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'Sunday' program responds to criticism after a report on ATSIC's shortcomings. -

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JIM WALEY: The Budget aside, the hostility this week in Canberra came as reaction to our cover story last Sunday on the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The Commission accused us of shoddy journalism and outrageous fabrication. ATSIC management downed tools and staged a televised national hook-up between all its offices to rebut our claims. That exercise, like much of the evidence in last week's cover story, was leaked to Sunday by concerned staff within ATSIC. Our reporter is Graham Davis.

TREVOR ELLIS: Welcome to this special edition of ATSIC television. I'm Trevor Ellis, your host for today's program. We're going live to 30 sites throughout Australia and we welcome the large number of ATSIC staff who have turned out.

GRAHAM DAVIS: As the old adage goes, the best form of defence is attack, and this week ATSIC hit back at Sunday for last week's cover story and sent the taxpayer the bill.

TREVOR ELLIS: Now, as you're all aware, last Sunday Channel Nine ran a program that was very critical of ATSIC.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Her name is Rosie, and her life is slowly ebbing away in the wastes of central Australia, her haunting cry unanswered across the chasm that separates her from the rest of us.

Have you ever had anybody from ATSIC come out and look at the way people are living?



UNIDENTIFIED: No, no, they don't come out here.

GRAHAM DAVIS: The conditions in some Aboriginal communities are scandalous enough, but the real scandal in Aboriginal affairs is the pathetic response to the crisis by the bureaucracy here in Canberra, in particular within the Woden Valley headquarters of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

TREVOR ELLIS: Now, Lois, I know you called a press conference within hours of the program going to air. You said the program did a great disservice to indigenous Australians; that it was an attack on our self-determination.

LOIS O'DONOGHUE: Well, Trevor, in the first instance, it was a distortion of the facts.

GRAHAM DAVIS: But as with her news conference earlier in the week, the ATSIC chairperson didn't identify one fact that Sunday had distorted, let alone got wrong. Our mission, it seems, has been to concentrate on the negatives, rather than highlighting ATSIC's achievements.

PAT TURNER: The program, in my view, was subjective and highly emotive in terms of the imagery that was used by the crew and the way that they actually showed the pictures which, you know, we all know, have the very poor conditions in many of our communities around Australia.

GRAHAM DAVIS: These people have to endure a bureaucratic perversity worthy of ....... For however obvious their needs are to anyone else, they're required to detail them in a weighty tome known as a regional plan that the joins of vast paper trail all the way south to the national capital.

This has cost $50,000?


GRAHAM DAVIS: $50,000?


PAT TURNER: For the Sunday program to dismiss it as a waste of $50,000 is really quite dismaying, and I just want to reassure staff of the importance of the regional plans are not to allow such trivial treatment of this important document to dissuade us from the efforts to get it right.

GRAHAM DAVIS: This telecast was an obvious attempt at damage control by the management in the wake of Sunday's revelations, with Charles Perkins, the Deputy Chair, hosing down his very public differences with Lois O'Donoghue.

CHARLES PERKINS: But just let me briefly mention the fact of the so-called conflict between myself and the Chairperson, and to set that aside once and for all.

LOIS O'DONOGHUE: The relationship, of course, is very uneasy with Charles.

TREVOR ELLIS: In what sense?

LOIS O'DONOGHUE: Well, it's uneasy because I'm aware that he will be the instigator of any move to unseat me. So why would I feel easy about that?

CHARLES PERKINS: There is no conflict. It's a media beat-up and it's best forgotten.

LOIS O'DONOGHUE: Not only that, before I left he was rubbing his hands and saying: 'I've been wanting to get into this chair for some time'.

GRAHAM DAVIS: But for ATSIC staff, their primary concern about the Sunday program was self-interest - our leak of the Daffen review of the organisation, that if implemented would mean the axing of almost a third of central office jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED: The staff are a bit concerned that we will wake up on Sunday morning and we hear about the Daffen report on TV before we even have a chance to have a look at it.

GRAHAM DAVIS: It forced the ATSIC Chief Executive, Dr Peter Shergold, to be disingenuous with his own staff.

PETER SHERGOLD: Well, my first response was one of amazement and I frankly couldn't see there seemed to be much relationship between the early draft that I had seen and the draft which apparently - and I emphasise apparently - the Sunday program had available. Now, Peter Daffen's actually in our audience, in our studio audience, here today.

PETER DAFFEN: Some of the areas, yes, have been traversed, but they, in the main, are certainly not an accurate reflection of what the report will be saying.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Sunday understands that Peter Daffen has been told to revise his report, but for the record, here are precise quotes from the so-called draft: ATSIC's major problem resides in its inability to provide a quality service. There's a lack of adequate staffing and a gap in the skills level of many existing staff. ATSIC is highly bureaucratic and centralist, and its claims to be client-based are difficult to accept, given the small number of field staff.

The report recommends the transfer of senior positions from central office to where ATSIC's clients are located; the abolition of 141 positions in central office, 30 per cent of the staff. And, says the report, there needs to be an attitudinal shift across ATSIC; management at all levels must become more concerned with outputs than processes and learn to steer, not row.

But faced with questions from his own staff, Peter Shergold seems determined to row against the tide.

KAREN: We've heard on national television on Sunday morning that we have officers in central office who are unskilled, and I think this needs to be addressed. I understand that you have no idea how the program came by the report, and I seek assurances from you that there is no such comment in the report.

PETER SHERGOLD: Well, Karen, what can I say to this? I mean, I can't give you an assurance because I don't know what's going to be in the final report. I can only tell you, on the basis of what is in the draft report that I have seen, that there is nothing like the comments that were made on the Sunday program.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Well, Karen, it is in the draft report which says this about the section you're concerned with: 'The economics division has a heavy economic and commercial orientation, but appears to lack sufficient staff with academic training or experience in these disciplines'. But on one point at least, Dr Shergold is dead right.

PETER SHERGOLD: We've also got to be aware that every single mistake we make now is going to come under attack from the media and from various parliamentarians.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Sunday certainly was attacking ATSIC for its mistakes, but not the Aboriginal cause, for the biggest frustration with the organisation is from those committed to solving this crisis where it matters.

SOL BELLEAR: It's too conservative; there's nothing happening on the ground; it's too Canberra-orientated; and it's too bureaucratic-run.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Well, what do we do?

SOL BELLEAR: Change it.

BARBARA FLICK: The existing structure does not work. There's no doubt about that. There's absolutely no doubt.

RICHARD DOWNES: If you're not going to listen to your own people, then what's the use of we supporting you people in there. So you might as well shut her down; close it; wipe your hands and we'll continue to struggle ourselves.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Sunday stands by its story, and notes that ATSIC has failed to address in detail any of the allegations of waste, fraud and mismanagement raised on the program. It's a tragedy that the best ATSIC senior management can do against an obvious backdrop of despair, is to spend more taxpayers dollars trying to shoot the messenger.

JIM WALEY: Graham Davis answering his critics.