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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 29


Senator RIDGEWAY (11:36 AM) —I rise to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005], concerning the fate of ATSIC. The Australian Democrats strongly oppose this bill and we strongly oppose the direction in which this government is taking Indigenous affairs in this country. The Democrats believe, and I personally believe, that the ATSIC bill should be rejected in its entirety. We appreciate that the opposition have tried to negotiate a stay for regional councils, but I want to make some comments about that. To be honest, I do not think it should be lost on this place or the Australian people that it was the Labor Party who started the ball rolling in the same politically expedient way that the government deals with Indigenous people. That seems to be the hallmark of dealing with Indigenous affairs in this country: it is a ball that is thrown back and forth. Six months might help in some areas, and for that it would be worth it, but its main function seems to be to save face rather than to assist Indigenous people.

I hope that the opposition do think about what has happened as a result of their pre-election policy-on-the-run statements and about the lives that are going to be affected by the consequences. I have heard what has been said and I hope that rings true in terms of what they hope to achieve in conjunction with the government. But the reality is that we should not be here today and we should not be debating this bill. Quite frankly, we should never have given an opportunity to the government to move swiftly to deal with this particular issue.

Having said that, I want to address the substance of what the government is doing and has been doing to Indigenous people for the last nine years. As the majority report of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs made clear, and as the supplementary report further emphasised, the Howard government has already caused significant harm to Indigenous Australians through its regressive policies since 1996. Right from the very start there was the immediate funding cut of some $460 million to ATSIC, the attack on native title rights in 1998, the refusal to apologise to the stolen generations and now the abolition of the national Indigenous voice and the regional networks, to name a few significant milestones in this government’s relationship with Indigenous people.

I think the committee’s report is pretty much unambiguous in its condemnation of the Howard government and its failed practical reconciliation agenda, but it appears that to the government this report is just another in the long line of reports telling it exactly the same thing—another report to be ignored. As we say in our supplementary report, the government’s rhetoric in recent times regarding these so-called new arrangements has been at best illusory and at worst nothing short of deceitful, because the disingenuous repetition of the phrases about ‘bottom up’ and ‘community control’ cannot change the reality of the policy. That is, that it is top down, it is paternalistic and it is essentially just a veiled—a very thinly veiled—policy of assimilation.

With all the rhetoric about giving control back to the communities, people could be forgiven for thinking that this government believes in self-determination for Indigenous people and that Indigenous people should have control over their own future. Let us not forget that this government believes in assimilation. It has stated time and time again that it does not support self-determination for Indigenous people. It feels no shame in stating that at the UN Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and it is hard to believe that in this place and at this time it will not admit it outright as part of this debate. Why insist on the facade that the new arrangements are about Indigenous control? All the pretence achieves is an obstruction of real debate on these issues.

When you look at the government’s response to the Council for Reconciliation final report in 2000, you see that the then minister for Indigenous affairs wrote that the government:

… unequivocally supports the principle of Indigenous people having opportunities to exercise control over aspects of their affairs (as reflected in the establishment and operation of ATSIC …

If ATSIC is the government’s example of Indigenous people having control over aspects of their affairs, and if the government is abolishing ATSIC and not replacing it, isn’t this an admission from the government that it is in fact not in favour of Indigenous people having any control whatsoever? Indeed, the conclusion would seem consistent with a raft of other mainstreaming actions that have been taken in recent times by this government. The tendering of Aboriginal legal services is another example.

One of the most significant aspects of the process surrounding the abolition of ATSIC has been this unending series of government misrepresentations about ATSIC and about the process of abolition that is used to justify this unilateral decision. The truth is that there has not been any consultation with Indigenous people. Consultation is not what happens after the fact to try and legitimise a decision based on the personal ideology of the Prime Minister. Consultation is something that happens before a decision is taken. Minister Vanstone, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, is calling this a quiet revolution. It is not quiet because we are all coming around to the government’s agenda; it is quiet because this government is silencing the many critics and crafting the debate.

It is about much more than consultation, because the agenda of this government began well before the troubles of ATSIC and it runs far deeper than just getting rid of ATSIC itself—so much so that the tone of government statements about Indigenous affairs has always been high-minded but rarely connected to any factual base of truth. The problems that beset ATSIC provided a window of opportunity for this government to move swiftly, and it did just that. I want to reiterate what Mick Dodson said in the committee hearings: ‘Indigenous people have again been spoken about and dealt with as though we were invisible. Not only have Indigenous people been treated as though we were invisible, we have actually been ignored when we speak up. Indigenous people have been shouting loud and clear. We want a national elected body.’

That is what the years of consultation found prior to ATSIC’s establishment. This is what the $1.4 million government commissioned ATSIC review found in 2003. This is what the select committee found from the evidence. This is what I heard from listening to Indigenous witnesses at the hearing and this is what Indigenous people are telling me, as the only Aboriginal person in this place, every day.

The abolition of ATSIC has been in this government’s sights since day one. The Prime Minister opposed ATSIC in opposition. He immediately stripped ATSIC of funds on being elected, did everything possible to make the job impossible, demonised the ATSIC board members, contributed to a mix of monumental failures of his own government departments and then shifted 100 per cent of the blame to ATSIC, while perpetuating the stereotype that blackfellas are devious and cannot manage their own money and while dividing Australia along race lines. This is not an exaggeration. I have permanently etched in my mind the television picture of the Prime Minister holding up the map of Australia with 70 per cent blacked out, telling Australians that Aboriginal people were going to take their backyards. What an absolute load of nonsense!

The real policy being served is that this government will stop at nothing to push through with its ideological agenda. It is all about an ‘us and them’ mentality for this government. It is that ‘us and them’ mentality—which the government encourages in the Australian psyche—which fuels the misrepresentations about ATSIC so that everyone out there in the Australian community believes that Aboriginal people are to blame. The Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs itself found that ATSIC was not the failure that this government would have us believe. In fact, it found that ATSIC was extremely successful, given the hurdles that it was up against. ATSIC was way more than the chairperson or the deputy chair. It was a successful network of regional councils across this country, which seems to be lost on this government and the members on that side of the chamber.

I would encourage everyone to read the committee’s majority report for an outline of all of ATSIC’s successes, including extremely effective international advocacy, as well as the excellent administration of the Community Development Employment Program and the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program. Despite a chronic lack of resources and recognition, the regional councils are still, as we speak, being fair minded and decent. They are subsidising the government neglect by trying to cushion the blow for their communities. They are working hand in hand with the new Indigenous coordination centres that have been created. This government has had the nerve to ask these dedicated, passionate people to figure out how their own structure can be abolished and how the government will then talk to Indigenous people.

The committee heard evidence which confirmed what my office was already well aware of: the administration of Indigenous affairs in this country is in total disarray. Chaos reigns as the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and senior public servants struggle to explain what they mean by ‘mutual obligation’ and cannot explain or produce a single piece of documentation outlining what shared responsibility agreements are, let alone how they are enforced, how they are to produce outcomes or how they are to measure any of the outcomes that might be there.

It is hard to explain just how saddening it is to sit and listen to senior public servant after senior public servant—those now in charge of running Indigenous affairs—repeating the same old, well-worn government catchphrases: ‘shared responsibility’, ‘mutual obligation’, ‘no school, no pool’, ‘This is empowering communities’, ‘I wouldn’t want to second-guess what communities want,’ and ‘The community is talking to us; we’re just listening.’ When the poster child for the government’s new arrangements is an exchange of petrol bowsers for face washing—an agreement which has not even been signed yet—I cannot believe that there has been much thought put into this at all.

The linchpin of this so-called revolution in Indigenous affairs—the SRAs—is the biggest disaster of them all. They are completely ad hoc, there are no benchmarks, there are no targets. How will these agreements—which are different every time you talk about them—result in improvements to the lives of Indigenous people across the country? The government cannot even confirm if they are legally enforceable contracts and who the parties are. The inconsistencies are glaring. How can the government, on the one hand, make agreements with Indigenous representatives and yet, on the other hand, refuse to recognise representatives for any other purposes—for example, advocacy for Indigenous rights?

The committee also heard that there is a real potential that SRAs are in breach of international human rights law. The government members tried to suggest that perhaps we should seek to change international human rights law, if that is the case. I emphatically reject that as the most insane and destructive suggestion of the committee. If SRAs are seen by the international community to be racially discriminatory then this government should change its policy, not the other way around.

SRAs are about securing a group of people to blame when things go wrong, not about improving things. That seems to be how the government pushes them. After the government has given petrol bowsers to Mulan, what happens then? Has the Commonwealth discharged its obligations regarding trachoma? The community is left to deal with the reality of the situation and is left with the blame if things do not improve. So there is nothing mutual at all about these obligations.

Another reflection of the government’s poorly thought through ‘policy on the run’ is the apparent basis of these SRAs and regional agreements: the COAG trials. The COAG trials have not even finished. They are not being evaluated in any process. It seems that there have been some failures and some successes. I have spoken many times in this chamber about Murdi Paaki in my home state of New South Wales and its success story. But its success story is not because of a shared responsibility agreement; rather, the ATSIC regional council worked themselves into the ground for the last few years to make that happen. They did that themselves; they did not need to be told by the government. Of course, the government conveniently rebadged it and called it a shared responsibility agreement and took the credit. I wonder what will happen to the success stories of regional councils across the country when regional councils are gone on 30 June.

Meanwhile, while the Prime Minister and the minister reinterpret the definition of ‘shared responsibility agreements’ every week and reinvent the meaning of ‘community control’ for each media story that comes out, Indigenous people suffer. While this government works out what it is doing, people’s lives are being affected. One of the most disturbing things about the current state of affairs is the hack job that has been done on the administration of previous ATSIC and ATSIS programs. This, on top of what can only be seen as an ‘asset grab’, leaves me without much hope for the brave new world of Indigenous affairs. The government says it is about giving power back to communities. But the reality is that it is about reneging on legitimate ATSIC decisions made before ATSIC was disbanded or which were in process at the time.

I have spoken on many occasions about the issue of the MiiMi Mothers Aboriginal Corporation and why there is a need to resolve that, and I will not repeat it again on this occasion. If the government is so determined to look at people making their decisions locally, why does it keep ranting and raving about the violence experienced by Indigenous women and children and do nothing to help a mothers group that wants to do something within its community that has youth leadership and antiviolence programs in place? They are the sorts of people we ought to be helping.

Another example is that the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network has given the ATSIS legal team in Canberra—that is, the government department—a submission for the proper release of remaining funds in the ATSI Cultural Education and Advancement Trust of about $400,000. ATSIC are the trustees of this fund. They made their decision. It is unable to be now signed off on because Minister Vanstone has issued directions requiring 30 days notice. They are worried that they are now going to lose those funds when ATSIC is abolished. The money was designated well before we started this debate. It is not part of a pool of funding. It should not be the government’s choice just because a signature is required. The remaining funds should be allocated as they were first intended.

This is the kind of thing that is happening right across the country. Successful programs are at risk because the government does not like two particular people on the ATSIC board. The Democrats will be moving a number of amendments to try to address the administrative nightmare that has unfolded. We are trying to salvage some of the quality agencies and programs from being destroyed along with ATSIC by the government’s uninformed meddling. An example is Indigenous Business Australia. People may not know that the changes will result in the minister now having control over all of IBA’s functions, just because they are taking on programs previously held by ATSIC. I think this jeopardises the success of the organisation. They have not been in the media. They have been successful and have been getting results, and now the minister takes control. We are also going to move a second reading amendment jointly with the ALP which my colleague Senator Carr spoke about. We are united in this and I think we believe in what these words say. In many ways, this is the point at which we have arrived.

I also want to reflect on some words that were given to me earlier this week by an Aboriginal woman who came over to visit from the Ninga Mia group in Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields area. I sat down with her and her group, who, by the way, drove in a bus all the way from Kalgoorlie to Canberra. I think they are camped down in the park because they do not have any money to stay in motels. They are so passionate about this particular issue that they have come along to speak to all sides of politics to make sure that they get a chance to be listened to and that this debate is aired properly. One of the women there was Auntie Phyllis, an elder. I noticed her words. She wrote a note and handed it to me. It said:

When the first white man came to Australia, we had the land and he had the Bible. He asked us to pray, so we closed our eyes. When we opened our eyes, he had the land and we had the Bible.

In this respect, when we think about what we are dealing with here, it is much more than just the question of whether ATSIC as an institution is being abolished. It is the question of prevailing attitudes and a direct attack on Indigenous programs right across the country.

I spoke earlier in the week about the question of Redfern. No-one seemed to notice that. I was surprised yet again that it was not even reported in the media. No-one wants to hear about these things or that one group of people can be singled out for different treatment from the rest of the country. That is exactly what we are doing here in respect of the abolition of ATSIC. I would hope that on the government side of the chamber they would open their eyes and see the real truth of what is going on. We are not dealing with ATSIC in isolation of a larger agenda. There is a new moral agenda being put forward by this government. It has no factual basis. The reality is that the only people who suffer are Indigenous people.

I think we have to do more than just turn around and debate the issue of whether ATSIC ought to be abolished. We spent $1.4 million and we went out there and asked people what their views were. They told us loud and clear. The government are not listening to those views. In other words, I think they are playing wedge politics to drive this colour line between black and white in this country. I have been appalled not by what is being said but by what is not being said by the Prime Minister in showing leadership about harmony within our community. I am appalled that somehow, when young people die within our communities, whether it is in Redfern or Palm Island—or even when two young men have nooses put around their necks and are dragged behind a four-wheel-drive across a river bed in northern New South Wales on the border with Queensland—no-one steps up to say anything.

Why is it that, in this country, we have become so conditioned to not talking out in favour of those who are oppressed? Of course it does not garner broad community support, but it is not right. It is immoral, indecent and unjust. The ATSIC bill is a further part of the program that the government have put in place to perpetuate this prevailing attitude that now takes over the country. I hope that they show the right leadership and do not perpetuate what is wrong. I know that Senator Scullion is passionate about these issues in the Northern Territory. Sometimes I think they are very misguided in the way they deal with things. But the law has to apply equally. The lady of justice statue has a blindfold on for a reason—so that she cannot see the colour of a person’s skin. But in this country we take the blindfold off and allow her to see things differently. That is what has to stop. (Time expired)