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Monday, 9 May 1994
Page: 456


Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6.13 p.m.) —I too wish to speak to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1994 which the Australian Democrats will be supporting. We agree that the bill plays an important part in the wider process of self-determination, in this case for Torres Strait Islander people. As Senator Teague has explained, it allows the Prime Minister to confer a departmental function and other functions previously exercised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission on the Torres Strait Islander Authority.

  Former senator Michael Macklin was reminding me a few moments ago that he had suggested this structure be in place from the beginning. He is finding it quite interesting being here today and seeing this happening. These new powers include the right to grant loans and make agreements with the state government and its authorities, to spend money on land maintenance and acquisition, to implement the Torres Strait marine strategy, and to conduct elections.

  The establishment of the Torres Strait Islander Authority is one outcome of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's review of its operations in 1993. That review identified the need to recognise Torres Strait Islanders as a distinct and separate group of indigenous Australians. From July this year the Torres Strait Islander regional authority will have functions and powers substantially parallel to those of ATSIC in the Torres Strait region.

  Changes in this bill grant increased autonomy to the authority and strengthen the authority's ability to preserve the cultural identity and integrity of Torres Strait Islanders. This is a unique body of customs, traditions, observances and beliefs of the Torres Strait Islanders which we acknowledge should be recognised and respected. Like the commission, the authority will have the power to negotiate, cooperate and enter into agreements with other Commonwealth bodies, and with state, territory and local government bodies.

  Providing that it furthers the social, economic or cultural development of Torres Strait Islanders, or of Aboriginal people in the Torres Strait area, the authority will be able to make grants and loans to the state of Queensland and its authorities. This is particularly important in ensuring that the authority can financially service its regional councils, which we were told was previously unclear under the review.

  Currently, the money in the authority's land and natural resources fund can be used for acquiring an interest in land. Quite rightly, it is felt that this focus on land overlooks the unique connection that Torres Strait Islanders have with the sea and marine environment. I am a member of the Council for Reconciliation and in our vision statement we have a reference to the attachment to land and sea. I am particularly indebted to Mr Alan Mosby and Mr Bill Lowah for their articulate championing and explanation of the attachment indigenous people feel for the land, in the case of Aboriginal people, and to the sea for the Torres Strait Islanders.

  In the past, our legislation has not specifically recognised this distinction. Proposed section 144W will take this into account. Use of money will be extended to include the development and implementation of the marine strategy in the Torres Strait development plan, the development and maintenance of real estate and the acquisition of land. This change facilitates the implementation of `a comprehensive conservation and sustainable development strategy' in the region as called for by the Torres Strait Islanders in 1991 in their Principles and objectives for the future of the Torres Strait.

  The urgent need for localised coordination and management structure within the Torres Strait region was also endorsed in Towards a marine strategy for the Torres Strait in 1993. This bill today will assist this process. To understand the need of Torres Strait Islanders to organise autonomously also requires an understanding that their relationship with the sea is the fundamental part of their culture, traditional economy and activities. It is crucial that Torres Strait Islanders have authority over these areas of land and sea, as well as authority over themselves.

  This bill and the supplementary amendments also outline the process for authority elections. While the changes to elections are mainly administrative, the additional amendments still allow for extra members to the authority, but set a maximum of 23. Other changes relate to zone and other elections, including the division of wards, determination of boundaries and the number to be elected in each ward. This is all part of the important process of self-determination for Torres Strait Islander people. I take the opportunity to congratulate those who have been elected in the recent Torres Strait Regional Council Commissioner and office holder elections: the new Commissioner, Mr Joseph Elu; the Chairperson, Mr Getano Lui Jr; the Deputy Chairperson, Mr Terry Waia; and the Alternate Deputy, Ms Romina Fujii.

  I commend the changes in this bill to the Senate. The changes are those which the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission's report appropriately summarises as follows:

The recognition of the deep and distinctive connection of the Torres Strait Islander people with their land and seas and their desire in goodwill and co-operation with others, to care for, sustain and develop their traditional estate presents no threat. . . It could be the catalyst for distinct gains.

Looking down this speakers list, I rather suspect that we are going to hear something on Aboriginal health from Senator Herron. Some speakers may refer to yesterday's Sunday program. I want to make a couple of comments in anticipation. Yesterday's Sunday program on ATSIC was a little one-sided. It was certainly put together by a well-intentioned journalist who shares with many people the frustration of what seems to be the pace of delivery of services at the community level in Aboriginal communities.

  However, I do not think the program made the point sufficiently well—a point which I have made here so many times and which needs to be repeated: ATSIC is four years old. Why would we impose on one society of people the assumption and the expectation that they should be monolithic—that they should have one political view? Why would we not expect and allow a difference of opinion over the best way to deliver an outcome? Why would we expect that, in four years, ATSIC would be able, with the best will in the world and on the budget it has, to make up for 200 years—certainly 100 years—of mismanagement and lack of cooperation which sometimes our federal system is characterised by?

  I hope that this bill will not turn into a focus for an attack on ATSIC. It has an incredibly difficult job, and nobody is saying that it does it perfectly. This bill is a result of an important review, and this next step forward in recognising the autonomy of the Torres Strait Islander people certainly has the support of the Democrats.