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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 24


Senator CARR (11:17 AM) —As the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs and reconciliation, I am today delivering the opposition’s speech on the second reading debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005]. This bill abolishes ATSIC. The opposition agrees with the government that there needs to be a major revamp of the form of national representation of Australia’s Indigenous people—but that is where we part company with the government. We fundamentally disagree with the government’s approach to implementing its new arrangements. However, we acknowledge that the abolition of ATSIC is an administrative fait accompli.

Labor has a firm policy in support of the principle of a national Indigenous representative body. The government’s new National Indigenous Council is not chosen by Indigenous people and does not represent them in any meaningful way. It has lacked legitimacy from the start, and the secretive way in which it operates has served only to confirm the worst in terms of its role.

In December 1992, in launching the 1993 Year of the World’s Indigenous People, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech. It is one of the great speeches given by an Australian Prime Minister about Indigenous affairs. Of the newly established ATSIC, he said:

ATSIC emerges from the vision of indigenous self-determination and self-management.

                  …         …           …

All over Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are taking charge of their own lives.

So they were. But that is no longer to be. In failing to replace ATSIC with another representative body—a body funded by the government to do its job—this government has chosen to close its eyes to the vision of Indigenous self-determination and self-management. Indeed, the government’s approach through this bill, with the abolition of ATSIC and its regional councils, not only winds back the clock in terms of Indigenous representation but also removes the requirement for consultation with Indigenous people across a range of important areas. For example, under this bill there will no longer be a requirement for the minister to consult with Indigenous people before appointing new directors of either Indigenous Business Australia or the Indigenous Land Corporation. It speaks volumes about the government’s so-called partnership model that it does not even acknowledge the rights of Indigenous people to be consulted on issues of fundamental importance to their wellbeing; it speaks volumes about the government’s view of Indigenous participation in the economic development of communities and the implementation of measures to address poverty and social exclusion.

Australia’s Indigenous people have been dispossessed. They have been massacred, they have been insulted and they have been made to suffer by the actions of non-Indigenous Australians. Their needs and their rights have been monumentally ignored. Quoting again from the speech of Paul Keating:

... it might help us if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we have lived on for 50 000 years—and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours.

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight ... Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.

Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.

This is still happening to Indigenous Australians today. Yet the pride, the resilience and the grace of Indigenous people, alluded to by Paul Keating, has been borne out to me and it is absolutely astounding.

As the recently appointed shadow minister for Indigenous affairs and reconciliation, I have had the pleasure and honour of meeting hundreds of Indigenous Australians. Most of them are the leaders of various Indigenous communities, and the colossal change that has occurred in Indigenous society and the damage it has done over recent years has been reflected in their stories to me. However, they also pointed out to me that over the 15 years since the establishment of ATSIC there has been an emergence and empowerment of many remarkable people. Some of the leaders I have met have commented to me that it was partly the agenda championed by the then Labor government—the reconciliation agenda and the establishment of ATSIC and representative structures—that provided them with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills.

The early nineties have been described as a time of hope for Indigenous people, both because of the Hawke and Keating governments’ commitment to Indigenous empowerment and self-determination and because that commitment was able to grow and articulate itself through the actions of Indigenous peoples themselves. The self-determination that ATSIC provided a framework for has played a significant role in building a critical mass of confident, proud Indigenous leaders who walk tall in Australian society, who command respect from us all and who ought to command respect from us all. In the policy of Indigenous affairs, they have led not only their own people but the rest of us. They have been generous with their time, knowledge and wisdom, and I believe that all Australians should be able to learn from them.

The Howard government’s approach to Indigenous policy has been described by its own apologists as being assimilationist. It has been about providing services to Indigenous peoples and communities on exactly the same basis as mainstream services for other Australians. It says it is an approach essentially designed to iron out the difference. The opposition approach—for the conservative commentators can only see two extremes—has been characterised as a separatist model, and those people who recognise that Indigenous cultures have a legitimate value and who accept the relationship to country and the sometimes different aspirations of Indigenous people are dismissed. In the run-up to the 2004 election, a former Liberal Aboriginal affairs minister, Peter Howson, described this approach as being ‘Rousseauvian sentimentalism’.

This government’s approach is now crystal clear. Its attitude to ATSIC and Indigenous people was clearly articulated in 1988, but now it has become abundantly clear for all to see. When the bill to establish ATSIC was first introduced in the parliament in 1988, it was heavily amended by the opposition of the day. The debate in the Senate lasted 40 hours. At the time, it was the most heavily amended bill by an opposition in the history of the parliament. I will come back to that in a few moments. The Liberal shadow minister at the time was Mr Chris Miles, and during the last stages of the ATSIC bill, after acknowledging that the bill would be supported by the coalition, he said:

I do not believe that the saga of ATSIC is over by any means.

                  …         …         …

We have argued our case against this legislation long and hard, rationally, clearly and extensively. ... The Bill has, in effect, just fallen over the line as legislation. We are entering into uncharted waters with this legislation, and it bears all the seeds of its own destruction.

Senator Vanstone, also speaking in the parliament at that time, said:

... the minority report of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs found, firstly, that the proposal for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission ... was unjustified, unnecessary and culturally inappropriate and, secondly, that it would operate to the detriment of Aborigines and lead to worse services and to less accountability both to Aborigines and all Australians.

 That was the view at that time, and it reflects the current view of this government.

The comment about ATSIC ‘containing the seeds of its own destruction’ is a very interesting one. Coming as it did from the former Liberal shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, it might be seen now with hindsight as a promise of what a future coalition would do when it came to the abolition of ATSIC, regardless of ATSIC’s record and any achievements it might make. Actually, the ATSIC Act, as amended by the coalition in 1989, could be regarded as containing near fatal flaws because it was deliberately bastardised by the Senate, by the Liberals and by the National Party at that time. As it turned out, those amendments substantially reduced the effectiveness and workability of the legislation. They reduced its integrity as legislation. In fact, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs at that time, Mr Gerry Hand, noted in his third reading speech on the bill that he was ‘disappointed’ in some of the amendments that the Labor government had been obliged to accept. Former Labor senator Michael Tate described these as ‘modifications that will be important in the actual operations of ATSIC’. In a speech made in 1990, Mr Hand made a related point. He said that ATSIC ‘has been white-anted from the first day’. He said that the commission had been undermined by the media and the Commonwealth bureaucracy, which did not trust ATSIC.

On its election in 1996, the newly formed coalition government launched a major attack on the auditing arrangements applying to ATSIC. The new government brought in an independent company of auditors, which found very little fault, I might add, with the financial affairs and accountabilities of the commission. At the same time, the coalition government cut $470 million from ATSIC’s budget over the ensuing four years and slashed several programs by up to 30 per cent. Finally, the Howard government placed severe financial constraints on ATSIC, prescribing the exact purpose for which over 80 per cent of its budget was to be used. ATSIC became a shadow of its former self in terms of its decision making and policy formulation. In a real sense, ATSIC’s hands were tied from that point on. However, despite the restraints placed on it, ATSIC has managed successful programs which have seen communities generally take responsibility and make the most of the limited resources that are available to them. For instance, under the auspices of ATSIC, the Community Development Employment Projects scheme grew significantly, providing meaningful work for thousands of Indigenous people within their communities and supporting vital community development and cultural activities.

Another proud achievement of ATSIC is the successful Indigenous financial agency, Indigenous Business Australia, which provides grants and loans that assist Indigenous small businesses to find their feet and to grow successfully. Despite its faults, ATSIC and its regional councils have demonstrated that Indigenous self-determination can be a powerful force for community and economic development. Throughout the Northern Territory there are many important business operations occurring in mining, tourism, agriculture and a whole range of fields which have come about as a result of engagement with Indigenous people and the proper use of land rights facilities. All that is under threat and, as a result of this government’s policies, there is a clear indication and malice by this government to undermine those achievements.

There have been many examples of Indigenous controlled programs that have succeeded because, essentially, they target Indigenous people and address their specific needs. Unfortunately, this government refuses to learn the lessons of Indigenous success; it has preferred to paint all Indigenous controlled programs as corrupt failures. Now those and other programs are to be mainstreamed. Whether they can retain their unique features and, more importantly, their effectiveness—and I hope they do—remains to be seen. It remains to be seen how long the programs will be specifically identified as Indigenous. It remains to be seen how long the bureaucracy will take to swallow the programs and for the problems associated with the administration of Indigenous affairs to be swept under the carpet. That has been the history of this Commonwealth throughout the last 100 years.

A former Labor minister for Aboriginal affairs, Gerry Hand, said that he always saw ATSIC ‘as a beginning, not an end’. It was, he said, ‘a beginning to move to ... full self-determination’ for Indigenous Australians. While many Indigenous people have criticised ATSIC, to a person they seem to want to see a national representative structure again. They do not regard the government’s National Indigenous Council as anything like an adequate replacement. Nor do they see the very idea of a national representative body as divisive, or as a manifestation of apartheid or ‘separatism’—all the pejorative words that the government seeks to use when it describes this policy area. Mr Howard, throughout his political career, has referred to and used those terms. I want to quote his comments back in April 1989, when he told the House of Representatives:

... if the Government wants to divide Australian against Australian, if it wants to create a black nation within the Australian nation, it should go ahead with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) legislation and its treaty. In the process it will be doing a monumental disservice to the Australian community.

This was back in 1989. He said:

I think it is a very bad step for the long term unity of this country to establish the structure envisaged under the ATSIC legislation.

                  …         …         …

The ATSIC legislation strikes at the heart of the unity of the Australian people ... I say to the Minister that if the Government establishes this ATSIC legislation it will create more resentment and more division.

                  …           …         …

I ask the Government not to go ahead with the legislation.

When he became Prime Minister, he acted on those sentiments. John Howard’s scaremongering at the time of ATSIC’s establishment has proved to be entirely without foundation but it remains one of the great fantasies of the Right in Australian politics that those are the sorts of dark emotions that you churn up.

Some 10 years after the establishment of ATSIC, in 2000, hundreds of thousands of Australians—probably a million—walked across the bridges of this country to symbolise their commitment to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The Australian people were united in seeking true reconciliation. They were not divided, they were united. Neither Indigenous nor non-Indigenous Australians see Indigenous self-determination as a threat. The people who do see it in that way are in this government. On the contrary, the Indigenous people I have talked to see such a structure as a necessary condition—a base—for their full participation in Australian political and economic life.

The government’s ‘practical reconciliation’ agenda, the mainstreaming of service provision for Indigenous Australians, and the abolition of Indigenous representative organisations are diametrically opposed to the approach that most Indigenous people support. In fact, in pursuing its ‘assimilationist’ agenda, the government has produced division and resentment, and it has done so without achieving the practical goals it said it was aiming for. Over more than eight years in government the coalition has failed to make a dent in the inequality gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Its approach has done nothing to build economic prosperity or to end poverty or exclusion. Jon Altman, in his 2003 paper, Monitoring ‘practical’ reconciliation: evidence from the reconciliation decade 1991-2001, says:

It is of particular concern that some of the gains made between 1991 and 1996 appear to have been offset by the relatively poor performance of Indigenous outcomes between 1996 and 2001.

The Howard government has failed Indigenous Australians and it continues to do so. The second reading amendment that I will move on behalf of Labor and other parties in the chamber—the Greens and the Democrats, who I understand cosponsor the second reading amendment—seeks to highlight these issues. The opposition also wishes to foreshadow that it will seek to amend the legislation in the committee stage.

I would like to leave senators with something further from Paul Keating’s 1993 Redfern speech. The then Prime Minister frankly described the injustices that confronted Indigenous Australians and he invited the rest of us to imagine that those wrongs had been done to us. He said:

If we can imagine the injustice then we can imagine its opposite. And then we can have justice.

Labor stand beside Indigenous Australian people in their struggle for justice. We will work with them to achieve the restoration of a comprehensive national representative structure that reflects the interests of Indigenous people and protects their rights. We will stand beside them in ensuring that they get a fair share of the economic development of this country that will end the poverty and exclusion. We will ensure that people get what is rightfully theirs as part of a truly democratic country. I move:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate:

(a)   notes:

(i)   that the Government’s ‘practical reconciliation’ agenda has failed to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians,

(ii)   that there is no evidence that mainstreaming of service delivery will in any way help to address Indigenous disadvantage,

(iii)   the Government's failure to advance the goal of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,

(iv)   the Government's failure to negotiate a treaty with Indigenous Australians or to guarantee self-determination for Australia’s Indigenous people, and

(v)   that the abolition of Indigenous representative organisations will serve to further marginalise Australia’s Indigenous citizens;

(b)   condemns the Government for failing to:

(i)   consult or negotiate with Indigenous Australians on the provisions of the bill, and

(ii)   develop a new legislative and administrative model that restores the right of Indigenous Australians to be responsible for their own future, despite the international evidence demonstrating that this approach delivers the best practical outcomes;

(c)   supports the implementation of new legislative and administrative arrangements that restore responsibility and opportunity for Indigenous Australians; and

(d)   calls on the Government to:

(i)   guarantee that Indigenous communities will be genuine partners in the policy development and the delivery of services,

(ii)   ensure that a properly resourced regional representative structure is developed according to the preferences of Indigenous communities, and

(iii)   consult with Indigenous people for the purpose of negotiating the establishment of a new national Indigenous representative body whose members are chosen by Indigenous people”.