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Former minister welcomes Indigenous body

Sabra Lane reported this story on Friday, August 28, 2009 12:18:00

BRENDAN TREMBATH: A former federal Aboriginal affairs minister has endorsed plans for a new
representative body for Indigenous Australians.

Fred Chaney was a minister in the Fraser government and is currently a board member of
Reconciliation Australia.

He says a similar group existed when he was a minister 30 years ago and while he says that body was
highly critical of the government of the day, that it fulfilled a powerful role.

His comments follow a recommendation yesterday by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Justice Commissioner Tom Calma to establish a new representative group for Indigenous Australians.

Mr Chaney is speaking here with Sabra Lane.

FRED CHANEY: I certainly think that there is a need for some national Indigenous voice.

I have the experience of having an elected national Aboriginal voice when I was minister 30 years
ago - the National Aboriginal Conference.

And although it was often highly critical of the government of which I was part I think we found it
a really valuable group of people who confronted us with the difficulties that we were facing and
were very forthright in telling us where they thought we went wrong. And I think the ministers
before and after me found that very valuable.

SABRA LANE: Why did that conference end?

FRED CHANEY: Because things moved into providing more executive, direct executive or administrative
responsibility to Aboriginal people.

We set up the Aboriginal Development Commission which was probably the most independent Aboriginal
administering body and Charles Perkins, the late Charles Perkins was in charge of it.

That was I think going reasonably well and was replaced unfortunately by ATSIC (Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Commission) which was a very incoherent structure in that it combined
representative and administrative functions in a way that in the end was its undoing.

SABRA LANE: This proposed body really is a case of back to the future?

FRED CHANEY: Well I think it is. Look I think there is a place for more numerous Aboriginal voices
to be heard.

Over the recent past I think there have been some really powerful representative voices - Pat
Dodson has been one; Noel Pearson another; Warren Mundine another; Marcia Langton another.

But I think the voices have been too few if I may say so. And I think that if this widens
Australia's capacity to hear the multiplicity of Aboriginal voices that in itself I think will be
helpful to the community and to the governments of Australia.

SABRA LANE: Are you concerned that this body won't have any legislative power?

FRED CHANEY: No I'm not. I think that may be its strength in fact because they can devote
themselves to really developing and expressing views.

And although it's true the National Aboriginal Conference had no legislative or administrative
power it certainly had I think a lot of authority in the court of public opinion. And in the end
governments behave very much in accordance with the way the public thinks they ought to behave.

And I think that we, if we have clear Aboriginal voices guiding us in the direction that they want
to go that will be very helpful to all of us to know what we should be working towards with them.

SABRA LANE: I can't let you go without asking for your reaction to the UN special rapporteur James
Anaya saying that the Northern Territory intervention was overly discriminatory, breaches human
rights and further stigmatises Aboriginal people. They're fairly harsh words.

FRED CHANEY: The difficulty of talking about the intervention is the intervention was a lot of
different things and the things that he was talking about, the suspension of the Racial
Discrimination Act was I think the wrong thing to do.

The intervention of course also represents some long overdue public expenditure in remote areas,
some long overdue increasing of police forces which Aboriginal people have been asking for for
years; some long overdue attention to housing; some long overdue attention to medical services.

And in, there were aspects of the intervention which were belated, a very sadly belated response by
the government to problems which have been around for a long time and received inadequate
attention.

There are elements in the intervention which I think it's right to criticise. There were
discriminatory elements. There were things which do need to be changed.

To the extent that it's the first time a Commonwealth government actually took responsibility and
said we are responsible here, that was a welcome relief I think.

And one can only help that we can weed out the if you like, weed out the weeds, get rid of the
rubbish elements of the intervention and build on the need to really make up for a backlog of
assets and government services and of engagement with Aboriginal people that's long overdue.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The former minister for Aboriginal affairs and a board member of Reconciliation
Australia Fred Chaney, speaking there with Sabra Lane.