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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 16

Senator CHERRY (1:38 PM) —I rise in great sadness to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005] today. I have been through the stage of being angry at what is happening with ATSIC and where it is going to go. At this stage I have reached simply a position of sadness. We have heard in this debate some very high rhetoric and high-minded opinions from both sides about what needs to happen with Aboriginal affairs, where we need to go in terms of providing genuine self-determination, and the possibility—as the letter just read out from Jackie Huggins suggests—of a new organic form of representation coming up from the bottom. But at the end of the day it comes back to this parliament, or the two major parties, having the political will to actually allow Aboriginal people to represent themselves effectively and successfully and, importantly, to listen to them on issues that concern them. Instead of talking down to Aboriginal people and Indigenous communities, we need to start listening and accepting in our hearts the principle of self-determination.

I do not believe that will happen. I do not believe that, with the demise of ATSIC, it will be replaced by something better. I believe we will go backwards on issues of providing that self-determination. And that saddens me because I genuinely believe that, if we are going to raise our Indigenous brothers and sisters out of the vice of abject poverty, of discrimination and of being at the bottom of every single indicator of social and physical wellbeing, we need to provide self-determination. Ultimately, white society cannot impose a solution on black society. Ultimately, it will need to come from Indigenous communities and Indigenous people themselves as to how self-determination is going to work and how we are going to ensure that their community reaches a position of improvement vis-a-vis the white community.

ATSIC in many ways—and this has been spoken about by many people—was a structure that was flawed from the start. We were imposing an elected model on Indigenous representation that in some ways cut across traditional forms of leadership in Indigenous communities. But, as Winston Churchill once said, ‘Democracy is the least worst form of government yet invented.’ That fundamentally represents what we were talking about. In the absence of the very formal structures of representation and leadership—the structures we destroyed by our patterns of white settlement in this country—an elected model was probably the best model that could operate to provide genuine representation that had credibility among Aboriginal people. True, there have been flaws, particularly in my home state of Queensland, in the way that representation has ultimately played out. But, at the end of the day, almost every ATSIC person I have met at regional and national levels was someone who was generally committed to the improvement of their people. I want to join with Senator Moore in thanking those people who have made an enormous commitment to, done an enormous amount of work for and obtained enormous achievement in ATSIC over the last 14 years. I think we need to thank those people and acknowledge their commitment and their hard work in a very difficult environment where this government and the previous government made their work harder and harder for them.

It was another ATSIC chair—I forget which one—who said that ATSIC gets 100 per cent of the blame but is responsible for only 15 per cent of the programs. I think that is a fundamental problem which remains in this country. ATSIC has become the whipping boy: blamed for problems with health and education, which are primarily state government responsibilities, and blamed for problems with employment outcomes, which are predominantly a federal government responsibility. It is blamed for everything. It is blamed for domestic violence, which is a matter that comes right down into the home as opposed to boardrooms in Canberra. It is blamed for everything, yet responsible for not very much.

What that highlights to me is that lack of genuine self-determination and that lack of actually saying to Aboriginal people, ‘You are responsible.’ The structure which we ultimately finished with for ATSIC, where it was responsible for only 15 per cent of the programs going out to Indigenous people but was blamed for 100 per cent of the problems, is a structure which we have allowed to develop and which has not ultimately been in the best interests of Aboriginal people. We really need to ensure that, if we believe in self-determination, we should practise it. We need to say, ‘You are going to be accountable for outcomes in your areas, communities and organisations right through to national representation. You need to be held accountable for achievement.’ That has not occurred and it will not occur under the proposals the government is putting in place.

I read with some interest in the select committee’s report the comment from the government senators—I notice that Senator Heffernan follows me in this debate—that the government’s reforms include ‘provision for regional partnership agreements which would allow formal recognition of such arrangements’; that is, arrangements which may be established at a local level to provide representation. But will they? Will the national government listen to organically developed local representation of Indigenous people? I really do not believe they will. When you look at structures already emerging in my home state of Queensland as to who is providing the representation, shall we say, for Indigenous communities, you can see that pattern emerging.

In Queensland I think there are 16 Indigenous community councils, which are elected by their local people and provide representation on a wide range of issues. They have now formed into their own Indigenous local government association following the abolition of the Aboriginal Coordinating Council by the Beattie government—again, another attempt at destroying strong voices for Indigenous people. They provide representation for people right across Cape York—right into Woorabinda, Yarrabah and Cherbourg—and into the Gulf of Carpentaria, yet who is the government listening to when developing its plans or proposals for Cape York? Is it the Indigenous local government association? Is it the community councils? No, it is a self-appointed leader, Noel Pearson. The government picks the people that it is going to listen to. When there is legitimate, valid representation, will it actually provide recognition of that voice? No, I do not believe it will, because it does not suit its agenda to do so.

When you move into other areas, you will find that there are many Indigenous organisations across this country providing good work and good representation for their communities. In the absence of ATSIC, will they be heard? Will the government listen to these people or will they prefer instead their self-appointed experts, whether they are the people who happen to run a political agenda whom the government happens to find useful or the people the government has decided to nominate as its preferred voices? From ATSIC, I believe what we are entering into with this new structure, or lack of structure, is going to be a very backward step. It is going to be a step that will see those Indigenous voices lost from debates about Indigenous policy. We will move back to white ministers and white bureaucrats telling Aboriginal people what is good for them and where they should be going. We see that already emerging in the welfare reform debate in which ministers are saying what they believe Indigenous communities should be doing and how they should be responding. We see it in health debates. We see it in other areas. I do not believe that is going to result in better outcomes. We know from previous experience that will not result in better outcomes.

The experience of Indigenous communities around the world is that ultimately only self-determination, self-acceptance and self-management can deliver those outcomes. When communities and individuals take responsibility for themselves, when governments support them in doing that and when governments provide the resources for that to happen will be when you start to see movement in a forward direction. Interestingly, in abolishing ATSIC the Australian government also abolishes any sort of government commitment to self-determination. We now have Indigenous coordination centres run by government bureaucrats responsible for money. We now have mainstream departments responsible for Indigenous programs. We now have ministers appointing their own people who tell them what their views should be on Indigenous policy. None of this is self-determination. None of this fulfils the international requirements of self-determination of Indigenous people.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in article 1 says that Indigenous people are entitled to self-determination as a fundamental principle in all of their dealings with government. Australia is going backwards in that regard. I will read briefly from the report to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by Les Malezer of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action in Queensland. It was noteworthy that that particular committee found in 2000 that Australia was in breach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination over the Native Title Act and changes to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. CERD is currently reconsidering Australia’s status in regard to compliance with international conventions, and it is reconsidering that having finally received—four years late—the response of the Australian government to its findings in 2000. What will it say about what the Senate is doing today? What will the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination say—the committee which has international responsibility for the promotion of self-determination—about the abolition of ATSIC and the fact that we are replacing it with white bureaucrats who will determine Indigenous policy? Will they see that as a positive advance? Will they see that as a move towards self-determination? I believe they will see that as another backward step: Australia thumbing its nose at the world in terms of our position on human rights.

The submission from FAIRA to the committee said: ‘Given Australia’s failure to comply with the convention and the committee’s decision to examine the situation under the early warning measure and urgent action procedure, Australia’s tardiness should be regarded as a serious matter not least out of concern for the interests of victims of racial discrimination. The seriousness of this situation is further exacerbated by the absolute lack of participation by Indigenous peoples and civil society groups in the preparation of the current report.’ It goes on to say that Australia remains in serious breach of international conventions dealing with Indigenous people. The world is watching and the world will not like what we are doing here today.

Also today I should acknowledge the marvellous report produced by the ATSIC review that was conducted by Jackie Huggins, Bob Collins and John Hannaford. I thought it was a very interesting report, because it actually tried to take up what was best about ATSIC, get rid of what was the worst about ATSIC and move forward. It recognised that, whilst there will be a variety in terms of what is moving through, the regional representation of ATSIC—the regional councils—is probably where the best work is occurring, where the representation is closest to the people and where the advocacy is at its most effective. But they are being abolished in this bill. The government is actually rejecting the recommendations of its own ATSIC review. It is rejecting the recommendations and the outcome of that long, multimillion dollar process of consultation. It is rejecting the view that there should be formal representation at a regional level and that we should listen to that representation. It is true that the ATSIC commissioners probably have squandered an opportunity to provide effective national representation. Certainly the current commission is one which is impossible to defend. But to abolish the regional councils and the work being done at that level is a case of overkill and it sets back self-determination to a great degree. I think that this very disappointing.

I noticed the argument is constantly raised in the report and even in the media that ATSIC was never an effective representative body because only 20 per cent of Aboriginal people voted. If that is the criterion, let us abolish Western Australian local government because only 20 per cent of people vote in their voluntary elections. Let us abolish all the rural commodity representative organisations where less than the majority of people vote, even though compulsory taxes are collected from groups like the Meat and Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation. Let us abolish any other organisation. Let us remove the legal privileges from shareholders because a majority of them do not vote in elections.

To dismiss it as irrelevant when 20 per cent of people have voted but when there are clear relationships between ATSIC, its councils and its communities is most unfortunate. People have the right to vote, people have voted, and people have put their faith in these organisations. The fact that so many people have voted should be celebrated. To say that it reduces the legitimacy of ATSIC is something which I find difficult to accept when what is replacing it is non-existent.

I do hope that, out of this process, the government will surprise me and come up with a structure of representation that does actually work; and I hope that, when the proposal by the Indigenous organisation on the north side of Brisbane to establish a community council gets a bit more beef on it, the government funds it. I hope the government actually recognises it, funds it and provides it with a strong voice. When they have got something to say on behalf of their community, I hope the government will actually listen. But that will not happen. It is not part of this government’s agenda to do that. It is not part of this government’s agenda to provide a strong voice for Indigenous people—unless they happen to agree with what that voice is saying. It is not part of this government’s agenda to provide funding to contrary voices which might be disagreeing with what the government is saying, or to voices which are making life difficult for ministers in terms of what they are doing. If it were the government’s role, ATSIC would still be there and the regional councils would have been maintained. The ATSIC review recommendation to set up a national council to replace the ATSIC commissioners would have been adopted and funded to provide that advocacy work.

That is not what the government’s agenda in this debate is about. The agenda is about getting Aboriginal voices out of the debate on Aboriginal policy and ensuring that, if they are to have a debate, they are in the role of supplicants applying for funding and grants from programs that ministers have already determined. It is about applying for the crumbs off a table which has been set by federal cabinet and in which Aboriginal people have no say or standing in terms of determining what is on that table.

That is the sadness of this debate and this bill, and it is with sadness that I speak. It is with sadness that I know that it is not going to solve the deep problems we have in Indigenous policy, it is not going to solve the issues that we have in respect of ATSIC, and it is not going to help promote self-determination. I will be voting against this bill—not because I think ATSIC is perfect but because I think that what is replacing ATSIC is going to be a great deal worse than what we have already got.