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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 87

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (6:22 PM) —I thank senators for their contributions to this important debate. I foreshadow that I will be moving one amendment to this bill on behalf of the government at the committee stage of the bill. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005] is part of a dramatic and overdue shift in Indigenous affairs policy. No-one in this chamber could continue to support a system that has failed Indigenous Australians so badly for so long.

It is disappointing that Labor continues to play political games on the issue. The delay in passing the ATSIC Amendment Bill has caused confusion and is hurting Indigenous Australians. After nine months, the Senate committee’s report simply admits that abolishing ATSIC is a fait accompli. After all, the opposition announced that abolishing ATSIC was Labor policy. It still is. Yet here we are, almost one year on from that announcement, and still Labor have not let go of ATSIC, simply because ATSIC represents a profound policy failure on their part—ATSIC was a creature of their making.

We have heard nothing in this chamber from the opposition parties but praise for ATSIC, as if it were an effective body representative of Indigenous people. We have heard how it has been the champion of Indigenous people. On the one hand, the opposition point to a lack of progress and, on the other hand, support a continuation of the status quo. That is because they have no ideas and nothing to add. In reality, there has been very little adverse reaction to the abolition of ATSIC. Labor’s crocodile tears over ATSIC do not wash with the government. What is their real commitment? Since 1996, they have had eight opposition spokespeople on Indigenous affairs, seven in the past four years. Does this mean they all want to have a go? I do not think so. The sentiments of Labor were summed up by one Labor left faction MP who in 2000 said, ‘Taking on Aboriginal affairs is like accepting a job as a toilet cleaner on the Titanic.’ Mr Beazley—or was it Mr Crean?—never did find out who said that. That is their attitude: plenty of talk but no commitment.

This government is serious about reducing Indigenous disadvantage. It has spent a record $2.9 billion on Indigenous specific programs this year, 39 per cent more in real terms than in the last years of the Keating government. Those opposite would have us believe, through their propaganda and second reading amendments, that this expenditure has been a complete waste and that there have been no real gains. Their claims are simply not true. There have been real and important improvements. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has reduced in terms of deaths from respiratory illness and infections, and parasitic diseases; year 5 writing and reading benchmarks; secondary school attendance; year 12 retention; home ownership; students at TAFE and universities; and Indigenous employment, which grew by 22 per cent between 1996 and 2001.

The non-government parties talk about an apology but what would that have done in a practical sense? The government has provided $120 million for real initiatives such as the link-up network, counselling and parenting programs, cultural and language programs, a records preservation project and a national oral history project to address these issues. The opposition continues to dredge up its views on native title. The 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act have resulted in the volume of claims being rationalised and the claim process being streamlined. The rate of settlements has increased dramatically. Recently, the government provided Reconciliation Australia with a capital injection of $15 million. Reconciliation Place has been constructed in the Parliamentary Triangle at a cost of over $6 million.

While we should acknowledge improvements, Indigenous Australians still lag behind. It is not good enough to keep working within the same flawed framework designed by Labor. That is why we are going beyond abolishing ATSIC to introduce radical reforms to the way programs and services are delivered. The Australian government wants Indigenous people to have the same opportunities and choices that are enjoyed by other Australians. Yet over and over we have heard claims from the opposition that ATSIC is simply a scapegoat for the failure of others. So to mask the fact that Labor has no vision for the future, it harks back to the past. It sets out to discredit the government’s efforts regardless of the truth. It is just a political game.

Members of the opposition have said that there should be more consultation before we act. During the ATSIC review there were two major rounds of public consultation. Eight thousand copies of the public discussion paper were mailed out and a web site was set up. The panel received 156 written submissions. The panel met with a wide range of stakeholders across the nation, including each of the 35 ATSIC regional councils. A number of regional councils chose to invite community members to participate. The panel also met with some interested individuals. The public consultations revealed widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction with ATSIC on the part of Indigenous Australians. Most Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians want us to put an end to it now.

The opposition have spoken at length about what they call mainstreaming. They use the emotionally charged word ‘assimilationist’ as a smokescreen for the fact they are devoid of ideas and originality. They say that mainstream departments have always failed Indigenous people in the past. They do not get the message that we want nothing to do with the past—that is Labor’s speciality.

The Senate Select Committee on Indigenous Affairs heard evidence from the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold. He told the committee that the old criticisms of mainstreaming were not relevant now. Labor knows that we are not abolishing special programs and that we are putting machinery in place to make the mainstream agencies take up their responsibilities in a coordinated way. Many of the Indigenous programs that mainstream agencies will manage are delivered now by Aboriginal organisations. They will be in the future. These are Labor’s scare tactics. In fact, it was Labor that mainstreamed Indigenous health programs when it recognised that ATSIC was failing.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.

(Quorum formed)