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Transcript of joint press conference: 30 March 2004: opportunity and responsibility for indigenous Australians.

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30 MARCH 2004

MARK LATHAM: Labor will establish a new framework for indigenous self-governance and program delivery with a focus on regional partnerships

and a newly, directly elected national representative body. ATSIC is no

longer capable of addressing endemic problems in indigenous

communities. It has lost the confidence of much of its own constituency in

the wider community.

Unhappily, the current model has not delivered sufficient gains to

indigenous communities. It's been very much damaged by leadership

turmoil and I've publicly declared my lack of confidence in Geoff Clark in

that capacity. It's also been damaged by the failure of the Howard

government to deliver reform. Effectively, ATSIC's been gutted by the

Howard Government in recent times and it is leaving very much a vacuum

in terms of indigenous policy.

So Labor's determination is to work up and consult towards a new plan for

improved indigenous self-governance and program delivery. We're very

determined to consult around the principles that are outlined in the release

that's distributed to you. When Gerry Hand was putting forward the ATSIC

model originally, it was very detailed and didn't leave enough room for the

sort of consultation on which we hope to embark.

We're not consulting around a detailed replacement policy but rather a set

of principles by which we can fill the gap in indigenous affairs policy that's

being left by the Howard government and ensure that we get better

outcomes in the future. So we want meaningful consultation around the

principles that are outlined.

The first of those is to make indigenous services a national priority. We

want to list indigenous services and governance on the COAG agenda. It's

very, very important to have integrated and coordinated federal, state,

territory and community-based indigenous programs. And only COAG, the

Council of Australian Governments, can achieve that integrated outcome.

In my recent trip through the Northern Territory, other experiences in

indigenous communities, the level of poverty often is absolutely shocking.

We're a first world country but we've got communities living in third world

poverty. But in visiting those communities, there's always something good

that someone’s trying to do but it's the lack of integration and coordination

between the different levels of government and the community that is not

getting the desired result. So I think we need to use COAG as a way of

establishing a new and more coordinated program of indigenous

governance and delivery in this country.

All the studies and common sense tells us that if government goes in year

one and does something, say, in the school system and in year two,

something in the health and family system, year three something in

employment services, that approach never gets anywhere near the result

than if government goes in simultaneously and puts all the programs and

new initiatives in concurrently, in the one spot, with an integrated place-managed approach. So we want COAG to be working up that new system

of Aboriginal service delivery and governance.

Our second principle is for a partnership approach. We want to work with

communities, this is consistent with my determination to have more

devolution of services to have community and regional partnerships in

indigenous affairs and other areas. We'll have pooled funding

arrangements to create the capacity to deliver a comprehensive range of

policy responses to the plight of Aboriginal disadvantage and poverty.

Our third principle is regional governance. It's very important to ensure

that services and resources are getting through to the people who need

them. Regional and community partnerships are the best way forward and

we certainly want to see devolution to meaningful regional governance as

part of a new model in indigenous affairs.

Another principle, of course, is the powerful combination of opportunity and

responsibility. We want extra and improved government services to get

through to the people who need them. We don't want Aboriginal Affairs

money eaten up by bureaucracy and confusion and overlapping service

provision. We want the services to get through to the people who need

them and we want to place a higher premium on excellence. Expertise

particularly in the school system, we want to provide improved

opportunities to indigenous Australians.

But also, we'll be demanding responsibility, and I believe it's that powerful

combination of opportunity and responsibility that gives us our best hope of

beating the curse of Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage.

Our final principle is about advocacy, advice and accountability. Labor will

strengthen indigenous participation in national policymaking by creating a

new directly-elected national indigenous body. It will have responsibility for

providing independent policy research and advocacy, delivering policy

advice to government and the private sector, and monitoring policy

outcomes, monitoring outcomes with a very, very strong sense of

accountability and the public interest.

These are our principles that we are going to consult around. This is a

new approach, a better approach to the Howard government's failed

administration of ATSIC. It's gutting that body and we're not going to sit by

and just watch a vacuum emerge in indigenous affairs. We've got our

principles, we've got the policy decision to move forward beyond ATSIC

and ATSIS, and to consult widely in the indigenous and non-indigenous

community to get this right.

And I want to pay tribute to Kerry, who's been working on this initiative in

consultation with the Aboriginal community leaders, and through the

course of the last couple of days and weeks, our Labor Party shadow

ministry and caucus. And I might just ask Kerry to say a few things.



Yeah. Thanks, Mark. I’d like to stress that this is our attempt to take the

debate on indigenous Australia forward. I think everyone recognises that

ATSIC has reached a point in its life where it is incapable of achieving

what it was established to achieve. We want to create a positive

framework for discussion within the indigenous community for a

replacement framework which effectively devolves the issue of their rights

to those communities.

I think that self-determination is going to be achieved in a significant way

by devolving some of the power to make decisions to those communities.

We recognise there’s a challenge there. We recognise that they are going

to have to be very accountable for the expenditure of money. But also, we

recognise that state and federal governments have to be accountable for

how they spend monies, not just to the parliament but to the communities

in which the money is spent.

And so, we’re proposing a model which will be empowering, we believe, for

those communities, but what we’re saying is we’ve got a framework that

we want to discuss. We don’t want to make the mistake of saying this is

what we believe is good for you. We have a framework which we think will

be the basis for debate within the indigenous communities, and we want to

talk to the state governments and anyone else that wants to talk to us

about it, with a view to coming up with the best possible policy outcome.

Because at the end of the day, I think we all know that there is money

being expended out there in the communities and we’re not getting the

results for it.

The indicators of deprivation, of life expectancy, of educational outcome, of

employment outcome, of health outcome are all going in the wrong

direction. If the government claims there’s practical reconciliation, then the

indicators are showing that that is absolutely not the case, that indigenous

communities are not achieving the benefits that should be leveraged by the

amount of money that’s being spent on them.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: Mr Latham, will there be any statements on this or will all the

money be redirected to this new body?

LATHAM: The money will be redirected, but as I mentioned earlier on,

we’re obviously hoping to get better outcomes for communities to get the

services and resources through to the people who so desperately need

them. So, we’re hoping through devolution, regional partnerships and

community empowerment, a whole new model, we can produce better

outcomes on the ground - better outcomes for communities in desperate


[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: Could you clarify for us that … how this is going to work? It

appears that the body that will replace ATSIC will be a possible advisory

body, but you’re talking about the communities (indistinct) responsibility for

their budgets, if you like. What’s … who’s going to be overseeing that

expenditure? Is it going to be individual departments? And how will it

work between the states and federal government?

LATHAM: Well, the federal and state relationship will be sorted out

through COAG processes where, really, we’re trying to get the bundling of

resource delivery and a federal-state-territory agreement on regional and

community plans where everyone’s pulling in the one direction. All the

government agencies, the community leaders, the community members

are all moving in the same direction instead of the uncoordinated, often

confusing approach that you get at the current time. And in pushing down

to regional governance, we’ll have strong levels of accountability but also

Aboriginal participation in the process.

We’re not here to outline a detailed model. If we had that, we wouldn’t

have the need to consult around. And as I say, we’ve learned a bit from

that experience in the Hawke government where they produced a very

detailed model, then did the consultation. We want the consultation based

on these very sound principles and then we’ll be in a position in

government, obviously through the COAG process and the outcomes of

the consultation, to provide a detailed administrative model.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: (indistinct) … is this a return to paternalism and … you know,

an Aboriginal Affairs Minister who becomes a benign dictator, as it were?

LATHAM: No, not at all. This is about a combination of integrated

coordinated policymaking at national level, if you like, through COAG, and

the principle of devolution, community and regional partnerships where

Aboriginal people will have a better and more effective say about the way

in which the resources are being allocated, and can pull together to move

in the one direction in partnership with government agencies.

So there's no paternalism in it, I think it - from my perspective and

experience in these communities - ends one of the great frustrations, that

you've got people who want to do good things but they haven't got the

resources and capacity to get on with the job locally. It's tied up …

resources are often tied up higher in the food chain of public


So I think the regional governance and devolution approach has actually

got the potential to get good results. There'll be a combination of elected

people, government officials, experts, community leaders involved

ultimately. But in its final format, we've got to go through the consultations

to get that right, to get the balance right and ensure that we come up with a

better model than the gap that's been left by the current government.

O'BRIEN: Can I add to that? Can I add to that and say that this is a model

where accountability will be two-way? There'll be accountability from the

indigenous communities, (indistinct) be accountability by government to

the communities. So I reject the concept that this is somehow taking

control into a central body. It's actually devolution.

REPORTER: Will there be a national body elected?

O’BRIEN: We did say there'd be a national indigenous representative

body. You'll see it in the statement. It will be elected and it will have the

role of advocacy, providing advocacy - national and international -

providing advice which could be advice to the communities, could be …

will be advice to government, state and federal, and could be advice to

business proponents who are looking to give indigenous communities a leg

up with economic propositions.

REPORTER: (indistinct) they can't make spending decisions. Is that right?

O’BRIEN: That's right. It can't make spending decisions, and what Mark

has been referring to in the framework is the concept of another body

which will deal with … which will promote the partnerships and try and tie

money into programs proposed in the regions.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: What level is that body at?

O’BRIEN: I beg your pardon?

REPORTER: The second body, what level is that?

O’BRIEN: Well, we're proposing to consult about that, but it's a national


REPORTER: National.

O’BRIEN: Yeah.

REPORTER: (indistinct) local elections as well. I mean, is there going to

be a two tiered …

O’BRIEN: There already are local elections. Yes, there will be a local

indigenous electoral model under what we propose, again, in the

framework we propose. I suspect indigenous Australians will support that,

they support it now. And taking that forward, we … I think we would also

be looking at additions to the current model to make it work better, to bring

some expertise into … particularly into areas where we developed the

capacity to better manage this model.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: Senator (indistinct) importance of consultation formerly

(indistinct) the new body. Has there been extensive consultation with

indigenous groups on the decision to actually abolish ATSIC?

O’BRIEN: There's been extensive consultation about the future of ATSIC.

You must remember that the government's spent a million dollars plus of

indigenous funds for a review that they haven't acted on.

Now I've spoken to quite a number of people, including ATSIC

commissioners, about the proposals and about where they see indigenous

Australia going. There is a significant view that action needs to be taken to

break the current stalemate with ATSIC and ATSIS and to take the debate

forward, and that's what we're doing today.

REPORTER: How quickly would you move to do away with ATSIC itself,

which after all is an elected board?

O’BRIEN: Well, it's a bit early to set a timetable. We would hope to act as

early as possible. That board's term expires at the end of next year. If we

could move earlier in the appropriate circumstances, we would. But we'll

take the appropriate advice and look at how our consultation model spill …

spins out, and we'll make the best decision that we can upon coming to

government to achieve the sort of outcome we want. But we're not going

to rush it.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: (indistinct) experts said this morning that they need another

three hundred million dollars annually to turn around the crisis in

indigenous health. Could a Labor government deliver that, do you think?

LATHAM: Well, we’ll make our budgetary decisions in due course. When

we were last in government, we took indigenous health into the Health

Department, so it's not covered by ATSIC or ATSIS in terms of funding

arrangements. But this is not about the amount of money, it's about the

way in which it's administered and the most effective way of getting it

through to the people who need the help.

But certainly, we have a very strong commitment to the health system,

expanding the health system in many respects, bulk billing, hospitals,

indigenous health, and in that particular area we'll be saying something

about that down the track.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: (indistinct) to back up your comments about reconciliation,

(indistinct) like to invite you to Redfern to see the situation first hand.

Would you accept that invitation?

LATHAM: Well I know Redfern reasonably well and always happy to learn

in the company of good senators. I did that in Tasmania recently on the

forestry issue and learned a lot and hopefully added some value to public

policy. And happy to do the same in Redfern, which is just down the road

from where I live, in a Sydney sense.

REPORTER: Senator O'Brien, what are the reasons for the failure of

ATSIC? And what lessons has Labor learned from the failure of its great


O'BRIEN: Well, you're asking for an essay in an answer, but let me give

you a couple of points that you might want to consider. Firstly, the ATSIC

model has been significantly corrupted by the decision to create ATSIS.

The … Minister Ruddock promised it would have little effect on ATSIC, it

actually has had a substantial effect. And so ATSIC is no longer the body

that it was.

In terms of the funding model, I'm not sure that when the original proposal

went out, which was a different model than was ultimately passed by the

parliament, that the … everyone appreciated just how that would work and

what effect it would have on the decision making process of indigenous

Australians. And I think they’re the sorts of factors that we’re taking into

account now in trying to take this model forward.

REPORTER: Mr Latham, going to the (indistinct) of Iraq troops, will you be

supporting the government’s motion today?

LATHAM: We’ll have an amendment that reflects the Labor position and

that’s appropriate, although I would urge the Prime Minister to consider

splitting the motion because in part one, which Labor supports, it outlines

what should be bipartisan support for the professionalism and work of the

troops themselves. But then the political sting, if you like, in the

government’s motion is in part two.

So, I think the decent thing for a good structured and positive debate is for

the government to agree to splitting the motion. If they don’t do that, then

obviously we’ll be moving our amendments according to Labor’s position.

But the decent thing would be for the Prime Minister to lift the debate

above party politics, when it comes to our support for the troops. And I’d

urge him to support moves in the house to split the motion and allow the

policy debate, which is really in the second section, to proceed along the

party lines that we expect.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: Mr Latham, with the benefit of hindsight, do you think it was

… you made a mistake locking yourself into (indistinct) position on the


LATHAM: Well, no. I’m always happy to outline Labor’s position and to let

the Australian people know where we stand. I know not everyone supports

this and some people don’t even like the idea that Labor takes a stance on

these issues. A lot of people didn’t like the stance we took prior to the war

itself when we stood in opposition to it.

And since then, of course, we’ve found out that there were no weapons of

mass destruction, none used during the conflict, none found since, that the

conflict has increased the level of danger in Australia, that the conflict

diverted much needed resources away from the real war on terror - the

frontline conflicts in busting up the terrorist networks, catching bin Laden,

dealing with the JI threats in South East Asia and the like.

So, we’ve had in the past criticisms of our positions concerning the conflict

in Iraq, that … but understand that our position stood the test of time in that

particular instance. And the position I outlined last week is consistent with

shadow ministry resolutions in 2003, consistent with the position that Kevin

Rudd outlined in Baghdad in November when he said that when they get

their new sovereign government, that’s the logical starting point for an exit


And clearly defining where Labor stands is always a good thing when you

do it according to Labor principles. And our very strongly held beliefs, in

this case, that our priorities lie not in the indefinite deployment of troops in

Iraq, but in the defence of Australia and in the war against terror.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: (indistinct) the government has been pressuring you … or

they’re attacking you over policy on the run. During that debate, will you

be outlining what … the specifics of what Labor has in mind for our

withdrawal, either the timetable or what the priorities are in terms of which

groups of Defence Force personnel would be moved and so forth?

LATHAM: Well, I’ve done that through the course of the past week. We’ve

distributed the lists in terms of the troops operating inside Iraq. We’ve

never mentioned at any stage troops operating outside of Iraq. So, that

information is clearly available. It’s been written up in the various

newspapers. That position is very, very clear.

I think the key thing though in this debate is for the government to actually

outline its position because it has no strategy other than indefinite

deployment. And it has the inconsistency of the Prime Minister saying on

Sunday, oh yes, Senator Hill did say that the air traffic controllers will come

back in May and June and that’s likely to happen in May and June. And

then, a day later, he moves a motion in the parliament saying time lines

are inappropriate.

I mean, you wouldn’t find a more inconsistent piece of policymaking than a

Prime Minister who on the Sunday says that here’s a time line for the air

traffic controllers coming back - May and June - and then moves a motion

in the parliament the very next day saying that time lines are totally


So, I think the government needs to clarify its position, whether it has time

lines for the air traffic controllers and the other troops in Iraq, and what exit

strategy, what withdrawal program it has in mind because at the moment,

it’s left with just the political position of indefinite deployment.

REPORTER: Is your position going to be influenced by the United Nations

if it’s passing the new resolution saying that military personnel should


LATHAM: Well, that’s uncertain. That’s speculation. But in terms of a

response to the UN, we would make a positive response in terms of

humanitarian, economic and civilian assistance. But in terms of military

contributions, our priority is the defence of Australia and the war against

terror. And even the Howard government has said that because

Australia’s capacities are stretched across the globe that it doesn’t regard

UN peacekeeping forces as appropriate. I think Mr Howard said it’s not

Australia’s cup of tea. Well, that’s something on which we agree.

REPORTER: The frontline on the war on terror now is in Afghanistan.

How many troops should Australia have there?

LATHAM: Well, that's not a matter that we're speculating about. Our

priority in that regard…

REPORTER: (indistinct) fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda…

LATHAM: No, well our priority in that regard is the initiatives that Kevin

Rudd outlined last night about cutting off the heroin trade and the finances

that flow through to al-Qaeda, so that's our priority - not a debate about

troop numbers but effective means in which we can assist the war against

terror in Afghanistan. And that's what the shadow minister outlined last

night and will continue to talk about as a product of his recent trip to


REPORTER: So, you're saying you'll only fight the war on terror militarily if

it's on our own turf? Is that it?

LATHAM: No, no, Australia has important commitments in the region, of

course, and dealing with JI and ensuring that the defence of Australia is

strong. It's not just something within our sovereign land, it's also in our

neighbourhood. We have commitments in the region and the

neighbourhood that we'd want to fulfil.

For instance, if Labor had been in government, we'd never … would never

have taken our eye off the Pacific Islands. We would have been

anticipating change and hopefully not needing the sort of rescue packages

that the government's deployed with the Solomons and PNG.

We would have been anticipating those problems and working with the

countries much more effectively so we believe the focus in the

neighbourhood and the region and the sensible anticipation of change is

going to get a better result for Australia, in terms of national security, than

adventurism on the other side of the world, which is the way in which we

always saw the war in Iraq.

[reporters talk over the top of one another]

REPORTER: (indistinct) security laws the government's putting up this


LATHAM: Well, the Government hasn't shown us the detail. We haven't

got a bill in our hands. In principle, we're always sympathetic to requests

that are made from the police commissioners, the frontline police

requesting more powers. We're sympathetic in that regard but at the

moment, from our perspective, it's a hypothetical bill. We haven't got a

copy of it.

I'm not too sure if it's gone through their party room today and we haven't

received any briefings from the government through Robert McClelland.

So, sympathetic to the request that was made, what, ten days ago now by

the police commissioners, but in terms of the other aspects of the bill we'll

obviously have to see the detail and go through the proper parliamentary


REPORTER: What about …

LATHAM: Sorry?

REPORTER: You know, this thing about not being able to profit from


LATHAM: Well, let's have a look at the detail of that. If the government

sees it as a priority, we'll look at it when they bring it forward but it's not

something that's been run past us in substance.

REPORTER: (indistinct) offered you briefings on Iraq and you've refused to

accept those briefings (indistinct) suggest that you've been playing politics

with this issue. Why haven't you accepted the briefings (indistinct)?

LATHAM: Yeah, well, I've had discussions with officials from Foreign

Affairs and Defence about the situation in Iraq, and I've got to say I've

been sitting there shaking my head wondering what Mr Downer's going on

about because he obviously doesn't know what happens inside his own

department. On top of that, Kevin Rudd and Chris Evans get regular

briefings from those two departments, and in Kevin's case he's been to

Afghanistan and Iraq - both of them in the last six months.

So in terms of our understanding of the issues, we've had a good

information flow and we're quite satisfied with that and these regular

briefings will continue in the future.

So one more question and then I'll have to get ready for the…

REPORTER: (indistinct) briefings with DFAT?

LATHAM: Oh, in the recent past. I've been Opposition Leader for almost

four months. I haven't got exact dates on me but I've had discussions with

officials from Foreign Affairs and Defence about the situation in Iraq and

that's a regular part of the work of our Shadow Ministry.

Thanks very much.