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A stronger ATSIC regionally and nationally.

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A stronger ATSIC regionally and nationally


ATSIC Board’s Response to the ATSIC Review Report

The ATSIC Board welcomes many aspects of the final Report of the ATSIC Review. We agree with many of the recommendations and have in fact already taken several initiatives consistent with them.

The Report, however, does not present the progressive agenda for reform that we had hoped for and sought. While it largely focuses on the representativeness of the current ATSIC and the relationships between the various levels of Indigenous decision-making and lines of accountability, the Report on first analysis:

• presents a seriously flawed new structure; and • seeks to raise the standards of accountability far beyond those expected of other national elected representatives.

By recommending the status quo on key issues, or limiting the potential reforms to the ATSIC Act to minimal and unimaginative change, the Review Panel has failed to deliver. Of fundamental importance, however, is that several key recommendations would reduce or work against the effective representation of the views and interests of Indigenous peoples nationally and at the State and Territory level and might be so badly flawed the Government might have major difficulties in justifying the adoption of those recommendations.

The Report’s opening recommendation proposes no change to the objectives of the ATSIC Act. This is a big disappointment, as the Review was a major opportunity to recognise Indigenous peoples’ demands for self-determination. Recognition of self-determination is important because it provides a basis for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to take full responsibility for control of their own destinies and their communities.

The Report is titled: In the hands of the regions - a new ATSIC. While Regional Councils need to be strengthened, ATSIC must also remain an effective national voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We ask, however, what is it that the Report is putting in the hands of the regions and the Regional Council Chairs? It seems to be greater responsibility but with a reduction in the capacity to be able to accept that responsibility.

We have met this week with the new Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Amanda Vanstone, Shadow Minister Bob McMullan, and the Democrats to put our case and hear their views. We wish to meet with all interested groups, and especially our own communities and organisations, to determine a better framework for improving the lives of Indigenous people.

This framework includes “a new ATSIC” as the Report calls it. But we have not only already been taking steps to make our own changes, the Report uses those developments and others to model their ideas for the “new body”. For example, 10 members of the current Board are new Commissioners, and we are building a more strategic role through new policy committees and further developing our work with State and Federal governments and their agencies.

The proposed “national plan” to be developed by the new national body would be similar to ATSIC’s existing Corporate Plan. Clearly, if the current ATSIC is so disconnected from the regional level why is its Corporate Plan used as the model for a new national plan. Either it is an endorsement of the current Commission or the Review Panel could not come up with any new or innovative ideas.

A better framework must also include new ways of thinking and working by all governments, agencies and service providers, and a new resolve by all to deliver outcomes to Indigenous peoples and empower them to determine their own futures.

Above all, it must include new mechanisms to hold accountable those most responsible for

overcoming the crisis so starkly set out in the recent Report from the Productivity Commission to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

Ever since it was established, ATSIC has been a scapegoat for governments and commentators to blame for the appalling state of affairs under which Indigenous people have lived since long before ATSIC began. Government Ministers and departments have for decades had the power and the resources to ensure mainstream programs provide equitable outcomes for Indigenous Australians. The Productivity Commission shows the extent to which the gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians is huge and, in a number of respects, is growing. No doubt some would like to use this report as a convenient excuse for taking away more of our powers and capacity to be effective, as if that were the main problem.

We say no way.

The report’s “overarching recommendations” confirm yet again the need for ATSIC as an independent advocate and policy-making body representing the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the rest of the nation, and to governments at all levels.

The report also confirms that ATSIC is required as an essential partner, sitting down at the table with governments, their agencies and service providers to ensure that policies and programs are designed and implemented to deliver the best possible outcomes for Indigenous people and communities.

The ATSIC Review Report calls for “a new ATSIC”. We want a new ATSIC too - but one which can be effective, not one which is set up to fail from the start. This Board has been working for a better, more effective ATSIC in the 12 short months since it was elected, under difficult circumstances in which ATSIC has been under intense scrutiny and attack.

We note that the report itself says there is no perfect model for a new ATSIC - yet it has proposed just one alternative for consideration. While seeking to improve representation the report proposes to:

• extinguish the right of Regional Councillors to have a direct vote for their full-time national representatives; • have a two-tiered structure of national-level Indigenous decision-making, with one tier comprising 41 members; • establish an executive structure that is likely to disadvantage small States and rural and remote communities; • reduce the level of full-time Indigenous representation at the national and regional level from the current 53 positions to 39 and increase the current levels of responsibilities of Regional Council Chairs with no apparent additional support; and • reduce the level of full-time national Indigenous representation from 18 to 2.

This is not an argument about protecting the jobs of current Commissioners and workloads of Regional Council Chairs, it is about the capacity of Indigenous Australians to be properly represented at the national, State and regional levels.

It should be noted that the turnover rate for Commissioners can exceed 50% while the turnover rate for Regional Council Chairs can exceed 30%; so many of the current elected leadership in numerical terms will be returned anyway if previous trends continue. If these trends continue a reduction to 39 full-time national and regional officials can be achieved by natural attrition because of the election process.

This would impose an intolerable burden on the proposed new executive, particularly as it and the new national body over time would be increasingly held responsible for the ongoing crisis in Indigenous communities by the Indigenous community as well as by mainstream Governments seeking to identify a convenient scapegoat for their own shortcomings. It would be impossible for two full-time representatives - a Chair and Deputy Chair - to carry out all the many national tasks and responsibilities which are required to represent effectively the interests of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, nationally and internationally.

The national body of 35 Regional Chairs which would elect most members of this executive would be dominated by those States with the most regional councils. With the best will in the world, genuine national representation from all States and Territories could not be guaranteed.

The proposed model is like saying that the national parliament and ministers should essentially be made up of local government councillors.

Our communities should still have the right to a national voice through the right to a vote, which elects national representatives as well as regional ones.

In light of the above concerns, the Commission cannot accept the proposed “new national body” and new “national executive”.

The report has sensibly adopted ATSIC’s position to reintegrate the interim agency, ATSIS, back into ATSIC, consistent with the position put to former Minister Ruddock to bring about a “separation of powers” within a unified ATSIC. We therefore call on the Government to implement this recommendation speedily.

In relation to the Report’s focus on accountability, it ignores the Commission’s proposal for an independent tribunal to investigate complaints, preferring instead a system with standards much higher than those established for mainstream elected representatives but likely to lead to chaos from frequent “votes of no confidence” called on at the whim of well-organised sectional interests within the “national body”.

The report appears to be making the mistake of drawing from the pages of the governance structures and rules of commercial companies, unions and political parties and not those relevant to the elected representatives with the trust of community people who voted for them to advocate their interests.

In rejecting a number of the key recommendations of the Review, the Commission is finalising an alternative approach that reforms the structures and relationships between the Commission, Regional Council Chairs and regional councillors, particularly in light of the few useful ideas of the report. This alternative will build rather than diminish the current rights, responsibilities and opportunities for Indigenous people to be involved in determining their own destinies. We are examining the report’s recommendations in more detail and will be consulting widely with Indigenous people in finalising our position and our advice to Government and other political leaders early in 2004.

Moving forward - together

Everyone agrees that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders remain by far the most disadvantaged group of Australians. This has been comprehensively demonstrated in the recent Productivity Commission Report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage - Key Indicators 2003.

The sad reality is that current arrangements are patently not working to close the gulf in wellbeing between Indigenous people and other Australians. We all have to take our share of responsibility for that: governments and their agencies - at national, State/Territory and local levels; Indigenous organisations and community leaders, including ATSIC itself; and the private sector.

The need for a new way forward is urgent, as the Productivity Commission insists. All parties have to lift their game; stop the buck-passing; work together; and share the responsibility for securing far better outcomes to Indigenous people, especially in remote Australia where conditions are closer to third world than first world.

Indigenous people suffering from want and hopelessness all around the country deserve better value for the money that’s being invested in Indigenous affairs and we should not rest until they get that better value.

That means looking far wider than restructuring ATSIC. To stop there is at best self-delusion and at worst continuing the longstanding game of blaming ATSIC and Indigenous people themselves for the faults of others.

We agree with Minister Vanstone when she says that the status quo is not an option. But the status quo needs reforming across all spheres of government and their programs, not just for a limited part of the picture.

If we are to get real about a fair go for Indigenous Australians, we must also achieve reforms to government that overcome the duplication and confusing overlaps in responsibilities that have led to major gaps in service delivery; to Indigenous governance; and to the effectiveness and capacity of Indigenous organisations.

As the report concludes, COAG must take a leading role in sorting this out with ATSIC, to stop Indigenous people continuing to suffer.

Canberra 5 December 2003

Media contacts: Brian Aarons 02 6121 4953 0400 585 008

Paul Molloy 02 6121 4961 0419 690 926