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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 2067


Mr PORTER(9.28) —In 1967 the referendum was passed which allowed the Federal Government to legislate in favour of Aboriginal people. There is no doubt that at the Federal level the 1970s, under both Liberal and Labor governments, was a period of great change in the administration of Aboriginal affairs. It was a period in which the needs and desires of the Aboriginal people started to be recognised and met. Certainly, policies aimed at assisting in removing difficulties faced by the Aboriginal people changed dramatically. Paternalism and forced assimilation have been replaced with consultation and a much greater involvement by Aborigines in the administration of their own affairs. The change in approach has brought with it welcome advances in meeting the needs of our Aboriginal communities. The more we researched the problems, the more sensitive we became to Aboriginal views and the more responsive we became to their real needs.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was set up in 1972 and it has seen a procession of Ministers. Initially, there was Gordon Bryant, followed by Senator Cavanagh, then Les Johnson, Ian Viner, Senator Chaney, Senator Baume, Ian Wilson , and the current Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding). Given that the Department has been in existence for 10 years it is reasonable to review progress, to examine whether policies are achieving intended goals, to test whether the goals are still relevant, and to see whether the organisation and control of programs is still relevant to today's requirements. The Minister has set up a number of reviews. Indeed, almost every area of his responsibility is under review, although he seems reluctant to reveal the details of those reviews to the House.

On 19 May the Minister did say he would make a statement to the House about the Aboriginal affairs policy of this Government, but he has not yet done so. That statement may well have included details of the terms of reference and other information about these inquiries. However, as the statement has not been made we as a parliament are left guessing. I understand that at the moment there are inquiries into the Northern Territory land rights legislation, Aboriginal legal aid, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the National Aboriginal Conference, the Aboriginal Development Commission, Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, uniform land rights, and Aboriginal training and employment. Certainly the Minister seems to have no hesitation in pre-empting the inquiries by making administrative changes on the run. For example, the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation was given a letter on 26 September telling it to wind up on 30 September.

When changes are made in public administration, clearly great care must be taken to ensure that organisational, administrative and financial management prospects are properly dealt with. All the good will in the world is not sufficient to assist the Aboriginal people. Consultation is needed to ensure that the right programs are developed. The implementation of programs requires efficient administration and the Aboriginal affairs portfolio needs prudent financial management. Depending on the nature of the consultative process, it too will require efficient administration and careful financial management.

I recall the fate of the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Gordon Bryant. No one in this House, I think, would question Mr Bryant's sincerity or his desire to assist the Aboriginal people. It will be remembered, though, that he was Minister during the days of the almost open cheque book. Clearly Mr Bryant believed that many of the problems confronting Aboriginal communities around Australia were caused because of lack of money. Unfortunately, programs were not properly managed and finances were not prudently controlled. Let me quote from the report of the Auditor-General on the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, handed down in March 1974. On page 3, the Auditor-General said:

The inescapable conclusion is that from the outset, the Department failed to organise itself so as to control the expenditure of large amounts of public monies, according to the tenets traditionally applicable. It is also apparent that the Department, while admittedly burdened with new initiatives which occupied the attention and energies of what it claims to be its inadequate, and in many cases, inexperienced staff, failed to take early and resolute action to ensure that proper financial controls were instituted throughout its organisation.

If the needs of the Aboriginal people are to be met and if racial harmony is to be promoted I believe that it is important that the administration of the Aboriginal affairs portfolio is undertaken in a businesslike and orderly manner. I therefore caution the Minister to ensure that in all areas, but especially those where there has been an increase or redirection of funds and in those areas involving increases in staffing levels, careful management will be required to ensure that the advancement of the Aboriginal people is not put at risk through waste and extravagance.

I will deal very briefly with another matter. It relates to a promise the Labor Party made before the election and has now broken. Some people would not be surprised that the Labor Party has broken it. In this case I want to say how pleased I am that it has broken it. The previous Government set up a program called the community development employment program. That was done in response to specific requests from Aboriginal communities for an alternative to the unemployment benefit to be paid to their members. Under the community development employment program those benefits are made available to the community council so that the money can be used to pay for work to be done within the community. The program aims to reduce, particularly in remote communities, the socially deleterious effects of the unemployment benefit, or ' sit-down money' as the Aboriginal people call it. The scheme was reviewed in early 1983 by a committee comprising senior officers representing the departments of Employment and Industrial Relations, Social Security, Finance and Aboriginal Affairs. Whilst the review was initiated by the previous Government because of problems which had arisen in the administration of the scheme, the current Minister clearly had the results of that review in mind when he determined the future of the program. The ALP Aboriginal affairs policy, issued before the election, was critical of the scheme. It stated in part:

It provides a block payment of unemployment benefits for those who can fulfill the normal criteria for unemployment benefits. This requirement is a major defect . . . The problems of the scheme are multiplied by the requirement that communities engage in inappropriate make-work-type activities. The scheme as it currently operates can hardly be seen as moving the community towards independence, whereas a regular, adequate community managed block payment would.

The policy statement continued:

The Australian Labor Party in consultation with Aborigines, will redirect this money into a more appropriate income security scheme for Aboriginal communities.

So the ALP was going to scrap the CDEP. During my visits to Aboriginal communities around Australia a number of Aborigines have raised with me their desire to have access to the community development employment program instead of sit-down money. I cannot understand why the ALP, when in opposition, did not see the value of the scheme and why it proposed to abandon it. However, as I have said, this is one of the promises I am glad the ALP has broken. The present Minister in fact has not abandoned the scheme but rather has increased by over 90 per cent the allocation of funds.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that I am delighted that the Government has seen fit to ignore its election policy prior to the last election and that it has increased funding for the former coalition Government's CDEP initiative. The other point which bears reiteration is that the Minister needs to exercise extreme caution to ensure that the administration of his portfolio is undertaken in an efficient and prudent manner in order that there be no repetition of the mistakes of the past.