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Former Cape York Land Council director criticises abolition of ATSIC, and defends its management.

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7.30 report


Thursday 15 April 2004

Former Cape York Land Council director criticises abolition of ATSIC, and defends its management


MAXINE McKEW: As the former head of the Ca pe York Land Council and a leading voice for reform in Indigenous affairs, Noel Pearson has in recent years been a strong critic of centralised bureaucratic control. 


I spoke to Noel Pearson in Cairns a short time ago. 


Noel Pearson, will you be shedding any tears for ATSIC after the Prime Minister's announcement today? 


NOEL PEARSON, CAPE YORK PARTNERSHIPS: Maxine, this is one necessary step backwards but instead of plotting two new steps forward, the Prime Minister has indicated that, in fact, we're going to take two steps backwards and return to the old mainstreaming disaster in Aboriginal affairs. 


MAXINE MCKEW: Why do you say they are a step backwards? 


As you know, ATSIC by many has been seen as a dysfunctional body. 


NOEL PEARSON: The problem with ATSIC was that the election procedure that was provided for in the 1989 legislation did not attract the best Indigenous people to stand for office. 


So for the last 14 years, many good Indigenous people failed to stand as leaders in that structure and what we needed was a new solution that would immediately attract the best Indigenous talent to take up positions of responsibility in ATSIC and that didn't happen and what we needed now was a two steps forward that would articulate a way forward for Indigenous people to take responsibility for our problems. 


MAXINE McKEW: But instead what we're going to see, of course, is most of the programs, the Indigenous programs that ATSIC looked after, they will go back into the various Federal departments. 


The money is to be quarantined, we're told. What's wrong with that? What worries you about that? 


NOEL PEARSON: This is complete folly. 


We had mainstreaming long before ATSIC. 


ATSIC was started up in 1990. 


The 20 years prior to that, mainstreaming was the way in which services were delivered to Indigenous people and that produced failure. 


The main, the two biggest programs, in fact, that effect the livelihood of Indigenous people are health and education. 


Education has always been a mainstream Government responsibility. 


ATSIC has never had charge of education. 


And health, Indigenous health has been a mainstream department of the health responsibility since the Keating government removed health from ATSIC in 1995. 


So, those two grievous examples, health and education, have been mainstream responsibilities for the last 10 years. 


MAXINE McKEW: So what are your worries now about the consequences of this decision? 


NOEL PEARSON: Well, there's no positive program that's been articulated other than this vague prejudice against special Indigenous structures. 


I think the Prime Minister is completely wrong when he assumes that mainstreaming is the solution. 


We are going to return to, in fact, a big government, service delivery, welfare delivery paradigm in Indigenous affairs and at least in Cape York Peninsula, that's what we've been trying to get away from. 


We've been trying to get away from the notion that government has all of the answers, that government responsibility is the key to Indigenous uplift. 


The key to Indigenous uplift is welfare reform. 


It's Aboriginal people taking responsibility for their own affairs and it's about intolerance of substance abuse. 


All of these messages have struck a lot of resonance with the Prime Minister and other members of his Cabinet. 


MAXINE McKEW: Yet the point that the Prime Minister has made today is there is to be no further elected body to consider these things you are talking about but an advisory body appointed by Government? 


NOEL PEARSON: We've had many kitchen cabinets in Indigenous affairs over the last 30 years and the idea that we're going to make some progress with an advisory body, I think, is entirely incorrect. 


What we need is, in fact, Indigenous leaders, competent, talented people, to take up responsibility for these problems. 


Not be shunted sideways and made into token advisers to the government. 


You know, when I talked about passive welfare four years ago, I did not just mean that money for nothing was the passive welfare problem, I also identified that Government services were part of the problem. 


That is, where Government took complete responsibility for trying to uplift Indigenous people, Government was going to get nowhere. 


They were contributing to a welfare problem. 


What is needed is for Aboriginal people to take charge of their own problems. 


MAXINE McKEW: Just a final point, if I could, Noel Pearson. 


On a day like this, do you feel that ATSIC's last days, the collapse of ATSIC, is always going to be associated as well, unfortunately, with Geoff Clark's failed leadership? 


NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that there's a need for us to reflect on why it is that we have failed to recruit good Indigenous people. 


You know, such as John Ah Kit. 


We have to ask ourselves questions like that. 


Why did not John Ah Kit ever become a national leader of ATSIC and what would we needed to have done to recruited people with talent, with administrative competence, with policy capacity and with real leadership. 


Why didn't we attract them into the leadership? 


And what do we need to do in the future in order for people such as that to take responsibility for these problems? 


MAXINE McKEW: For that, Noel Pearson, thank you very much indeed. 


NOEL PEARSON: Thank you, Maxine.