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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1626

Mr TONY SMITH (11:24 AM) —This measure, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1997 , basically has demonstrated the government's confidence, and anticipation of confidence, in the functioning of ATSIC. In particular, the government, by making these amendments, is going to facilitate the better undertaking and course of business of ATSIC by granting to ATSIC the power to attach conditions to its consent to the disposal of an interest in ATSIC funded property.

Currently, ATSIC may only grant or refuse consent to the disposal of ATSIC funded property. The amendment would give ATSIC more options when handling disposals. It would also allow ATSIC to delegate power to ATSIC staff to approve the disposal of residential property. It is not considered necessary for the board of commissioners to approve each disposal of residential property. It will remove doubt about whether ATSIC may delegate certain ancillary powers concerning grants, loans and guarantees to a regional council.

While the government is perhaps living in hope and anticipation that, by demonstrating confidence in ATSIC, ATSIC will show a bit of respect, understanding and confidence in the government, by contrast we get the tantrum that was thrown yesterday by ATSIC when it censured the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator Herron. There is also the contrast between the confidence being demonstrated by the government in ATSIC and the politicking of ATSIC in response.

That is very disappointing because, at the end of the day, through that little interaction the people of Australia may come to regard the process as very unfortunate and lose more and more of the respect that they may have had for ATSIC. Some, in fact, may not have ever had much respect for it. But it is a great pity that the more this goes on the greater is the contrast between the confidence and hope shown by the government—that ATSIC will get its house in order and will be able to function better—and this sit down stunt, this tantrum, this criticism of Senator Herron, this `censure' of Senator Herron. It really does make you wonder.

I am sure I can speak reasonably authoritatively for my electorate of Dickson when I say that many of my constituents are wondering why we need ATSIC at all. Why do we need a body that is funded in this way turning around and biting the hand which feeds it? Why do we need this body in the first place if it is going to carry on like this?

This body was given $70 million extra from 1996-97 to 1997-98, yet because the government is looking at a report on a new deal for Torres Strait Islanders—as I am sure it has done—criticism is directed at the minister because he is trying to give Torres Strait Islanders more autonomy as was recommended in the report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are not one people; they are very much separate peoples. When the committee visited North Queensland, Torres Strait Islanders very firmly reminded the committee—and certainly told me in discussions I had with many Torres Strait Islanders—that they were sick of ATSIC. They were prepared to go along with ATSIC, they were prepared to go along with changes that—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. N.B. Reid) —The honourable member for Dickson is straying a fair way from the bill. I have granted you a similar amount of leave to make some general comments, but I ask that the member for Dickson now return to the bill.

Mr TONY SMITH —With respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, what I am saying is highly relevant. I am drawing a contrast between what the government is doing in terms of demonstrating its confidence in ATSIC and what the ATSIC board is doing to the government in response. That is highly relevant because, in terms of this particular measure, the government is facilitating the operation of the ATSIC board in a greater way than has been done before, and at the same time the ATSIC board is demonstrating that it does not want to cooperate and that it does not want to facilitate the sorts of changes that the government is trying to bring in.

With the greatest respect, that is a relevant point to make—much more relevant, with respect, than some of the claims made by the member for Calwell (Dr Theophanous) and the member for Banks (Mr Melham) which did not touch on the bill at all. This is highly relevant to the bill. I would respectfully say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that these matters are relevant in terms of the debate that has been permitted to range over a number of areas.

I think it is important, when considering the functioning of ATSIC, to remind oneself that ATSIC was set up with the best of intentions by the previous government. No-one doubts that. But over time—notwithstanding that this government is trying to work with ATSIC, that it has appointed a distinguished leader of the Aboriginal community to chair ATSIC—we have had ATSIC saying, `We do not mind what you do to facilitate the better operation of our board; we are going to slap you in the face at every opportunity. We are going to engage in cheap political point scoring, in politicking, in attempting to undermine the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.'

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you would know, the current inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs into indigenous businesses is yet another example of the government attempting to examine the better functioning of those businesses, and ultimately this will make for the better functioning of ATSIC. It all comes back to a government that is determined to produce outcomes. This bill relates to producing better outcomes.

The measures that the government is attempting to adopt are to try to produce better outcomes, but the ATSIC politicians do not want outcomes. They want to preserve their positions forever. That is why we have this unnecessary politicking that is being perpetuated by letters between Father Brennan and the honourable member for Banks, and others, in relation to muzzling Father Brennan. We know about the politicking that has been going on, Daryl. We know about what has been happening, and Alan Ramsey might want to have a chat to you about that later.

At the end of the day, we are trying to facilitate the better operation of ATSIC, and that means that we are trying to get a better outcome. That is the end result. We can argue across the table day in and day out about what has happened in the past—$16 billion was spent by the previous government in 13 years—but where are the outcomes?

Mr Melham —Tell us about the $700 million the defence department overspent in the last few months. There are double standards. That's the problem. It is a disgrace.

Mr TONY SMITH —The problem is that we sit here and we go back and forth across the table but we are not producing the outcomes. We are not producing the outcomes because there is so much patronisation going on. Instead of allowing Aboriginals—in particular, Torres Strait Islanders—to have a greater level of autonomy, the bureaucrats and the politicians in ATSIC do not want that to happen. They do not want the Torres Strait Islanders to get away—

Mr Nugent —I rise on a point of order. I ask that the member for Banks be asked to be quiet. This debate throughout, started by the member for Banks, has been wide ranging. The previous deputy chair allowed a large degree of latitude and there have been almost no interjections from this side. I would ask that my colleague the member for Dickson be allowed to speak without this constant barrage of interjections.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I remind the honourable member for Banks of standing order 55.

Mr TONY SMITH —I thank the member for Aston (Mr Nugent). I do not expect the member for Banks to be quiet all of the time because it would not be in his nature. I will try not to offend him in case he fires one back at me. Having said that, it is important to note that everybody in this room is trying to strive for outcomes. I know the honourable member for Aston is very committed to Aboriginal affairs and is very sincere about it, as is the honourable member for Banks. I know how committed you are, Mr Deputy Speaker, having sat with you on these committees. I know you are wanting to see a reasoned and responsible approach, an approach that will guarantee improvements for Aboriginal people. This bill is designed to facilitate that. But, in general, in the policy sense, we all are striving for that. Unfortunately, along the way, we can get sidetracked by allegations and political shenanigans which, in my view, derail the process.

So let us get on with the process. Let us get on with ensuring that the situation works, because if it does not, there are real questions being asked in the community and in my electorate as to how on earth an organisation like ATSIC can continue to justify the sort of spending that it has—the spending that it takes in relation to itself, the 50 per cent more that it spends than a comparably sized department in relation to travel matters.

All of these things have caused the focus of attention of the Australian community to be on the proper functioning of ATSIC. In fact, they have caused this government to respond with inquiries in relation to that funding, with audits and so forth, but at the same time, looking at various aspects of the bill, showing that sort of confidence that I indicated at the outset and expecting ATSIC to reciprocate and to show good faith and to demonstrate that it is accountable in this process.

At the end of the day, I commend the bill to the House. I would ask that honourable members look at the operation of ATSIC in a justifiable way. Finally, in response to the member for Calwell, I think it is important to remember that the high moral ground is frequently alleged to be on that side of the House. Really, that argument is quite unfortunate. I think from time to time you get references to the fact that if we disagree with ATSIC or if we question the very fundamentals of ATSIC, then somehow or other we are against Aboriginal advancement. That is not the case. Members on this side of the House have a commitment to improving the living standards and the basic things that we all take for granted. I think that members of the opposition should give the members of this House some credit for doing that instead of raising the terrible `r' word whenever anything is done to try to make things more efficient in ATSIC and to try to adopt a process which will ultimately lead to better outcomes. With those few remarks, Mr Deputy Speaker, I commend the bill to the House.