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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 42


Senator CROSSIN (12:25 PM) —I have to say at the outset that I am disappointed with my colleague from the Northern Territory not being able to take up his full time in debating in this place such a monumental bill in the turns of history of Indigenous people. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005], as we know, formally abolishes ATSIC, but it further dampens the aspirations of Indigenous people in this country. In fact, it goes much further than that. The Howard government has never believed in our Indigenous Australians having a real say in decisions about their future, and this bill goes on to dismantle every means available to Indigenous people to have any say in such decisions. This is not to say that the Labor Party saw ATSIC as worthy of keeping—certainly not in the form it had become. For reasons outlined in March 2004, Labor believed that, as constituted, ATSIC did not have the capacity to work effectively for Indigenous Australians. However, unlike this government, we believe that Indigenous people must have an elected voice—a representative voice that is chosen by them.

From July 2005 or, in fact, from the passage of this bill, there will be no Indigenous voice in this country that is truly representative of Indigenous people. Coincidentally, from 1 July there will be no Indigenous representatives in this parliament and very few in state or territory parliaments outside of the Northern Territory. Also, if the Howard government gets its way, there will be no form of truly representative collective voice for Indigenous people anywhere in this country, other than through the Torres Strait Regional Authority.

In a statement to the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, Jackie Huggins said:

I would particularly like to direct the committee’s attention to the ... critical importance of a nationally elected representative voice.

                  …         …           …

... not one that is driven by non-Indigenous political manoeuvring.

She went on to tell of the success of the meeting of Indigenous leaders in Adelaide in June 2004. She said:

The 200 voices we heard in Adelaide, and the many more since, were united in the desire for a legitimate, Indigenous designed and owned national representative voice ...

She went on to say:

We the Indigenous people of Australia and we alone have the right to determine who represents us locally, regionally, nationally & internationally.

It is pointless wasting time debating the faults of or criticising ATSIC, but for all its faults I personally believe, and have witnessed first-hand, that ATSIC had many more achievements. Will Sanders, in the Journal of Indigenous Issues, wrote:

... over its 14 year history, ATSIC has indeed achieved much and displayed considerable strengths ...

He went on to enumerate these strengths: political participation of Indigenous people; a national Indigenous voice increasingly independent of government; distinct approp-riate programs; regionalism, working with states and territories; and, lastly, the distinctive Torres Strait arrangements. ATSIC was initially criticised as being just another government department, but in the end it became much more than that; it became a voice which would speak against government for Indigenous people. It had to do so in order to achieve legitimacy among its constituents. As has previously been pointed out, the original bill was first introduced on 27 May 2004—the anniversary of the 1967 referendum. When the Prime Minister announced the intention to abolish ATSIC, a former ATSIC chairperson—a senior traditional man from East Arnhem who is no longer with us—said:

… one of the most disappointing aspects of Mr Howard’s decision was the manner in which it was made and the language with which it was delivered.

In the classic imperial fashion, without negotiation, without understanding and with little empathy, the great white leader announced that Aboriginal people had, yet again been a ‘failure’.

On making his announcement, the Prime Minister said that the government’s goals were to improve outcomes in health, education and employment. But these programs had for years been out of the hands of ATSIC and had been mainstreamed in other government departments. So who is really to blame here?

This government’s failure to achieve outcomes for Indigenous Australians was also shown in the HREOC report for 2003. The commisson showed up the lack of outcomes—and every year the commission’s report shows that. The failure of this government to close the gap of disadvantage faced by Indigenous people in those key areas is highlighted time and time again. Mainstreaming has not worked. But, typical of their obsession with the concept of assimilation and their rhetoric and approach of blaming the victim, the Howard gov-ernment has gone back to mainstreaming to try and justify the current approach, which will force Indigenous people down a path they clearly do not want to go. The government thinks that with a few more bureaucratic government committees thrown in to monitor things it will work this time.

ATSIC may not have been perfect, but, as I said, it had acheivements under its belt. It had more strengths than weaknesses, as was highlighted in the report by the select committee. It is this government that has failed Indigenous people, not ATSIC. However, the Prime Minister has not criticised his ministers for education or health or employment. He has taken the easy way out and blamed ATSIC and Indigenous people once again. He has blamed the victims. Now he is doing even more to take away any voice they had in decisions vital to their future. In doing so, the Prime Minister and his government are ignoring Indigenous people. They are ignoring the review of ATSIC, which was costed at around $1½ million dollars. They are insisting on mainstreaming all Indigenous programs. It will only be a matter of time before these discrete programs will disappear.

This is a Prime Minister and a government which do not seem able to accept or understand that Indigenous people are different. This is a Prime Minister who rarely visits Indigenous people. When he does, he must keep his ears and eyes shut tight for he rarely seems to hear or see anything they tell or show him. I have to say that on Senate committees I have been on with senators from the government side I sometimes feel I may as well ship along a cardboard cut-out, because they obviously do not listen to the things that are being said to other senators on the committees. I fail to understand how some of my colleagues from the government side can stand up and deliver speeches on this bill today when they do not truly understand what was said to them over 13 days of hearings during the Senate select committee process. You would think, in fact, that they had never been there and had never heard the same words I did.

This is a Prime Minister who is already older than the age most Aboriginal people can expect to live to in this country. This is a Prime Minister who will not say sorry. He believes in practical reconciliation but to date has been unable to see or accept that this is not working. The disadvantage gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians still looms large.

Furthermore, this bill does not, as I have already indicated, just abolish ATSIC—it goes well beyond that. As it stands, this bill will vest increased powers in the minister— rather than in Indigenous people—with respect to regional council operations for the time they have left, which is until 30 June 2005. This bill provides for the wholesale transfer of ATSIC assets to the Commonwealth, although during the Senate select committee hearings we were never given the precise details about how that would operate. If assets pass to the Commonwealth, they can do with them what they please. For example, the shopping centre in Alice Springs is owned by ATSIC in trust for Indigenous people. We have recently seen how this government will deal with Indigenous people in the treatment of former commissioner Alison Anderson: they raided her Alice Springs office in order to take the Indigenous artworks away from that building.

This bill further proposes major changes in other Indigenous organisations, including the Indigenous Land Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia. It seems entirely possible that both will be expected to take on increased roles and responsibilities but with no additional resources, increased control by the minister and little accountability for Indigenous people, who will not benefit from these proposed changes.

Another significant change will be to the Office of Evaluation and Audit, which will be given a much expanded role to undertake evaluations of all or any Indigenous pro-grams in any department and to investigate individuals and organisations that have received funding under any Indigenous program, with little restriction to its scope. While accountability of itself is not a concern, this seemingly unfettered scope of the OEA could be.

I want to now turn to some of the opinions offered during the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs that I believe highlight the massive crisis in Indigenous affairs that is being created by the government’s actions. The HREOC submission to that committee stated most clearly that the Social Justice Commissioner did not support the passage of this bill. In summary, this was because the bill will operate to disempower Indigenous people and the mainstreaming of services is not accompanied by adequate mechanisms for scrutiny of the government’s performance on Indigenous issues. The abolition of ATSIC will mean the government will have to deal with Indigenous people only on the government’s terms and without reference to Indigenous people’s aspirations.

The HREOC Social justice report 2003 indicated a need not for less Indigenous input and control but for the exact opposite. HREOC went on to say:

Ultimately the Social Justice Commissioner is concerned that abolishing ATSIC will simply silence Indigenous people at the national level while the deeply entrenched crisis in Indigenous communities continues unabated.

In their submission to the committee, the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of Alice Springs said:

 ... the abolition of ATSIC ... threatens Indigenous representation at the Commonwealth level and deprives regionally based Indigenous organisations of their united voice.

Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs say:

… the provisions of the ATSIC Amendment Bill and the sketchy information on the replacement structure constitutes a denial of the right of Indigenous people to self-determination.

  • This is of considerable concern as self-determination needs to be enhanced and strengthened to bring about positive change.
  • It is contrary to the recommendations of all the major and authoritative reports conducted into Indigenous Affairs ...

The Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement say:

It is considered that the credibility of the Government is at its lowest when it comes to Indigenous Australians and denying access to justice, self determination and quality of life. On one hand the government is overseas expending millions of dollars bombing a country and installing democracy, whilst at the same time it is denying funding and dismantling democracy for Indigenous Australians ... Australia is returning to the dim dark ages of the 1950s to provide services to Indigenous Australians through a failed mainstream system ... Various Government Inquiries including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Grants Commission support service delivery by Indigenous organisations.

They go on to point out that ATSIC will be denied the opportunity to prove itself, that it has been actively discredited by a few individuals and by this government, and it had the potential with the right leadership to improve quality of life for Indigenous people. They say that the ATSIC review showed a way forward but:

The current Government with its misguided ideology has chosen to ignore this comprehensive Review and its recommendations.

I could go on to quote from many other submissions—well over 200 were received by the time the 2004 election was called. I said earlier that this bill goes well beyond the abolition of ATSIC, and it certainly does. Whichever way we view it, whichever way we interpret it, this bill quite clearly takes away the Indigenous voice and ownership over a wide range of areas which greatly affect their lives.

I want to finish by highlighting two stories that were placed at the beginning of the Senate select committee’s report. These stories were told to us at Gove, in Nhulunbuy, during the inquiry by an Indigenous man, Tony Binalany, who has now become the Chairman of the Northern Land Council. Those people who are listening who understand the way Indigenous people communicate and pass on deep thoughts about what they believe is happening would know that this often takes the form of stories. This story is about the magpie geese and the sea eagles. They wondered why one could not be like the other, why the sea eagles made their nests up at the top and the magpie geese laid their eggs in the weeds in the swamp. They had an argument about who was the best. The story continued:

But, if the eagle was like the magpie goose he would die and if the magpie goose was like the sea eagle he would die, so at the end of the day they agreed that one was a magpie goose and one was a sea eagle, and they both lived happily ever after.

My interpretation of this is that Aboriginal people believe that the government is trying to turn everybody into sea eagles. It fails to recognise that there are other people in this world and that they can coexist on their own terms and under their own conditions and still live harmoniously. Larissa Behrendt, from the University of Technology, Sydney, in her submission to the committee had this to say:

The notion of mutual obligation that has become the latest catchword in Indigenous policy sees the federal government attempting to reward and punish those who do not meet standards of behaviour that the government sets for them. In this form the notion is misnamed as mutual and has no home in the values of Aboriginal culture—traditional, contemporary or romanticised. The notion of reciprocity within Aboriginal communities encompasses the idea that those with resources should share them with those who do not and that those who are the recipients of this generosity have the same duty to provide and share with others.

That embodies the view of Indigenous people. It sits quite comfortably alongside the story that Tony Binalany told us in Gove. It is quite opposite to the way this government sees Indigenous people. It shows us quite clearly that Indigenous people do not believe that this government shares their aspirations, understands them or even wants to listen to them. As the report says, assimilation is far from a benign philosophy. On the contrary, it represents merely one aspect of a view of Indigenous people that is paternalistic and essentially arrogant in its superiority. It is a view that most Australians would find repugnant. Opponents of assimilation—both black and white—do not want to banish Indigenous people to apartheid inspired reservations but recognise that in order to take their rightful place in Australian society Indigenous people’s needs, history, cultures and rights must be accorded recognition and respect. The government’s agenda fails to do this. In so doing, it fails its own Indigenous citizens. For all Australians, that is a matter for shame.

Last Thursday in Alice Springs, with the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee, which is looking at the funding of Indigenous education, amongst a group of Indigenous parents and Indigenous teachers I will always remember one non-Indigenous parent from Ross Park Primary School who stood out in the crowd. She said, ‘Before you go, and before the committee finishes, I just want to place this on the record: when Indigenous people win, it is a win for all of us; when Indigenous kids achieve, it is an achievement we can all celebrate.’ She was quite adamant that no longer should Indigenous issues stay just as that. Indigenous issues are everybody’s issues. There also has to be recognition out there that Indigenous people must have a say in how they believe this country should control their lives. Indigenous people must be set on a path of self-determination and not assimilation.

I think Alison Anderson is right when she says that history will prove that in 10 years time we will come back into this place and we will re-examine what has happened on this day and we will determine that this was just another experiment on Indigenous people. I believe that in five to 10 years time we will look back and discuss what has gone wrong again. What has gone wrong is that Indigenous people have lost their voice. As of this day they will be categorically ignored by this government, despite this government’s policy and despite the aspirations for their future.

Debate interrupted.