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Wednesday, 15 May 2002
Page: 2283

Dr STONE (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (11:04 AM) —I would like to sum up the debate that has taken place on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2002. This bill contains a series of technical amendments that we believe need to be put in place, but behind those technical amendments is this government's most urgent desire to see our indigenous communities significantly advance beyond their experience of the last 200 years. Mr Deputy Speaker, when I elaborate on some of the points that have been made by the member for Lingiari and the member for Fremantle, you will see that we have heard a lot of unfortunate misunderstandings, or perhaps it was just misleading information, about what was contained in the budget last night. In particular, I will refer to some of the very significant advances we have made in trying to support and work with indigenous communities across Australia.

Let me begin by revisiting exactly what this amendment bill chooses to do. The amendments follow a number of recommendations from the 1997 and 1998 reviews, conducted under sections 26 and 141 of the ATSIC Act, in regard to the electoral systems and boundaries and the general operation of the ATSIC Act. The bill was developed in close consultation with ATSIC and has the support of the ATSIC Board of Commissioners—and that is a very important point.

The amendments contained in the bill relate largely to provisions in the ATSIC Act affecting the elected statutory office holders of ATSIC. ATSIC regional council and office holder elections must take place in the second half of 2002. The amendments that are proposed in the bill would permit greater certainty in regard to the position of the current office holders and eligibility for election.

These amendments include: adjustments to the term of office of the commission chair and the regional council chair to provide for continuity in these offices throughout an election period; a provision for the appointment of an additional regional councillor to a regional council from which a commissioner has been elected; a provision to guarantee the appointment of an independent chair of the review panel and the augmented review panel to clarify that the effective penalties for multiple criminal convictions on eligibility for and termination of office holder positions is the same as for single convictions; allowing an outgoing commissioner to stand for election as an incoming regional council chair without having to resign as commissioner; providing for the payment of nomination fees by candidates to be included as matters dealt with in the regional council election rules; and preventing a commissioner or regional councillor who has been removed from office for misbehaviour from standing for the next round of regional council elections.

In addition, the bill seeks to amend certain provisions of the ATSIC Act relating to financial management within the commission. Accrual accounting has been introduced in accordance with government policy, and a number of amendments are required to make the ATSIC Act consistent with current practice. The bill aligns the terminology of the ATSIC Act with the Commonwealth accrual based outcomes and outputs framework. In addition, with the introduction of accrual budgeting, each agency is appropriated its own money. As such, the bill removes references to appropriations by ATSIC to Indigenous Business Australia and Aboriginal Hostels Ltd. The bill also repeals certain provisions of the ATSIC Act which are no longer required.

Finally, the bill will allow clarification and enhancement of the internal review process. Amendments will entitle a body corporate or an unincorporated body to request review by the commission and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of a decision to refuse a loan or guarantee made under the ATSIC Act. At present the ATSIC Act only allows for review of decisions in relation to an individual. The bill will enable the commission to delegate its power to review delegates' decisions, allowing for a more efficient reconsideration of refusal to provide a loan or guarantee within ATSIC. In order to allow a comprehensive internal review process, the bill will require internal review processes to be exhausted before access to review by the AAT of the merits of a decision to refuse a loan or guarantee.

The member for Fremantle did, in fact, raise an issue requiring us to make a consequential amendment. She referred to section 141T, which relates to the commission chairperson to be chairperson of an augmented review panel. We undertake to arrange for an appropriate amendment for consideration by the Senate to clear up that particular point.

The member for Fremantle—who is also shadow spokesperson for indigenous affairs—however, made a series of allegations about the Howard government's commitment to indigenous program expenditure. Contrary to what the member for Fremantle actually claims, there is an additional $67 million in funding for 2002-03, and this includes over $20 million for ATSIC. I must say that that is a record level of funding for ATSIC. So, whether or not the shadow spokesperson had not gone beyond listening to the budget speech last night—which, of course, is always skeletal in its coverage of details—or whether her calculator batteries are flat, we cannot be sure.

It seems that the same problem has afflicted the member for Lingiari, who went on at length about his perception of reduced expenditure commitment to indigenous affairs in this country. Our government absolutely does not believe that dollars are everything when it comes to improving the circumstances of indigenous peoples in this country. It will require much more than simply dollars for programs. We are working on a number of fronts—for example, our objective of reconciliation plans for every government agency that the Commonwealth manages. This is a first for the nation of Australia. Our government is insisting that every government agency each year reflect on how its programs have assisted our indigenous Australians. But, of course, dollars are significant.

There has been $2.5 billion of specific funding provided for indigenous programs in 2002-03. We will publish a detailed breakdown of that funding. The bulk of this goes to health, housing, education and employment. We are absolutely concerned that indigenous Australians are not hooked into a life of welfare and an intergenerational succession of unemployed, leading to children and grandchildren who never know the dignity of paid employment. We are determined to assist our Aboriginal communities to break out of their poverty traps.

Unfortunately, what we inherited in 1996 was a hugely unproductive set of programs for indigenous Australia. You just have to compare the education outcomes of indigenous peoples with those of mainstream Australia to see how we have improved those. We were entangled in a very destructive native title debate in 1995-96 which took a lot of work. There have been significant dollars associated with the legal costs in untangling that mess. When the Keating government lost power it had a series of reforms and amendments in train in terms of reviewing the native title law in this country, and it understood what we had to do.

The shadow minister said that indigenous education funding, in particular, had been cut. I take great exception to that as someone who has worked with indigenous communities most of my life, especially in Aboriginal education. Let me stress that we have increased indigenous education funding from $438 million in 2001-02 to over $445 million in 2002-03. The member for Lingiari went on at some length about domestic violence in indigenous communities. Of course, that is an extraordinary concern for women and children and all members of indigenous communities as much as for other families in Australian society when there is anyone subjected to domestic violence.

This is a priority for our government, which provided for Partnerships Against Domestic Violence, a special national program; $10 million is specifically dedicated to Aboriginal projects. There are also funds for related projects. There is $20 million for the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy and $23 million for alcohol related projects specifically for indigenous communities who have substance abuse problems in their local populations. We are making headway. Unlike the previous government, which was satisfied simply with rhetoric, we also measure our performance. We look to see if our programs work. We evaluate what we are doing to see if we have got it right and if there are better ways to achieve outcomes. We talk to the communities and ask them what they feel is the best way to deliver programs.

Let me give the statistics. The proportion of students going on to year 12 has increased from 29 per cent in 1996, after all of our efforts, to over 36 per cent in the year 2001. We know that the basis of breaking the poverty trap in Australia is education, so that is probably one of the most significant statistics for indigenous communities that this nation has seen. I am proud that our government has presided over that change. The numbers of indigenous people in vocational education have doubled since 1995. In the year 2000, over 7,000 indigenous people were in higher education compared to only 2,000 in 1987. In the year 2001, 6,000 were in new apprenticeships. That is a very substantial number. Compare that with only 800 in 1994—unfortunately the time when Labor was supposedly doing something for the indigenous communities, but obviously not enough.

There are so many other positive results, but to me one of the most significant is that we have a strong partnership with indigenous communities. The member for Fremantle appeared to be amazed that there was a budget item against the defence forces referring to indigenous expenditure, showing that there was some Defence Force expenditure on indigenous programs. I seem to remember that the member for Fremantle was most concerned that the Army was going to assist indigenous communities. We now know that that has been one of the most successful programs ever. Australian Defence Force personnel go out into indigenous communities, sit down beside the elders and work out what needs to be done to improve infrastructure—whether it is dust supression, building sewerage systems or roads. The program picks up the young members of those communities to work in trades with members of the armed forces. At the end of the day you have trained people, and great friendships are formed—networks which last for life—which is an extraordinarily good outcome. So I remind the shadow minister that she needs to look beyond the headlines. I would have thought better of her after her many years in parliament but it seems that she is still very much hooked on what she can get in terms of a quick political grab rather than on the substance of what is going on in indigenous Australia today.

The Howard government has particularly requested the conduct of a Commonwealth Grants Commission inquiry into indigenous-specific funding. That goes back to the comment I made before about how we do not simply have rhetorical debate about the indigenous situation in Australia; we actually want to know if our programs work. We want to know where the best place is to put funding. We are now considering the commission's response to that report, and we will respond soon. I urge the opposition to have a good, hard look at that. They might learn where they went wrong for all those years when conditions for indigenous Australians were deteriorating, not improving, across this huge country.

I have already referred to the problem of family violence for some indigenous communities. I am very pleased that the member for Lingiari had a good experience and gained a better understanding of family violence when he attended the Reconciliation Australia conference on governance, which was held here. That conference was put together and strongly supported by the Commonwealth government. I am pleased that he learned a little from it. The issue of violence against indigenous women and children is of the utmost concern to our government. We have allocated approximately $10 million since 1997 for a range of indigenous projects as part of our national Partnerships Against Domestic Violence programs.

We are establishing an Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, with funding of $115 million over four years, and $23 million of that funding is specifically for indigenous Australians. The member for Lingiari makes a pertinent point that there are more dry communities and less alcohol consumption amongst Northern Territory indigenous communities and individuals than amongst non-indigenous communities. He often makes that statement, and that is where he leaves it. Our government knows that substance abuse and alcohol consumption are a major concern in many indigenous communities. We have specifically targeted $253 million—a significant amount—at indigenous communities so they can look at programs to help themselves. So despite the fact that addressing domestic violence is a state and territory government responsibility—that is what the Constitution determined 100 years ago—the federal government is committed to assisting indigenous Australians break out of the cycle of violence which afflicts them. This includes providing preventative services to address problems of alcohol and substance abuse, and assisting people to maintain healthy and constructive family relationships.

I will end by saying again that the amendments to this act are urgent. They are technical amendments, but behind them lie the heart and soul of a government determined to see that our indigenous Australians have a better life experience than they had in the first 200 years after we colonised this country. No-one is more determined than the Howard government to try and recognise, both in a symbolic way and in a practical way, what needs to be done so that every young Australian, whether they are born to an indigenous or a non-indigenous family, reaches their full potential, stands proud as an Australian and if they need extra support will receive that support in a way that is absolutely right for their cultural perspective and where they live in our great Australian landscape. I commend these amendments and this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.