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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 39

Senator SCULLION (12:14 PM) —I would like to thank those opposite for their contribution, particularly Senator Ridgeway. He has made a wonderful contribution to Indigenous leadership in Australia. The irony is not lost on me that he came to this place through the mainstream process. I must say that I am completely miffed by the Labor Party’s contribution this morning and a little confused. Perhaps that is because the spokesman is a little out of touch with Indigenous affairs. I am not sure. I know his appointment to the position is only recent. Over eight years there have been eight separate spokespeople from the Labor Party on this particular issue. I think it was back in 2000 that it was reported that, when you were scurrying around looking for somebody else to possibly put their hand up for the position of spokesperson for Indigenous affairs, an unnamed member of parliament from the Left faction was heard to say that being given the position of spokesperson for Indigenous affairs would be like getting the job of toilet cleaner on the Titanic.

Senator Stephens —That is disgusting!

Senator SCULLION —Exactly. I agree with you. It is a disgusting approach to Indigenous affairs. It is a very, very important issue. In my career in politics, you would totally aspire to provide leadership to the very important first people of Australia. I will just quote from the minority view:

ATSIC is no longer capable of addressing endemic problems in Indigenous communities. It has lost the confidence of much of its own constituency and the wider community.

That quote does not come from government members. It is a quote from the former Leader of the Labor Party—a bloke who, for the very first time, stood up and made some sense. Of course, he is from the Right. He actually made some sense. He said that the first Australians deserved some reform, deserved some change, and that the Labor Party would stand by that change and abolish ATSIC. The government brought forward the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005] that we are looking at today. It is quite a simple thing. Now the opposition are resiling from it. I have just been listening to the spokesman for Indigenous affairs on the other side, who basically told us that there is nothing wrong with ATSIC, it is all fine with ATSIC and the government has got it wrong. I cannot really believe that they are so far out of step on this issue.

The government are fair dinkum. We are fair dinkum about reducing Indigenous disadvantage. We have spent $2.9 billion on Indigenous specific programs. That is a 39 per cent increase in real terms, and that is getting fair dinkum about this. But it is not only about the money; it is about looking at the outcomes. I have always been very keen to look at the outcomes. Senator Nettle was talking about the area of disadvantage. There is still a gap—we are not in denial about that—but the gap is closing. Infant mortality and death rates from respiratory illness have gone down. More remote communities have access to sewerage, electricity and water. More Indigenous are people working. Unemployment rates are down and employment participation rates are up. The number of students staying on to year 12 has doubled. More are going to university. The number who have got tertiary qualifications has more than doubled over the last 10 years. New Apprenticeships and TAFE attendees have almost doubled since 1996. Housing overcrowding rates have declined since 1996. The number of houses included under the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program has doubled since 1996. There has been a doubling of money provided in loans through the Home Ownership Program.

It is still not good enough; I accept that. Indigenous Australians want better results and they deserve better results. But the Howard government are absolutely determined. We are not going to work within the same flawed framework that has been designed by Labor. That is why we are going to abolish ATSIC and introduce some radical, fair dinkum changes and fair dinkum reforms. We have actually had support for that. The member for Fraser said that Indigenous Australians may be attached to ATSIC but that there is very little adverse reaction to its abolition. I was part of the committee that looked at the abolition of ATSIC. We went out there and found that, in absolute droves, Indigenous Australia was totally disinterested in what happened to ATSIC.

We have been accused of not really consulting. Consulting is something you do when you really are not fair dinkum about making a change. You say, ‘We’ll consult more.’ The second thing you do, of course, is have new committees. Consulting is a big time thing for the Labor Party. I would remind them that there were two major rounds of consultation, 8,000 copies of a discussion paper were mailed out to specific individuals who showed interest and a web site was set up. All 35 of the ATSIC regional councils were consulted. They talked to their stakeholders and they gave evidence. The committee received 156 written submissions. To say that there has not been wide consultation is absolute rubbish. Those consultations revealed widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction with ATSIC on the part of Indigenous Australians full stop. I think that if Mark Latham had not had the courage to act Labor would have done the normal thing—nothing. We think that nothing will happen if you do nothing, but nothing has a consequence. The same levels of disillusionment and disadvantage for Indigenous people will occur. We need to thank Mark Latham for that contribution. He had the guts and the courage to stand up for what is right.

The opposition have spoken at length about mainstreaming. They have said that we all support assimilation and that we are returning to the past. They tell us that the mainstream departments have failed Indigenous people. It does not take more than a casual glance at history to show that Indigenous Australians had their programs changed by the Labor Party. They said, ‘Clearly, ATSIC is not delivering properly. Let’s change it. We’ll mainstream the delivery of health.’ That was a sensible proposition at the time. I had to heartily agree with them at the time. But you have to do the job properly. What about all the other programs left hanging around that were suffering from the same lack of leadership and administrative skills in delivery that the health programs were? You cannot do half a job. You have to be fair dinkum about it.

There are members of the Labor Party who are fair dinkum. I have to congratulate the Clare Martin Labor government in the Northern Territory, who are fair dinkum about working with our government and about mainstreaming the management of their programs. All the states and territories do, and in general they support what we propose. It seems that only those opposite are still in never-never land and persist in doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

Whole-of-government leadership and coordination is the key feature of our approach. That framework is going to be headed by a ministerial task force chaired by none other than the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs herself. That will ensure that we have complementary and consistent policy. Under that framework the secretaries of the departments are going to be responsible for Indigenous specific services. When I say responsible, I mean not just overseeing but being held accountable and responsible. When they appear at estimates hearings we can all beat them up and find out exactly what is happening to the outcomes. It will be the first time that the bureaucrats in the departments have been made totally and directly accountable to the Australian people for the outcomes for Indigenous Australia. All government agencies will be responsible for 100 per cent of all Australians 100 per cent of the time.

In the majority report there are certainly some issues and concerns about the assets of ATSIC. Some evidence was given to us that somehow the assets of ATSIC are not going to be used in a way that benefits Indigenous Australia. I want to assure the House that the housing fund, with the majority of the housing and business loans, is going to IBA—Indigenous Business Australia. I have to commend them on the wonderful work they have done in the past. I have a very high level of confidence that that is the very best place to put these programs and funds. The Regional Land Fund—ATSIC holdings—is going to the Indigenous Land Corporation. They have done a fantastic job in the past and I am sure they will really look after the funds for Indigenous Australia.

We have heard a lot from the other side about elected representation at the national level. Unsurprisingly, we are not going to replace ATSIC. People have talked about the United States and Canada. I think they are useful examples. Neither country has elected bodies that are somehow reflected in regulation or legislation. It certainly works, and the argument does not follow that they somehow need to be connected to some regulatory process. That is actually about self-determination and self-management: allowing Indigenous people to develop and establish their own representative bodies that they have ownership of, that are doing what they understand and that know their own people and their own issues.

Labor says our reforms go beyond the abolition of ATSIC, and they probably should go on to say that they are actually doing something practical. I can tell you what Labor is intending to do: pretty much nothing. Indigenous people have every right to be concerned about what they are going to do. Labor is going to abolish ATSIC and replace it with more of the same. We will have one nationally elected board. Surprise! That is a big change, mate. We are going to make it another nationally elected board. What a surprise. What a radical change. That will really improve the lot of Indigenous Australia. ATSIS will be turned into a commission—a bit of renaming. Regional councils will continue. It does not matter what people want to do at the local level. There will be 35 ATSICS—it is another Mini-Me. It is not good enough for Labor to pretend to the Australian public that they intend to abolish ATSIC. You have to have the guts. You have to have the same guts that Mark Latham had and say, ‘They deserve more. This isn’t good enough.’

This bill will make major changes to the Australian government’s institutional structures in Indigenous affairs and improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. We are providing better arrangements for involving Indigenous people at national and local levels in the determination of priorities and policies relating to issues that they have identified that actually affect them. The opposition talks about models of empowerment. Some people might consider that is a fact, but it disempowers the vast majority of Indigenous Australians who do not get those very few golden hats. There is an opportunity for those people opposite to do the right thing, be fair dinkum about this for Indigenous Australians and support this bill in its unamended form.