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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1615

Mr MELHAM (10:33 AM) —At the outset, I want to say that the opposition will be supporting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1997 . This bill basically emanates from consultations with ATSIC—there are some technical amendments being proposed to the ATSIC Act. The opposition totally supports what the government is doing here and will expedite the matter, if asked, in the Senate. We do not see any need for this amendment bill to be delayed in the Senate.

In terms of the outline of the bill, it is best if, for the record, I read into the Hansard what is in the explanatory memorandum, which basically gives the detail of the bill. It says:

The Bill makes provision for the following amendments to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission Act 1989 :

. The Bill allows the Commission to attach conditions to its consent to the disposal of an interest in ATSIC funded property;

. it enables the Commission to delegate to a Regional Council powers incidental to its funding powers under sections 14, 15 and 16;

. it allows the Commission to delegate its power to approve the disposal of residential property;

. it provides that the section 20 remedy for breaches of grant or loan conditions does not affect the availability to the Commission of other remedies for such breaches;

. it makes amendments of a minor drafting nature.

What this shows is that ATSIC and the ATSIC board are basically responsible in the way they conduct the act. They can do it in a way which, if it is handled properly and sensitively by this government, does not bring it into partisan politics or does not see ATSIC unduly and unfairly criticised.

It is important that I refer to events of the last 24 hours, because they are disturbing. They are disturbing because, for the first time in the history of ATSIC, we have a unanimous resolution of the board passing no confidence in the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron) and calling on the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to sack him.

The significance of that no confidence motion is this. There are 19 commissioners—17 elected and two appointed. Of the 17 elected commissioners, only four are continuing commissioners. So we have 15 out of 19 new members. We have a distinguished chairman of ATSIC who was appointed by this minister. The minister took great pride in his appointment, and his appointment was welcomed by all political parties and all members of the community. Indeed, the Prime Minister, in a answer to a dorothy dixer in the parliament, had this to say on 12 December 1996:

I think the appointment of Mr Djerrkura is one of the more important appointments that has been made by the government.

Further on, he also said:

I think something like 13 of the 19 are newly elected.

Well, as it is, it is 15 of the 19, because two were appointed. He continued:

There are under the legislation two appointments made by the government—the chairman and Mr Dillon, who is a well-known and well respected member of the Queensland Police Force and who has risen to a very high rank in that police force. I believe both men will bring very great talents and particular capacities to the work of ATSIC.

Mr Djerrkura is extremely well qualified for the job. He is a senior tribal man of the Wangurri people in the north-east of Arnhem Land. He is very aware of the importance of traditional indigenous culture and also the problems facing indigenous people in remote areas of Australia.

The Prime Minister said—and this was on 12 December 1996:

I pointed out the desire of the government to work in a very constructive fashion with the ATSIC board and that, naturally, when there is a change of government goals are sometimes pursued in different ways . . .

Further down, he said:

I assured Mr Djerrkura and the ATSIC board of the goodwill of the government towards the indigenous people of Australia.

He finished by saying:

I very warmly welcome Mr Djerrkura to the board of ATSIC. I wish him and the other members of the ATSIC board well.

In reply to a dorothy dixer on 10 December in the Senate, this is what the minister, Senator Herron, said:

I consulted widely before making that appointment and found that Mr Djerrkura enjoys enormous respect. He is an outstanding Australian.

Further on, he said:

Senators may also be interested to learn that there has been a substantial change to the board of ATSIC as a result of the recent ATSIC elections. Only four of the 19 commissioners from that last board have been returned. I have personally spoken to all of the commissioners and I look forward to a productive and constructive relationship over the next three years.

And finishing up his dorothy dixer, he repeated:

I look forward to working with the board cooperatively as well.

Relations between this government and the ATSIC board are at an all time low because the ATSIC board and indigenous people feel betrayed by this government. The government continues to play a political game.

I think this history is important and it is important that it is said now, because this is not the way the opposition wants to see the debate progress. We believe this area is too important for a political game to be played with it. The opposition supports accountability and benchmarking. These issues can be worked on in a constructive fashion with the current ATSIC board and with responsible representatives of the indigenous community.

But, from the outset, the first cabinet decision was to appoint a special auditor. That was an illegal appointment and the Federal Court rejected that appointment three to nil as outside the law, ultra vires the ATSIC Act. So the first decision of cabinet was found to be an illegal decision by the government. A million and a half spent on a special auditor, after some quite sensational allegations—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. N.B. Reid) —Order!

Mr MELHAM —It is relevant, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the sense that what we are talking about is the bill before the parliament; it is a bill that has the support of the opposition; it is aimed at improving the ATSIC Act; it has been done in a cooperative fashion, in consultation with the ATSIC board, and that is the way it should be. In light of recent—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The bill itself is very narrow in its constraints in respect of ATSIC funded property in order to ensure that replacement Aboriginal housing stock remains subject to restrictions.

Mr MELHAM —Exactly, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —It has very narrow confines.

Mr MELHAM —It is very narrow, but the principle is the same.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I have given the member for Banks a fair degree of leniency. I would ask him to speak to the bill.

Mr MELHAM —It has very narrow constraints, and what it shows is that ATSIC can act responsibly. They are acting responsibly. These amendments emanated from the ATSIC board. What they are doing is basically ensuring that they are acting properly; they have done it in full consultation with the government and the opposition supports that. But what we have had in recent times is, in effect, and indeed from day one, that the government has not acted in accordance with the ATSIC Act. The ATSIC board are trying here to make sure that they are acting legally, and that is why they came here.

The government, in its first decision, acted outside the ATSIC Act. We get $450 million worth of budget cuts announced on the kerbside before the budget; that is not the way to do it. We get a situation where, three weeks ago, the ATSIC board gave a confidential report to the minister's office—and the government, it is suggested, then leaked that report. That is why the government cannot dismiss what has happened in the last 24 hours. Mr Djerrkura is the government's hand-picked appointment.

We say, `We do not want to play politics with this. Sit up and take notice.' The ATSIC board are responsible. There are 15 out of the 19 commissioners who are new, two of them appointed by this government. Enough is enough. The signals yesterday are not the signals of what is coming forward in this bill. What is coming forward in this bill is a responsible organisation saying, `There need to be amendments to the act so that we are all acting properly. We do not want to act in a delinquent way. We want to attach conditions to the consent for disposal of property.' What you have is a responsible board, but there is a sense of despair at the moment because what is happening is that confidential briefings with the minister are subsequently leaked by the government for political advantage. That is the problem.

We say that the way that we, the opposition, will deal with this bill and with indigenous matters is that we are prepared to give the government support. Where they can justify their actions, we will be out there backing them. We will not play politics with this amendment bill; this improves the ATSIC Act. In terms of the Native Title Act, another example, many of those amendments have cross-party support. They are aimed at improving the act. They are aimed at improving the workings of native title. But what we get is the ATSIC board giving a confidential report to the minister's office and the government then leaking it; that was three weeks ago.

Mr Randall —That's not correct.

Mr MELHAM —That is the situation, and it has not been denied by sections of the government. I do not blame this minister for leaking that report, or his office.

Mr Randall —He said he didn't.

Mr MELHAM —That is right, and I accept his word in relation to that. But there is something he did not do. He did not say that he did not pass it on to other ministers in the government who have responsibility for the Native Title Act. The thing is that the walls have ears. I do not blame this minister for leaking that particular report, but what I do say is that his office was given that report and it was passed on to another minister and another minister's office, and games were played. A confidential briefing was held earlier this week, and that started to emanate from government.

What is happening is incitement. When the ATSIC board responds, government says, `Oh, they are playing politics.' We do not want to play politics. In the end, this government, this Prime Minister and all of us are not above the law and not above the constitution. This issue is too important.

I have enormous respect for Gatjil Djerrkura, the current chairman, and the ATSIC board. I have had only one opportunity since the appointment of the new board to go and talk to them. The protocol generally, prior to the last term of elections, was that the minister was given an opportunity at every board meeting and the invitation was also extended to me as the shadow spokesperson. My invitation to the minister is well known. We think we can sort out these types of issues in a constructive fashion. This matter is relevant to this bill before the House. This is not a contentious bill. It does not have to be contentious and it should not be contentious.

If the government makes out a case, the opposition is prepared to support it. If the government has a case in certain areas, subject the material to scrutiny; do not go out and do it by press release. That is not the way to conduct indigenous affairs. It is good short-term politics but, in the end, the government will be held accountable. Those opposite can run around saying that we had 13 years—and we did, and we made mistakes in those 13 years. We have to learn from the mistakes.

The minister is well intentioned but it is a remarkable situation that in the time that this board have been in office—they took office in December 1996—there has been an unprecedented unanimous vote of no confidence in the minister. I do not think that is a political stunt. The government might dismiss it. They can dismiss it. I say take heed of it. Let us pull back a bit. Let us all count to 10 and get on with improving the situation. I want to talk about health, education, employment and training. I am not running around asking for a fistful of dollars for indigenous affairs. It does not need it. We need to properly spend the money. We need to learn from the mistakes, from the comprehensive reports that have said that, if we spend a dollar here, we will save $8 later on.

We just had a debate on a health bill and prevention is better than cure. I know there are other speakers from the government. I did not intend to speak for long but I am disturbed as to the events in the last 24 hours. As far as this bill is concerned, it has the total support of the opposition. We will support it in the House of Representatives and expedite its passage in the Senate. This bill puts beyond doubt ATSIC's authority to attach conditions to the disposal of property and other things. That is a good thing.

I commend the bill to the parliament and I repeat my private and public call to the government that the opposition stands ready, in a constructive fashion, to work with the government in this portfolio. The time for playing politics with indigenous people is over. It is good short-term politics but it is very dangerous in terms of the nation. By that I do not mean that we are going to defend people who misuse money. People should be accountable, but let us not have a double standard.

I was informed the other day that the Department of Defence has had a $700 million over-run in the space of a year. They say, `Oh, we're sorry' but there is not the outcry in the community for the same level of accountability in the Department of Defence. I think that is a double standard and I use this debate as a signal, once again, to the government. I think there have been signs in some areas in recent times of constructive behind the scenes discussions from the government. I place that on record. There are people of goodwill on both sides of parliament in relation to this issue.

The worst portfolio in government and in opposition—history will show this—is to be the Aboriginal affairs minister or the shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs. In the end, wherever I go, people are talking about it. It is a mainstream issue. People acknowledge that mistakes were made—genuinely made—in the past but they do not want the mistakes to be repeated. They want acceptable solutions. They do not want to see the parliament bickering and fighting. This bill is an example of cooperation.

I am not saying we are going to agree on everything or that we are not going to agree to disagree or that the government are not entitled to pursue their priorities. We will not always agree in this area but I think if there is goodwill we have the potential to agree on a lot of things. What is happening at the moment is that even things we agree on are being badly handled and not by this minister. This minister unfortunately is a prisoner of his ministry and his government and his cabinet. I know what ministerial solidarity and cabinet solidarity are all about. Sometimes you have to go out and argue stuff that you do not necessarily agree with. I know that and I respect it. I understand it. But the buck stops at the top. My appeal is to the Prime Minister: enough is enough. Use this bill as an example to show that there can be cross-party support in this area and that is what we should strive for. I commend the bill to the House.