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Wednesday, 15 May 2002
Page: 2279


Mr SNOWDON (10:44 AM) —I thank my colleague the member for Grey for his contribution, and also acknowledge the contribution made by the shadow minister, the member for Fremantle—and I will refer to that in detail in a moment. I was hoping the member for Grey would speak for a bit longer, to allow me to organise myself. You will have to excuse me while I do so on the run.

As others have pointed out, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2002 will implement some of the recommendations of the 1998 review of the operation of the ATSIC Act that was conducted in accordance with section 26 of the act—namely, to ensure that a commission chair remains in place between the appointment of new commissioners, following a round of regional council elections and the first meeting of a new board; to enable an additional regional councillor to be appointed to a regional council from which a commissioner is elected; to allow an outgoing commissioner to stand for election as an incoming regional council chair without having to resign as commissioner; to allow for an independent chair of the section 141 review panel and the augmented review panel; and to clarify that a person who has been given one sentence for multiple criminal offences can be suspended from office and disqualified from standing for election as a regional councillor or ATSIC commissioner.

The bill seeks to implement a number of recommendations of the 1997 review panel report made under section 141 of the ATSIC Act on the ATSIC electoral system and boundaries. I will not repeat them, because they were mentioned earlier. It allows for the clarification and enhancement of the commissioner's processes for internal review of certain decisions, and it outlines three major points. It prevents a commissioner or regional councillor who has been removed from office for misbehaviour from standing for the next round of regional council elections, and it makes a number of miscellaneous amendments to the ATSIC Act. These include amending relevant financial provisions to ensure consistency with the Commonwealth accrual budgeting system, the removal of references to appropriations by the commission to Indigenous Business Australia and Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, as money is now directly appropriated to these organisations; and repealing redundant provisions of the ATSIC Act.

I want to concentrate on one element of this bill—issues dealing with governance. As the shadow minister said, this government has promoted this bill as giving effect to recommendations arising from the section 26 review that it received in 1998. The fact is, as the shadow minister pointed out, that most of these recommendations for legislative change remain unimplemented. They include 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 to strengthen ATSIC's capacity to address the aspirations and needs of indigenous people over the next five years and beyond'. These substantive issues include the explicit capacity of regional councils to make regional agreements, direct election of commissioners and facilitating greater regional autonomy for regional authorities. It is that issue that I want to talk about.

We have heard a lot in recent times about the issue of passive welfare. Indeed, we have heard the government at various times rail against the inadequacy of service provisions to Aboriginal communities. We have seen them shift the way in which welfare has been provided and continue in a direction to make individuals much more responsible for their actions in terms of receiving government benefits of one type or another. It is worth while also to point out that much has been said about issues dealing with family violence, substance abuse and other matters to do with indigenous affairs. We know that in this budget very limited attempts have been made to address these issues, despite the issues to do with passive welfare, the indicators of alienation and anomie in Aboriginal communities which are so explicit in terms of the justice system, the expressions of discontent which are clearly obvious in the way in which communities in some areas are malfunctioning, and the problems which are evident in terms of domestic violence and substance abuse.

Under those circumstances, and given the criticism which has been railed against indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders generally, you would expect that something substantial would have been done by this government in this recent budget. In fact, very little has been done in the budget to express the government's will—as we often hear it—to address these issues of major concern. In the budget only $2 million was allocated to deal with the problem of indigenous family violence. That $2 million was allocated last year; this year only $1.4 million has been allocated to this pressing problem. It is acknowledged by people in indigenous communities around Australia, acknowledged by state and territory governments and reported on by the government when it sees fit to demonise Aboriginal communities, yet all the government can bring itself to provide to address this issue in this budget is $1.4 million. I ask the government to tell us explicitly where this money will be used and how it will be used. What are the issues it will seek to address?

I then look to the issue of substance abuse. Bear in mind that I have had a lot of experience in indigenous communities across Australia for over 25 years. I have a very good idea about the level of concern in relation to substance abuse which is expressed in indigenous communities. You need to be very careful because you would be led to believe, if you listened to some commentators, that substance abuse was endemic in every Aboriginal community across Australia, which of course is not the case. Indeed, we ought to understand that, in terms of per capita alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal Territorians consume less alcohol than non-indigenous Territorians do. We also need to understand is that a far greater proportion of Aboriginal Territorians, Aboriginal Australians, do not drink, as opposed to their non-indigenous counterparts. That is not often said, but it is a fact.

Then there is the issue of other substances which are being abused. Marijuana abuse, kava abuse and petrol sniffing are issues which are now chronic across some parts of northern Australia. They are all real problems, but petrol sniffing is a significant issue for juvenile indigenous Australians. It is endemic in some Aboriginal communities. We have heard the government say that this is something which we must address, something we are gravely concerned about, an issue which we must do something about, yet all the government can bring itself to offer in this budget to address this issue is $470,000. What will that do to address the issue of substance abuse generally, but petrol sniffing in particular? The answer is not a lot.

We also need to comprehend, and I want to raise, this issue of passive welfare receipt in indigenous communities. I have heard some indigenous commentators talk about this as though indigenous communities across Australia are not aware of the concerns of those in their communities about domestic violence, substance abuse and issues to do with the justice system generally. That is not the case. There are many examples where indigenous communities, particularly in the Northern Territory, are seeking to address the issue of substance abuse through actions which they are taking.

I was privileged to attend the recent conference on indigenous governance held in Canberra under the auspices of, I think, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and it was a very important and good conference. One of the contributions made at that conference was from two women from Ali Curung. Most people in the House will not know where Ali Curung is. Ali Curung is a community to the north of Alice Springs. These women demonstrated how their community had come to terms with the dysfunction caused by domestic violence and alcohol and other substance abuse. They demonstrated how they had developed their own mechanisms for community operations, in conjunction with the Western legal system, to address these issues.

Those two women are now able to proselytise. They can show other people around the Northern Territory and, indeed, around Australia—as was the case at the conference on governance—that there are remedies which can be developed, within Aboriginal community structures and traditional frameworks, to address the imposition that is put on indigenous communities by substance abuse, domestic violence and other abuses of the justice system.

It is worth noting that the system of night patrols was developed by indigenous people, not imposed from outside, as a response to the concerns about the social dysfunction being caused by alcohol abuse and violence. The remedies are being developed by Aboriginal communities; they are not passive welfare recipients. They are actively engaged in trying to find remedies for the problems which they have in their communities, which are observed by outsiders such as ourselves and which are commented on from time to time by the government and demonised by particular sections of the community. We have to understand that, if we are prepared to sit down and work with communities, wherever they might be, we can develop solutions, but such solutions do require resources. Last night's budget did little in terms of the provision of resources for these issues across Australia.

I will give you another example of how communities in Central Australia are responding to the issue of alcohol. The Central Australian Football League—the AFL based in Alice Springs—recently had a day when they sat down and talked about their future. They got Aboriginal communities from around Central Australia to come in, participate in a discussion and give their views on what the way forward might be.

As a result of this discussion, two subcommittees have been set up—I am a member of one—to deal with alcohol. There is a proposal now which has come from these communities to ban the sale of alcohol at football games. This proposal has not been imposed; it is action which has come from within these communities. I want to commend the Central Australian Football League for having the guts to sit down and say, `How can we address what is a severe problem for us during weekend football?' They have come up with a proposition that says, `We are prepared to ban alcohol at the request of these communities.' We do not get a lot of acknowledgment from government for those sorts of actions that have come from within the community.

The other issue that I want to briefly address is that of governance generally. I referred earlier to the failure of the government to pick up on the issue to do with regional agreements and regional authorities. It is worth while noting that, in the background paper for the indigenous governance conference in April of this year, the following was said:

Good governance involves four main attributes: legitimacy, power, resources and accountability. The importance of indigenous governance is highlighted by the growing community dysfunction, domestic violence, welfare dependence and economic marginalisation.

That is all true. But what we need to understand is that communities have responded. And because the government has failed to come up with any appropriate responses to the recommendations on regional authorities and regional structures, indigenous communities are doing it themselves. They are coming together and saying, `We want to express the service delivery to us in a different manner. We want to take control of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.' In the western MacDonnell region of Central Australia, the communities have come together and said that they want to start making agreements with government on the delivery of services such as education, health, housing, roads and other government services.

They are doing this independently of government support. They are doing this because they see it as important. They are developing these models despite government. Mr Deputy Speaker, I want you to understand that I have been an active promoter of these agreements and ideas since the early 1990s. Indeed, I have written a couple of publications on the issue of regional governance and regional agreements. What comes out of it is the inherent need to recognise that, despite the rhetoric about indigenous Australians being passive welfare recipients, there are many examples of indigenous communities around Australia coming together and saying, `We want to do things differently and you, government, need to deal with us differently. What we want to do is set up agreements with you about the provision of services.' This has provided some difficulty for some organisations; indeed, the previous Northern Territory government found it very difficult to come to terms with the aspirations of indigenous Australians in this way.

While I did say a moment ago that government was not involved, there are in fact a couple of examples where government has been involved, where models of governance have been set up as a result of initiatives for the delivery of certain services. The most obvious example is the delivery of health services. To the west of Katherine there has been the development of the Katherine West Health Board, which arose out of the coordinated care trials introduced by the Keating government in 1995-96. The delivery of all health services in the Katherine West region now go through an Aboriginal controlled board, and it works very well. I want to acknowledge the previous federal minister for health for his continued support for this proposal.

The Tiwi Health Board is another example. But this initiative has not broadened in the way in which we need it to broaden. It has not broadened in such a way that other agencies, such as education departments, see it as their responsibility to bring communities together and discuss with them ownership of the service delivery which they provide.

I also make this observation: in the context of indigenous communities, it is easy to take a cheap shot, but the bottom line is that unless we provide people with appropriate resources and infrastructure, they will not be able to achieve the objectives that we set for them. As well as people having aspirations for more control over their services, we need to ensure that they have got the capacity to exercise that control. That brings us back to the fundamental issue of education. What we have seen historically in Australia is an abysmal failure by governments collectively, Labor and non-Labor governments, across Australia, to deal effectively with indigenous education. People are not going to be able, fruitfully and appropriately, to accord with our requirements in terms of responsibility and accountability unless we provide them with the capacity to do so. There is a fundamental issue there—that is, the question of education.

I note that in last night's budget there were no additional resources made available for indigenous education across Australia. Indeed, in the area of the Northern Territory, we saw an effective 13.4 per cent cut to the ISIP program for Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory. Part of the reason for that, I am told, was the incapacity of the previous CLP government to be able to come to an agreement with the Howard government over the requirements for reporting on that issue. But instead of lambasting Aboriginal communities, we should be acting responsibly and accepting our need to be partners. (Time expired)