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Wednesday, 15 May 2002
Page: 2272


Dr LAWRENCE (9:57 AM) —I am pleased to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2002, although it does not go far enough. These amendments follow recommendations from the 1997 and 1998 reviews of the operation of the ATSIC electoral systems and boundaries and the general operation of the ATSIC Act.

The amendments contained in the bill relate largely to provisions in the ATSIC Act which affect the elected statutory office holders of ATSIC. The amendments that are proposed will permit greater certainty in regard to the position of the current office holders and their eligibility for election, and are therefore welcome.

However, I note that the government has failed to schedule sufficient sitting time to deal with the business of the House, and the late introduction of these changes following these reviews has meant that this bill will only just pass through the parliament in time for the ATSIC elections in the second half of this year. It is only possible for these amendments to pass in time for these elections because of our willingness to move this legislation quickly through the parliament. The government has had since 1998, following the ATSIC election review, to submit these amendments to the parliament but chose to do so only this year.

As many members will know, ATSIC elections are due to be held in the second half of the year, so it is important for this legislation to proceed. ATSIC, as I hope people understand, is Australia's principal democratically elected indigenous organisation. The adequacy of its electoral procedures is important to its role as an adviser to government and, indeed, to its credibility in that role. The ATSIC board of commissioners, of course, also supports the bill.

As described by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, the bill amends the ATSIC Act to make minor changes in areas such as the composition of review panels, disqualifications from the office of regional councillor and zone commissioner, continuity of terms between election cycles, the availability of review of commission decisions, and the consistency of terminology in financial provisions.

Before I continue I would like to point out that there appears to be a technical flaw within the bill and consequently I think the bill will need to be amended in the Senate. I would certainly like to draw it to the minister's attention. This arises within amendments to the appointment of the ATSIC chairperson as chairperson of the Electoral Review Panel. Before the present ATSIC chair, the government appointed the chairperson of the commission. The ATSIC chair is now an elected zone commissioner, and thus has a personal interest in the ATSIC electoral system and a potential conflict of interest in making recommendations about boundaries and other electoral matters. The amendments aim to remedy this.

Items 43 and 45 amend the act to ensure that the chairperson of a review panel or an augmented review panel is no longer the commission chairperson, as is appropriate, but is instead an indigenous person who is not an elected ATSIC or TSRA office-holder. However, a drafting error in the bill means that the counterpart consequential amendment to item 45 is missing. An amendment to the bill to require the repeal of section 141T is necessary to avoid an internal contradiction in this legislation.

As stated, several of the amendments within this bill arise from a review conducted under section 26 of the ATSIC Act in 1997-98. The bill deals with essentially minor and technical amendments. Labor believes that in limiting the scope of this bill the government has passed up an opportunity to tackle a wide range of matters which were the subject of recommendations made in the section 26 review more than four years ago. The government has been very tardy about this and the response is incomplete. The government has promoted this bill as giving effect to the recommendations arising from the section 26 review it received in 1998 but, in reality, most of the recommendations for legislative change have not been implemented in this legislation—or anywhere else, for that matter. This includes a long list of changes which the section 26 review characterised as `administrative and legal problems' as well as a suite of proposals which the review authors called `substantive changes to the act to improve its operation and to strengthen ATSIC's capacity to address the aspirations and needs of indigenous people over the next five years and beyond.' We have the shortest of short-term amendments in this legislation.

The substantive changes they are talking about include the explicit capacity of regional councils to make regional agreements, direct election of commissioners and facilitating greater regional autonomy or regional authorities. The review recommended that the act be amended so that regional councils were specifically empowered to conclude regional agreements with governments, agencies and other organisations to achieve coordinated service provision in their region, and that provision be made in the act for the establishment of regional authorities after the commission has considered and reported on the outcomes of the studies. As a result, in September 1999 the then minister Herron and chairperson Djerrkura released a discussion paper. A consultation exercise followed and the Report on greater regional autonomy was endorsed by the ATSIC board in June 2000 and forwarded to the minister. The report first of all supported the right of indigenous communities to establish regional authorities. It authorised further work to be done on the criteria that such authorities would have to meet. It recommended to the minister that `the necessary legislative approval be obtained to enable the establishment of a regional authority in any given case that meets the criteria.'

As the minister pointed out in his second reading speech, the current bill implements recommendations from the section 26 review of 1997-98. It does not, however, address the issues of greater regional autonomy, regional agreements by regional councils or regional authorities. It is very important to improve the standing of Aboriginal communities. Interest in establishing such authorities has been particularly strong—this is not academic—in remote areas such as the Northern Territory and in the western New South Wales Murdi Paaki region. The Cape York Partnerships Plan also involves such regional agreements, and they are being hamstrung at the moment.

Regional governance and regional agreements have been the subject of much focus and discussion over the past couple of years, and the government has yet to respond to that. This was highlighted last month by the Indigenous Governance Conference—Understanding and Implementing Good Governance for Indigenous Communities and Regions, which was held in Canberra and hosted by ATSIC, Reconciliation Australia and the National Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra. These are very important discussions and require a response from government. Most participants were very enthusiastic in their support for self-determination through management of their broader communities and the provision of services.

The autonomy report pointed to the use of regional agreements in Canada to achieve comprehensive settlements of outstanding land claims and noted past advocacy in Australia of such agreements to achieve coordinated service delivery and a framework for settling social justice issues and `unfinished business'. International advocates at the indigenous governance conference spoke on many of these examples, and successful ones they are too.

Last year's inquiry into indigenous funding by the Commonwealth Grants Commission found that indigenous people did not have equitable access to mainstream services provided by government. It said that effective partnerships should be developed and called for:

... indigenous control of, or strong influence over, service delivery expenditure and regional or local service delivery arrangements that emphasise community development, interagency cooperation and general effectiveness.

So we have calls coming from all quarters and still no response to them from the government. There has been no government response to this report either.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr Bill Jonas, in his Social justice report of 2000 stated:

The development of governance structures and regional autonomy provides the potential for a successful meeting place to integrate the various strands of reconciliation. In particular, it is able to tie together the aims of promoting recognition of indigenous rights, with the related aims of overcoming disadvantage and achieving economic independence.

However, in the 2001 Social justice report released yesterday—interestingly under the shadow of the budget and I think designed to disappear—he stated that, although government initiatives have been introduced following the Indigenous Community Capacity Building Roundtable held in October 2000 and as part of the welfare reform package in the 2001 federal budget, the commitments have been short term and minimal in terms of funding support. I quote from his most recent report:

While these initiatives are to be welcomed, they only hint at the potential for reconfiguring and transforming the relationship of indigenous communities with the mainstream society. Indigenous community capacity and governance mechanisms could be furthered through facilitating more effective forms of financial and administrative self-government.

Clearly, most people and organisations with a stake in addressing indigenous disadvantage recognise that changes do need to be made to government institutions, including ATSIC, in order to enable these institutions to perform better. The government has let the past years drift by without providing legislative amendment to facilitate this. The bill does little to address these bigger issues and there is no sign of them being addressed anywhere else either.

In the 2001 budget the government announced its commitment to reconciliation and reducing indigenous disadvantage through a boost of more than $327 million to spending on indigenous affairs. A proud boast, you might think, but it is pretty hollow when you look beyond the rhetoric. Labor has stated before that the definition, for instance, of indigenous-specific funding incorporated in that figure is extremely broad and actually encompasses all expenditure that relates in any way to indigenous people and communities. For example, so-called indigenous-specific funding in the 2001 federal budget included $1 million to the Department of Defence, $266,000 to Foreign Affairs and Trade and $210,000 to Australian Customs for indigenous cultural education and recruitment programs. The overall amount also includes $6.1 million for the collection of data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These are essentially the rights of citizens. These are not indigenous-specific programs; it just happens that they go in some cases toward providing data, for instance, and recruitment.

This year's federal budget does the same thing. It also includes $2.2 million to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolio for pest and diseases monitoring and surveillance in North Queensland under the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy. Why is that considered indigenous-specific funding? It benefits the whole community, and indeed the whole nation. Quite clearly indigenous-specific funding is funding that will contribute to overcoming disadvantage. Why is this $2.2 million seen as relating only to indigenous people?

Labor and others have also pointed out that some of the funding identified as indigenous specific is actually against indigenous people's interests. This is a more serious problem. It is clear, for instance, that 47 per cent of the budget of the Department of Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the last financial year was expended on litigation against the interest of indigenous people, in cases such as the Gunner and Cubillo stolen generations case. That can hardly be considered in any meaningful sense as indigenous-specific funding designed to reduce disadvantage. In this year's budget we discover that 30 per cent of this year's funding to the Office of Indigenous Affairs is allocated to litigation. Likewise, how is that going to help indigenous people? This use of funds seems decidedly against the core function of the department, which is said to be to provide `advice which acknowledges and values the cultures, heritage, rights and aspirations of indigenous people, and supports the creation and nurturing of opportunities for indigenous people to meet their aspirations, thus contributing to social justice and equity in Australia.' I will leave that hanging out there—I do not think so.

Again this year we have a massive amount spent on litigation above and beyond the funds for litigation just mentioned, with $16.6 million allocated to the Attorney-General's Department and to the states for litigation against native title claimants, nearly $13 million to the Federal Court to hear these cases—cases that indigenous communities would rather not reach this point. Why are they considered to the advantage of indigenous people? And $33.5 million has been allocated to the Native Title Tribunal to mediate these cases. Again, these are cases that could be managed by agreement.

The government this year has already begun to trumpet its record spending on indigenous affairs. However, if you look clearly at that spending, there are no new funding initiatives despite the ever-increasing need for indigenous-specific projects and services. Only $1.1 billion of this goes to ATSIC; it is no increase in real terms. That is the reality—there is no increase, in real terms, to the ATSIC budget. The additional $28.3 million for ATSIC described in the budget flows from the increase which was announced in last year's federal budget. There are no new initiatives here at all. This means that there has been no appreciable increase in ATSIC's global budget since the Howard government came to office. ATSIC is still recovering from the $470 million cut to ATSIC in the coalition's first budget, so we are not even back to square one—and this is for the most disadvantaged community in our midst.

As we know, expenditure of ATSIC's budget is not entirely at the discretion of the elected representatives, as is sometimes claimed. The federal government asks ATSIC to guarantee minimum levels of expenditure on its three largest programs: CDEP, CHIP and native title. About two-thirds of ATSIC's budget is subject to these requirements. They have very little flexibility themselves. This leaves ATSIC with less room to move in funding programs such as indigenous family violence and substance abuse programs, programs which the Howard government has clearly declined to fund despite the increased attention to and need for these funds. We have heard a lot of talk about it. There have been many letters to the newspapers, and successive ministers have talked about the importance of these programs. But the energy and resources going to these areas is small and vanishing compared to the size of the problem—and, not surprisingly, they have no effect.

In the last budget only $2 million was allocated to indigenous family violence. This follows cuts to the ATSIC funding in 1996 that led to the termination of family violence programs. I note that, in this year's budget, only $1.4 million has been allocated for this pressing problem nationally. So we actually have a decline in the allocation this year despite all the publicity that has been given to these problems and the calls from both the wider community and the indigenous community for attention to these matters.

I also note that only $470,000 has been allocated to indigenous substance abuse programs through a petrol sniffing diversion pilot project. This is clearly not enough, given the scale of the problem. A series of media reports about petrol sniffing in 2000 initially prompted the federal government to commit a million dollars to address the problem. This money, as is often the case in this area, was not new money. It was reallocated from existing funds that had been given to the Northern Territory government in a deal that allowed the former Country Liberal Party government to keep mandatory sentencing. However, it is feared that even this pitiful amount of money has not been effectively allocated to date. The government put on no pressure to get that allocation.

In the Darwin Supreme Court late last week, Justice Steven Bailey pointed out that there are no approved rehabilitation projects operating in the Territory, and no help is available for petrol sniffers who end up in prison. He made the comments while imposing a suspended sentence on an 18-year-old who had committed property offences after petrol sniffing. The young man was directed to attend an unofficial program in his community that, Justice Bailey noted, had mixed success. He was obviously reluctant to do what he had to do.

This lack of funds and the demonstrable failure to deal with the huge and growing problems in many communities clearly show that the government, despite its rhetoric, and despite increased calls from all sections of the community, has not given attention and energy to working on reducing these problems. Dysfunctional communities continue to be dysfunctional. There are some suggestions that, in some areas, they are actually getting worse. There is no real remedy in prospect either in this legislation or in the budget that was brought down last night. I note that the minister responsible has devoted very little energy and attention to this section of his portfolio for some time. Indeed, he said to a recent group of lobbyists who attended a meeting with him that he now regarded indigenous affairs as his recreation. It is time for the minister to come back from holidays, if that is the way he sees it, and do some serious work.

If we look closely at this year's federal budget in other areas of `practical reconciliation'—the government's favourite phrase—we can see that there is actually a decrease in funding for indigenous education. That is really a scandal. The Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program, which provides funding to education providers for indigenous students, will suffer a decrease of funding in the Northern Territory, for example—we have had recent reports on this problem—of 13.4 per cent. That is a cut of 13.4 per cent to the most disadvantaged group in our community. Nationwide, the decrease is even worse: a staggering 27 per cent cut. So much for practical reconciliation. What is one of the most important areas of service delivery to improve disadvantage? Education. What is the one area the government has cut substantially? Education. Make sense of that. I cannot. This follows a critical report by the Auditor-General released late last month which detailed problems in the management of the Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program. So the response to those problems is to cut the funds, not to fix the program.

The government's 2001 changes to the program guidelines caused a six-month delay in finalising agreements with some education providers and meant that last year some indigenous students missed out on basic education. So there has been a mismanagement of this program as well. The six-month delay caused a lack of education services to indigenous communities in some parts of the country—indeed, the most remote, the most disadvantaged parts of the country. This information also follows information revealed last year that there was an 8.1 per cent fall in indigenous participation in tertiary education arising from the Howard government's changes to Abstudy. So across the board we have seen an assault on education at a time when funding is most needed and results should be demanded by the community. It also follows revelations that in 2002 there was a failure of Centrelink to deliver children's Abstudy, meaning that, for instance, at least 50 teenagers from Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait missed out on the first term of the 2002 school year as they could not travel from their communities to the school. There really is a lack of attention to these matters by the government.

The Howard government have now spent six years talking about their commitment to `practical reconciliation'—and I put that very much in inverted commas—and continue to trumpet their `record spending on indigenous people'. Yet a closer look at the federal budget and, more importantly, the results on the ground show that very little of this money goes directly to assisting indigenous people overcome disadvantages in key areas. In the Social justice report that Bill Jonas released yesterday, he pointed out:

The lack of priority and urgency with which governments have pursued indigenous disadvantage ...

As he put it—and I think this is an absolutely critical message for this government and others:

Redressing indigenous disadvantage is not merely something that is desirable, but is a matter of obligation in order to guarantee a free and equal society. Governments must take deliberate, concrete steps which are targeted as clearly as possible to reducing inequalities as quickly and efficiently as possible through the adoption of benchmarks and targets.

We do not know where this government thinks it is headed. We do not know what it hopes to achieve. Little bits of money here and there are dropped into programs which disappear at the end of a pilot program—that is typical, for instance, of the domestic violence programs. And in education there is a winding back funds, and poorer results. So the absence of benchmarks and targets is critical. Dr Jonas goes on to say:

Adequate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are necessary in order that governments will be held accountable to do more than simply manage the existing inequalities in society.

I think it is instructive that in last night's budget there was not one word about indigenous people, not one word about the most disadvantaged group in our society, not one word about the first peoples of this nation, not one word about the problems they confront. I think that is shameful for any government.

Dr Jonas goes on to talk about these existing inequalities. He says that it is particularly important that we should be reducing these inequalities, setting targets, developing strategies and paying attention, putting some energy into it—Minister, please—where the disadvantage that exists is the consequence of historic, systemic discrimination against a particular group. Until this government gets serious about indigenous affairs and puts in substantial effort—and I mean not just money but energy, motivation, intelligence and creativity, working in partnership with indigenous people and giving effect to its commitment to practical reconciliation—those inequalities will not only continue to exist—they will be `managed', as Bill Jonas puts it—but they will get worse. That is clearly happening around this country.

I do not believe that any right-minded Australian can stand by and watch as the first peoples of our country are allowed to slide further and further into despair and dysfunction. That is not to say that there are not indigenous people doing extremely well in Australia today. I welcome that; I applaud that. But that is not sufficient to overshadow the very serious problems that we confront as a nation. Not talking about them is not going to make them go away. I call on the minister and this government to take indigenous affairs seriously.