

I turn again to the changes to the Community Development Employment Projects program, CDEP—changes made in Canberra by bureaucrats within DEWR, based upon an ideology about shifting people into real jobs, with no care at all, no interest and no awareness of the reality of life in remote areas, let alone life in remote Indigenous communities, and I again mention, for example, those communities on the cape. What we have instead, to quote Mr Lee Robertson, the CEO of Hopevale council, north of Cooktown, is a ‘nightmare for Cape York’s Aboriginal communities’. I draw attention to an article in the Cairns Post of 3 August where the CEO of Hopevale called for a crisis meeting between all of the cape’s affected councils and senior DEWR officials on profound problems arising from changes to the CDEP program. Mr Robertson was backed by the CEO from Lockhart River, who said that his council could not and would not administer the CDEP program under the unworkable conditions imposed since 1 July. To quote Mr Buckland, the CEO of Lockhart River Council: ‘We spent two years trying to build up this no work, no pay ethic and now it is all out the window.’

As I said earlier, we also have the example of Mapoon council and the absurd situation where sit-down money—which everybody agrees is a bad idea—which had not been in place, has now been put in place through badly thought out programs, stupidly administered by bureaucrats who think they know best and who are already instituting the new paternalism policy of Mr Abbott when it comes to a whole-of-government approach. Some of the quotes in the Cairns Post article should be ringing alarm bells for this government. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.