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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 84


Senator O’BRIEN (6:05 PM) —I am pleased that, about 19 minutes into his contribution, Senator Johnston went some way towards correcting the record as to what he told the Senate about the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs only last week. As Senator Johnston now recalls, he attended a hearing in Broome in Western Australia, contrary to his advice to the Senate last week that the committee had not been to Western Australia. He asked about 88 questions, I believe, at the hearing but he forgot all about that because, obviously, he was not paying attention to the evidence. He had a brief to achieve and it did not matter what the evidence was, according to Senator Johnston. That is the only thing I can draw from the extraordinary statement that he made last week.

I rise in this debate to lend my support to the second reading amendment moved by Senator Carr on behalf of the Australian Labor Party. It is with a somewhat heavy heart that I indicate my support for the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Its abolition has in fact been long effected by this government through administrative means. This administrative action has been aided by the behaviour of a number of ATSIC’s leaders, not least that of its chair, Mr Geoff Clark. It is telling that in the very week the Senate select committee report into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005] is presented and the legislation for ATSIC’s abolition is debated, Mr Clark has been embroiled in a debate about the ownership and authenticity of a football jumper. Once again Mr Clark, wittingly or unwittingly, has become the centre of public attention at a time when his organisation and his people require real leadership.

I had the privilege to serve as the shadow minister for reconciliation and Indigenous affairs for part of the last parliament and I released Labor’s Indigenous affairs policy statement during the election campaign. On 30 March last year, Mark Latham and I jointly announced Labor’s decision to support the abolition of ATSIC. We said that ATSIC had lost much of the goodwill it once enjoyed. Importantly, we also recommitted Labor to the principle of a national Indigenous representative body. That has been forgotten by some contributors to this debate. We did not hide from that commitment then and we do not hide from it now. What we did do was acknowledge that Indigenous interests were not best served by the continuation of Indigenous representation in its current form. At that time some people preferred to stick their heads in the sand and pretend it was not thus—and they still do.

It is not surprising to me that Senator Ridgeway spent a good part of his speech during debate on the second reading of this bill in attacking the Labor party. He repeated the asinine claim that Labor started the ball rolling on ATSIC’s abolition. The fact is that the Howard government had been gunning for ATSIC since day one of its election, more than nine long years ago. The claim that Labor’s policy statement was the beginning of the end for ATSIC is as stupid as it is absurd. It is telling that Senator Ridgeway and others have lined up the government’s campaign against Indigenous Australians with Labor’s 30 March 2004 media statement and asserted some sort of equivalency—that is, that Labor’s announcement was comparable to the Howard government’s savage cuts to the ATSIC budget, its struggle to undermine native title, its contempt for the stolen generations and its orchestrated campaign of vilification against the leadership of ATSIC.

Labor recognised the reality of ATSIC’s circumstances and decided to do something about it. That is why Labor took a policy to the election that committed an incoming Labor government to the development of a new regional and national Indigenous representative arrangement—a structure developed in consultation with Indigenous Australians. Labor did not introduce the ATSIC legislation in the middle of last year, but we were forced to deal with it. As the then responsible shadow minister, I negotiated with the Democrats, the Greens and individual Independent senators to establish a select committee to consider the ATSIC legislation and related matters, including the consequences of mainstreaming Indigenous programs. This committee, re-established in the new parliament, gave Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians their first and only opportunity to comment on the government’s plan. It was an opportunity the government wanted to deny the Australian people, including the very Australians whose representative structure it now seeks to abolish. During its first incarnation, this select committee took evidence in places as diverse as Alice Springs, Broome, Nhulunbuy, Cairns and Thursday Island in addition to accepting and publishing hundreds of individual written submissions. The Senate re-established the committee after the election and allowed it to complete its work.

I have had a number of longstanding concerns about the ATSIC legislation, not all of them comprehensively addressed in the select committee report or during this debate. One of my concerns relates to the proposed expanded role for the Office of Evaluation and Audit, an office that will operate with an almost unrestricted right to examine organisations and individuals that receive Indigenous specific funding. Little attention has been paid to the fact that this office will enjoy little operational independence. I am concerned that the capacity of the executive to direct the work of this office will be largely unchecked by external scrutiny. As the senator who uncovered the absurdly named and publicly funded Operation Hoodoo in relation to the Bidjara group, I am not satisfied that unchecked power in these circumstances is healthy or desirable. Organisations and individuals that receive funding, Indigenous or otherwise, need to be accountable. But I wonder why no Operation Hoodoo was established to investigate the circumstances in which Beaudesert Rail lost $5.8 million of taxpayers’ money on a non-operational rail line and still left creditors blowing in the wind. And I wonder whether the states understand the extent of the powers available to the Office of Evaluation and Audit under the provisions of this bill.

Of course, the operation of a new audit unit is pretty small beer in an environment where Indigenous programs and services are mainstreamed. That environment does have only passing relationship to the passage of this bill. Under the cover of ATSIC related controversy, including Senator Vanstone’s extraordinarily inept and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to suspend the chair, the government has introduced wholesale changes in the administration of Indigenous affairs. The government has ordered its bureaucracies to swallow up Indigenous specific programs without regard for the needs of the Indigenous people they serve or, in many cases, the bureaucracies themselves.

In response to criticism, the government has pointed to the failure of existing program delivery—failure the government, I might say, has presided over for more than nine years; failure that cannot, except at the barest margins, be attributed to the administration of programs by ATSIC or other Indigenous controlled organisations. The fact that many Indigenous controlled organisations perform magnificently is rarely acknowledged by the government or, for that matter, anyone else. Senator Carr acknowledged the success of many Indigenous controlled organisations during his speech in the second reading debate, and I welcome and endorse his remarks.

We have heard plenty of bold statements from the government and, in particular, government senators about the new dawn in Indigenous affairs to be brought about as a result of its mainstreaming program—and not just from ministers. The Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Shergold, has been vocal in his commitment to make the Public Service more responsive to the needs of Indigenous Australians under the new regime. That is a good thing, but it is results that count. We all know how language can be used and abused—after nine years of Mr Howard’s prime ministership, boy do we know.

Late last year I thought it useful to look at how one key government department was performing on the critical issue of Indigenous employment. I thought employment was a good issue to examine because it is something over which the department has some control. The argument that Indigenous Australians are not good employees or do not want to be employed has as much currency as the argument that women do not belong in public life and, anyway, would really rather stay at home. I thought the Department of Transport and Regional Services was a good department to examine for a few reasons. The first was that it is a large department with regional offices located in places such as Darwin, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Bendigo, Wollongong, Orange, Newcastle, Townsville, Longreach and Jervis Bay. Many of those locations are home to significant numbers of Indigenous Australians. The second reason was that the department is administered by Deputy Prime Minister Anderson, a senior member of the government and himself a representative of an electorate with a significant Indigenous population. The third reason was that DOTARS was the department that the current Public Service Commissioner, Ms Lynelle Briggs, was serving when she was appointed as commissioner late last year. I also thought it appropriate to examine this department’s performance because its last annual report made some bold, but appropriate, statements about workplace diversity. This is what the DOTARS 2003-04 annual report says on page 161:

We respect and value the diversity of our workforce. In 2003-04, we continued the workplace diversity programme we launched in 2001. The programme is overseen by our Diversity and Equity Network and challenges us to:

• attract and retain a diverse range of people to the department with a focus on indigenous recruitment ...

I thought that was pretty interesting. Not only did it make the department’s commitment to focusing on improving Indigenous employment clear, it noted that the policy challenging it to do better had been in place since 2001. Four years on, I wanted to know what sort of results this policy and the department’s stated commitment were delivering. So, noting that the department employs about 1,000 permanent staff, I asked Mr Anderson a question on notice, and he told me that in 2003-04 his department employed 2.45 full-time Indigenous employees. That is, just under 2½ full-time positions out of about 1,000 were filled by Indigenous employees. That is an absolute disgrace. It is less than a quarter of one per cent of the staff. This exposes the department’s claim that it has a focus on Indigenous employment as nothing more than a collection of cheap words.

As well as asking Mr Anderson how many Indigenous people his department employed, I asked him what strategies his department had to improve employment outcomes. This is what I found. Was there an Indigenous employment strategy? No. Were there Indigenous specific employment positions? No. Was there an agency based Indigenous employment scheme? No. Were advertisements placed in Indigenous media, such as the Canberra based National Indigenous Times? No, that was not done either. In fact, the only measure adopted by the Department of Transport and Regional Services to improve its Indigenous employment outcome is participation in the National Indigenous Cadetship Program—and even that measure will not be adopted until later this year.

Public sector employment is one small measure of a government’s commitment to improved Indigenous outcomes. The fact that in this case the examination of reality so dramatically demonstrates the hollowness of the government’s rhetoric points to a bigger problem—a problem that underlies the anxiousness of many of us about the government’s mainstreaming of Indigenous programs. The life expectancy of Indigenous women has declined since Prime Minister Howard occupied that office. That has nothing to do with ATSIC. Nor does ATSIC bear responsibility for the poor rates of literacy and numeracy, the appallingly high rates of incarceration and the shocking infant mortality rates enjoyed, if I can put it that way, by Indigenous Australians. That responsibility rests with us, fellow senators—and it rests with a government that pretends that eliminating Indigenous representation and dismantling Indigenous programs will address Indigenous disadvantage.

I say this because I think it is important that Labor’s position be put in the context of our dissatisfaction with the current arrangements and the performance of the government. I say this because it is important to understand that we do not believe that we can find a genuineness behind the government’s words to give us confidence in the arrangements that the government seeks to put in place. I say this because we think something better has to come from the abolition of ATSIC. Labor as a party, and individuals within Labor such as me, will continue to work towards a more effective representational structure for Indigenous Australians, because we believe that self-determination for the original Australians needs to find a face in our society. Its time will come. It may not be in the next three years, five years or 10 years, but it must come.

I do maintain support for the abolition of ATSIC, as I first expressed on behalf of the Labor Party in March last year. In saying that, I understand that no representative arrangements will be put in place under this government—and that is a very sad state of affairs. However, I think that from this position a great many contributors from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will carry the fight to this government and make sure that in the future their rights will be represented properly, their communities will be well served and well represented, and we will be talking about other legislation, probably with a different name, which will be the means by which this parliament will give effect to a new set of representative arrangements. I commend the second reading amendment and the legislation to the Senate.