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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 1


Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (9:31 AM) —I table the explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004

The purpose of the Bill is to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The Bill, which is largely identical to the Bill passed by the House of Representatives and considered by the Senate in June 2004, is part of a major reform of the Australian Government's approach to Indigenous affairs.

The Bill does one thing. It abolishes ATSIC. The bulk of the Australian Government's reforms to Indigenous affairs are proceeding independently of this Bill.

In June 2004 the Bill was referred to the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. The Committee was due to report back on 30 October 2004. It will now not report back until 8 March 2005. The delay has already cost the taxpayer over $1 million in Commissioners' remuneration. The further delay will cost a similar amount.

This unnecessary expenditure of public money continues despite the fact that the Chair of the Committee has said that submissions showed little support for ATSIC. It is also a fact that the Opposition publicly announced on 30 March 2004 that it would abolish ATSIC.

The Board of Commissioners has nothing to do. During the election campaign the Leader of the Opposition was consulted about whether we should approve additional requests for travel funds and staff. He agreed with my view that we should only provide for those payments for which we have no choice.

So we are paying wages for no work—around $100,000 per year for each Commissioner. Around $200,000 per year for the Chair. Every week costs another $65,000 and when the Board is abolished there will be a minimum payout of four months salary for each Commissioner.

Enough is enough. The Senate has another chance to stop this nonsense.

The Terms of Reference for the Senate Select Committee are broad.

The Committee could continue to investigate the administration of Indigenous programmes and services by mainstream departments and related matters but let this Bill pass so that we can honour our election commitment and indeed the commitment of the Opposition.

Significant changes to the way in which services are delivered to Indigenous Australian people have already been introduced. A quiet revolution has been underway since 1 July 2004, involving a radical new approach which will see Indigenous people empowered and taking control of their own destiny.

Nothing short of revolutionary reform is required if we are to turn around the appalling indicators of Indigenous disadvantage and the sense of hopelessness that many Indigenous people face every day.

The amount of money spent can no longer be the benchmark—outcomes must be the measure.

For too long many mainstream agencies were not closely involved in Indigenous issues. Setting up a second rate specialist agency like ATSIC to do their job for them did not work. Unfortunately over time this led to these mainstream agencies becoming unfamiliar with the issues. We have taken the problem head on. We have transferred Indigenous programmes to mainstream agencies and have taken steps to make sure that those agencies will be much more accountable. The Heads of these agencies meet together each month on Indigenous issues—this in unprecedented.

A Ministerial Task Force has been established to lead the change and to improve coordination and accountability. A new Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination will coordinate policy advice across departments.

Thirty new “whole of government” Indigenous Coordination Centres will be the Australian Government's presence on the ground. They will offer a simple, coordinated and flexible “one stop shop” service.

In the past Indigenous communities would have to shop around for funding assistance. We will make dealing with Government simpler. From now on we will do the shopping around—we will help with solutions rather than creating barriers.

Some might say that bureaucratic reforms are not the answer. Of course they are not the complete answer but they are an important part of the answer. The community of Lockhart River in Cape York for example has to deal separately with around twenty Commonwealth and State Government departments. There are over fifty separate funding agreements. The community is drowning in a sea of red tape. We want to change to one agreement with the Australian Government. We will ask the Queensland Government to join us.

This Government has never shied away from the fact that passive welfare has been devastating for Indigenous Australians particularly in remote areas. In our election commitment we said that unconditional welfare must become a thing of the past.

The provision of special Indigenous funding programmes will be based on the concept of mutual obligation through shared responsibility agreements negotiated with local families and communities.

In our election commitment we moved to offer more choices to Indigenous Australians by introducing programmes to fund scholarships at the best Australian schools and to provide support for young people to take up apprenticeships and other employment opportunities in the larger towns.

We have appointed the National Indigenous Council (NIC) to provide policy advice to the Government at a national level.

The NIC is a far different sort of body to ATSIC—we have no intention of repeating the failed ATSIC experiment. ATSIC elections cost between $7 million and $9 million, annual remuneration for Commissioners alone costs the tax-payer almost $3 million and a further $1 million for travel expenses. No one could sensibly argue that there are not far better ways to spend that sort of money to benefit Indigenous people.

The NIC is not meant to be a representative body. It is a group of respected individuals with practical experience and expertise. They have their own ideas and a track record of achievement in various fields.

They agreed to be involved in the Council because they are committed individuals who want to see change. The Government is determined that their opinions will be heard and acted upon.

They will not be the only group that the Government will take advice from. There are numerous representative bodies and Committees at the national level that will continue to express their views. Other Indigenous leaders will do so also—and we will listen.

At the regional level we are working with State and Territory Governments, Regional Councils and a range of Indigenous organisations and communities to establish new regional representative arrangements. We recognise that different models are likely to emerge to suit different regions and jurisdictions.

But we do not want these representative and advisory bodies to prevent us from dealing directly with local families and communities. Our approach of shared responsibility agreements based on a 20-30 year community vision will be the vehicle for that.

All these measures have been put in place independently of the Bill. Most of the provisions of the Bill are consequential to the abolition of ATSIC or put in place transitional or other provisions arising from the abolition of ATSIC.

This includes the transfer of the Regional Land Fund to the Indigenous Land Corporation and of ATSIC's Housing Fund and Business Development Programme to Indigenous Business Australia. Other land and property assets will be divested to Indigenous interests prior to the abolition of ATSIC or be transferred to the Indigenous Land Corporation or Indigenous Business Australia for divestment or use for the benefit of Indigenous people.

The Office of Evaluation and Audit which audits ATSIC programmes will audit the full range of Australian Government Indigenous specific programmes. It will continue to investigate the performance of bodies that obtain funding from Indigenous specific programmes.

The current Bill includes a few minor changes to the previous Bill in order to take into account the passage of time and to clarify some specific provisions.

The previous Bill sought to abolish ATSIC on 1 July 2004. The current Bill provides for ATSIC to be abolished on a date to be proclaimed and for the Regional Councils to be abolished from 1 July 2005 or the day after ATSIC is abolished, whichever is the later.

So, if I can be clear. This Bill does not establish the National Indigenous Council or the Ministerial Taskforce, it does not transfer Indigenous programmes to mainstream departments, it does not create Indigenous Coordination Centres—these reforms have already happened. The Bill simply abolishes ATSIC.

I trust that the Opposition will now fulfill the commitment of the Leader of the Opposition to abolish ATSIC and allow passage of the Bill through both Houses of Parliament as soon as possible.

Ordered that further consideration of this bill be adjourned to the next day of sitting which is more than 14 days after today, in accordance with standing order 111(6).