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Monday, 9 May 1994
Page: 457


Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) (6.23 p.m.) —I rise to speak in support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1994 and all the amendments that are thereto attached. My involvement with the Torres Strait and the Torres Strait Islanders goes back some considerable time to 1983, when I was first elected and went to the Torres Strait on a Senate inquiry. I got to know the people. I was also on the original Senate inquiry that investigated ATSIC. In those days I fought in the parliament to have the Torres Strait Islanders and all their islands and their communities on the mainland incorporated into their own particular region for the very reason that they were a different race of people with different cultural expectations, and they wanted to protect those differences.

  The amendments in this bill are only an advancement or a further step in the amendment that was originally moved, either by myself or by Senator Baume, when we drew a region around all the island communities and the mainland communities of Seisia and Bamaga and allowed them to have their own regional council. Even then, that regional council was administered by ATSIC. Those communities became a minority of a minority. It was always their concern. Now, with the establishment of this bill and last year's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 3), they have gone a long way to their own self-determination.

  I suggest that the Torres Strait Islands and the islanders who live on them have much more autonomy than the people of Christmas Island or Cocos Island. I know they are very vocal on some occasions in seeking what they call independence, but I believe what they are saying is that they want the Torres Strait Islands to be considered as a territory. I have pointed out to them from time to time that they have more autonomy than the Malays on Cocos Island and on Christmas Island, which are territories. I want the Torres Strait Islanders to consider that.

  The implementation of the authority is based on the recommendations contained in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's report on the review of the operations of the 1989 ATSIC Act. The other recommendations in the report relating to streamlining zone election rules are also dealt with in this bill. The main provisions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1994 allow the Prime Minister to confer a departmental function on the Torres Strait regional authority—to confer ATSIC functions on the authority. I suppose this will mean that the authority will be a mini-ATSIC, with the same powers and responsibilities as ATSIC. It has taken since 1989 for this to come about. I congratulate those communities on their perseverance in pursuing this matter; but it is a matter that, I believe, receives support from all senators of all parties in this chamber.

  Other main provisions of this bill include: the authority to have power to negotiate, cooperate and enter into agreements with other Commonwealth bodies and with state, territory and local government bodies, and to make grants and loans to the state of Queensland and its authorities, including the local government; the expansion of the Torres Strait regional authority land and resources fund; and the minister to consult and make rules for the conduct of elections in the Torres Strait area by a system of wards.

  I know now that there is also a state-run island coordinating council that has been the main avenue for people from the various islands who are elected at local government elections every three years under the Queensland local government legislation. The chairmen of those island councils form the island coordinating council. So we are now going to have an island coordinating council as well as this new authority that will be responsible for administering federal issues. I see some sort of a conflict there. It may be not so much a conflict as two bodies doing different things. Maybe in the future they can be brought together. I think that is one of the islanders' aspirations.

  I have spoken to the islanders. I rang them and asked them whether they had any problems with the bill. They said that it has their support and that they look forward to its implementation. They are particularly keen to get it going right. They say that they have now been given the opportunity to run their own affairs. They are particularly keen to make sure that they make a total success of running this authority. They will know that the eyes of the media and the parliament will be upon them.

  They told me today that they want to take it pretty slowly before they do anything other than bring the island coordinating council and the new authority together. They are also well aware of the responsibilities that have been placed on them. They are very keen to make sure that they are accountable in all areas and that they are able to deliver the services that their constituents need. They asked me to raise in parliament their concern about the run-off from Ok Tedi mine running down the Fly River. The Marine Park Authority has been monitoring the Torres Strait areas for the impurities that they believe have run off, but has withdrawn its service. They asked me to express their fear that the run-off may be interfering with their fishing and prawning grounds in the Torres Strait. So I place their concern on record.

  I also add my congratulations to those of other speakers. When ATSIC was established there were misgivings on the part of not only the federal government but also many Aboriginal and Islanders which they expressed to the Senate committee when we were taking evidence. A number of them believed that ATSIC would overrule their local communities and they were not particularly keen to go ahead with it. I think there are still some fears. The fact that the Islanders can now run their own ship has relieved them of the majority of their fears. I wish them all the best. I hope that they do a particularly good job of administering this new authority and hold their end up, do the right thing and make a very successful go of it, as I am sure they will.