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Indigenous leaders discuss AFP raid on 'National Indigenous Times' paper; and establishment of National Indigenous Council.

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Tuesday, 16 November 2004


PHILLIP ADAMS: Over the past week a number of events have propelled indigenous issues onto the national agenda for the first time in a very long time. Last week, bit by bit, the government’s indigenous policies started leaking out. A new national indigenous newspaper was raided by the Federal Police who seized leaked Cabinet documents outlining proposals for the future direction of Aboriginal welfare and other associated policies. Unfortunately, so did a poisonous photograph of Australian soldiers posing as members of the Ku Klux Klan with Aboriginal members of the regiment.


Amanda Vanstone announced the membership of the new government-appointed National Indigenous Council, NIC, which it appears is designed to replace—although it will have a ghostly semblance to its powers—ATSIC.


To unravel the implications of these events I’m joined by Chris Graham, editor of the National Indigenous Times , and I know Chris won’t mind if I identify him as a white fella. Also with Chris in Canberra, Boni Robertson, who’s Director of the Gumurrii Centre at Griffith University in Brisbane. Boni is completely opposed to the whole concept of the NIC. And on the phone in Sydney is Warren Mundine who’s just been appointed to the said council.


But he wears a few other hats. He happens to be the Junior Deputy President of the ALP and will follow Barry Owen Jones into that job, when, in fact, the ALP is completely opposed to the NIC as a replacement for ATSIC. So he’s put himself in a curious position and I hope we’ll find out why in a moment. Warren’s day job is Chief Executive Office of New South Wales Native Title Services, and I welcome the three of you to the little program.


Chris, what’s this raid by the Federal Police all about? What was Mr Plod looking for?


CHRIS GRAHAM: Mr Plod was looking for, specifically, two leaked federal Cabinet documents. They arrived at our premises at 8.30 on Thursday morning with a search warrant and they ended up leaving with six federal Cabinet documents, so they had a good score.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Gosh, if they start raiding newspapers around Australia for leaked government documents there’ll be no-one doing traffic policing, will there?


CHRIS GRAHAM: Well, they’ll know where to look because government is usually the greatest leaker of government documents, so it shouldn’t take them very long. But yes, I certainly take the point.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Has the raid backfired politically, in your view?


CHRIS GRAHAM: I think it has. There’s been an enormous amount of media interest in what’s gone on, for obvious reasons, and it gave the issues a great deal of prominence. And some of those issues we had been reporting for some weeks without much interest from the mainstream media. So the raids gave the stories an impetus they could never have hoped to have gotten.


PHILLIP ADAMS: And, in fact, you’d passed the information on to the mainstream press, and they weren’t raided.


CHRIS GRAHAM: No, there weren’t, no. The Fin Review , the Australian, the Age and the Herald I think all reported in relation to the leaks but no, none of them were raided. It’s not unprecedented for publications to be raided but—I think the Bulletin was raided last year but that was in relation to national security documents. These documents were simply embarrassing for the government rather than a threat to national security.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Why embarrassing?


CHRIS GRAHAM: Probably the most embarrassing of them all, and one of the documents that was listed on the search warrant, was an April 2003 letter from Philip Ruddock to John Howard—and Philip Ruddock at the time was the Indigenous Affairs Minister. He broadly outlined to the Prime Minister that every government minister—and he’s talking about the entire Howard ministry—had ‘almost without exception’ failed to undertake a series of major reviews into every single government program to see how they could be better delivered to Aboriginal people. So you’re talking about a pretty embarrassing situation. I mean, the government has been very critical of ATSIC in its service delivery approach to Aboriginal people but couldn’t even review programs it already had.


There were other documents. There was a Cabinet submission, or a briefing to federal Cabinet dated 2004 on the proposed abolition of ATSIC. It was quite interesting in that it revealed the Cabinet had been misled about the nature of support from Aborigina l leaders, particularly Noel Pearson. The document claimed Noel Pearson was supportive of an appointed body replacing an elected body, and Noel Pearson is not supportive of that.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Okay, I get the gist or the drift.


CHRIS GRAHAM: Yes, it was pretty ugly.


PHILLIP ADAMS: I must ask you about the National Indigenous Times. It’s quite new and it’s not universally beloved within the Aboriginal community because it’s pretty contentious. How did it begin and how do you keep it going?


CHRIS GRAHAM: It began two and a half years ago, well almost three years ago now. Basically an Aboriginal person called Owen Carriage who actually started our major competitor, the Koori Mail about 12 years ago. He came to a group of us and said he wanted to start a national Aboriginal paper and talks were had and eventually a paper was launched. In terms of keeping it going we rely, ironically enough, on primarily federal government advertising but also state government advertising and mainstream sorts of advertising. We don’t get a lot of advertising but we run on the sniff of an oily rag. We have six staff in total but four of the key editorial staff have about 100 years experience in the media between them.


PHILLIP ADAMS: What’s your mission statement—before we bring Boni and Warren into the debate? What makes you different?


CHRIS GRAHAM: Our primary goal is to help build a bridge between Australia’s black and white communities, and we believe we can assist that cause by printing stories that are sometimes critical of Aboriginal people and organisations but are also critical of white organisations and people. We try and tell the truth, as we see it obviously, but we don’t sugar-coat things. And that, of course, has made us some enemies, not least of all the Australian Federal Police.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Okay. Warren Mundine, welcome to Late Night Live . Do you agree with the approach to Aboriginal welfare outlined in these leaked documents, Warren, the concept of shared responsibility agreements?


WARREN MUNDINE: No, I don’t necessarily agree with the policies of the federal government. In fact, I think the federal government has probably taken Aboriginal affairs back about 40 years in regard to its approach to Aboriginal affairs. And it was quite exciting to have Aboriginal affairs, as you said earlier, back on the front page of the media, which it hasn’t been for quite a while. And also during the last federal election nothing ….


PHILLIP ADAMS: But Warren, that’s because both major parties avoided the subject strenuously.


WARREN MUNDINE: Not only that, you have to also put it back to the Australian community, you know. The Australian community are a reflection … the parties are a reflection of the Australian community. And quite frankly, I’ll be honest with you, Aboriginal affairs don’t rate too much in the suburbs of Sydney.


PHILLIP ADAMS: No, as your leader keeps pointing out. Had the NIC seen the documents or been consulted on the proposals prior to the election?


WARREN MUNDINE: It would have been impossible because there was no NIC.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Well, members of it, putative members.


WARREN MUNDINE: I wouldn’t know what other members was because when I was approached in August this year to sit on the NIC I was rejected the proposal and it wasn’t until last Thursday that they came back and had a chat to me again about it.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Why did you agree to join the council when you have your own doubts and when ALP policy, in which you are going to be more deeply involved in the future, is so clearly opposed to the concept?


WARREN MUNDINE: I live in the real world, unlike some people who like to live in a fantasy world. I live in the real world and on 9 October the Australian community made a decision, and that was that they’re going to have Howard for the next three years and the Howard government. I think that Aboriginal people need to engage now with that government and try and make this government a bit more honest. I’m going to go to that NIC, argue the case for an elected body, argue the case for an apology from the Prime Minister, argue the case for dealing with what I consider the bread-and-butter issues, the real issues of Aboriginal affairs, which are the domestic violence and the sexual assaults and the problems that we have in our communities.


PHILLIP ADAMS: And I suppose one has to point out that recent years have not been that productive of fundamental change. It’s been an increasingly difficult time to be an Aboriginal politician in the country.


Boni, your reaction to the raid on the paper first, please.

BONI ROBERTSON: I think it just epitomises a growing sentiment in the Australian community that racism and prejudice are accepted. I mean, if you take the fact that one of our national newspapers was raided, at the very same time we had the release of that horrible picture in Townsville and you had people at the highest level within the military calling it a prank and dismissing it in such a juvenile way without thinking about what it might mean for our people and the national image of the military generally. And then you have this whole debate about welfare reform without any real discussion with our people as to what might be the best way to go forward. And so there is a horrible sentiment, I think there’s a horrible sentiment growing in the Australian community, through our political systems, that isn’t … it doesn’t paint a good picture.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Boni, as you and I would have to concede, ATSIC had profound problems, terrible problems. So why are you opposed to the new council?


BONI ROBERTSON: Well, you know, we can say ATSIC had profound problems but how effective have government departments been? There are many, many, many, many reports that have been prepared over the last 20, 30 years to determine how effective government departments have been, and you could say the same thing for them. If government departments—and let’s not forget millions of dollars have been channelled through government departments to assist our people through service delivery, program management, et cetera, et cetera—and if we were going to take that same radical cut-throat approach to ATSIC, then there are some government departments that couldn’t cut the grass as well.


PHILLIP ADAMS: One of the chairs of ATSIC once looked at me very sadly and said: many of my board members are criminals. You know, there were huge difficulties. I don’t think you can whitewash it quite simply.


BONI ROBERTSON: Nobody’s whitewashing the fact that there were problems within ATSIC, nobody’s doing that at all. And I think you made a statement before, Phillip, that I was totally opposed to the council. I’m not opposed to the council, I’m opposed to what it might represent. And I’m glad to hear what Warren just said. And you know, Warren, we all live in the real world. We’re trying to work in the real world, and what I was trying to say is that if the council is going to mean something for our people then let’s get beyond the stupid approach of just advising and let’s get into negotiating with government a way forward.


Now, I’m really pleased to hear that Warren is going to get in there and start actually speaking up for our people, but I honestly think that we’ve gone beyond consultation, we’ve gone beyond just being advisers. We need to negotiate our way forward. And you’re right, Phillip, there were problems within ATSIC, but by crikeys I can tell you there have been some stories about government departments where our kids, our kids under the leadership and under the responsibility of government departments, have been subjected to child abuse, have been subjected to all sorts of things.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Look, I’m glad you’ve raised that because ….


BONI ROBERTSON: You can’t just say that there are criminals in ATSIC and dismiss what government departments have been allowed to get away with over the last 20 or 30 years.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Wouldn’t dream of doing it. Now, you’ve raised the issue, and I’m glad you have. As Chair of the Women’s Taskforce on Violence you put forward a series of recommendations to the government in 1999.




PHILLIP ADAMS: What happened to them?


BONI ROBERTSON: Well, it’s interesting that you ask that, and I often think well, perhaps we didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve. There was a great deal of legislative change out of that—to the Liquor Licensing Commission, juvenile justice, the family law. There was a great deal of legislative change that came out of that report, and that’s not visible to the average person in the street. And so in one way that was a good accomplishment.


But what I am really saddened about, here we are now, like four years later, with a whole new debate being put on to the national agenda about indigenous affairs, welfare reform, and we’re still not getting it right. We’re still not looking at what really needs to be done to help our people in the community. Using punitive approaches just don’t work.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Chris Graham, anyone who imagines for a nanosecond that the indigenous community is monolithic is, of course, kidding themselves, as you are in an excellent position to know, but what read are you getting about this new board? Does it have any chance of being taken seriously in indigenous communities?


CHRIS GRAHAM: No, I don’t think so. The feedback we’re getting—and I should say it’s unprecedented in terms of feedback we’ve received in the past. We have been inundated with comments and phone calls, and it is almost all bad. I don’t think very many Aboriginal people—and I don’t speak on behalf of Aboriginal people—but our readers I don’t think see it as having any credibility whatsoever. They’ve seen many government advisory boards come and go and they’ve seen very little achieved.


PHILLIP ADAMS: We are talking advisory board, aren’t we, Warren Mundine?


CHRIS GRAHAM: Absolutely.


WARREN MUNDINE:   …. advisory board.


PHILLIP ADAMS: It’s not going to have clout, it’s not going to have a big budget that it can control. It can simply make suggestions.


WARREN MUNDINE: That’s right. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there in the community that we actually are a representative board. It’s no representative board. I took that on board that it was an advisory board. I represent no-one. The only one person I represent is Warren Mundine, and when I sit on the board that’s how I’ll be doing it. Someone asks me a question tonight—I was at a Jewish Board of Deputies meeting tonight—whether we control funds. The answer is no, we don’t control funds. We’ll be giving advice to the government and the governments will do what they like with that advice.


BONI ROBERTSON: Can I just take that up? First of all, I need to go back a little bit, Phillip, when you said that there were criminals in ATSIC, and that might have been the case. But do you know what? What would have been the most appropriate approach, like they do with government departments, when they don’t think it’s working they do a review and they restructure. Why couldn’t we have had … get rid of that deadwood—and we all know that there was deadwood in ATSIC—get rid of the deadwood, keep the structure and make it work. It was one of the most unique indigenous structures in the world. Why take us backwards?


PHILLIP ADAMS: Boni, you may be right but it is the most ancient of histories and it’s gone.


BONI ROBERTSON: Well, I’m not so sure about that.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Would you have accepted appointment to this board? Would you have taken Warren’s real world position because you want to fight for your issues, your issues on violence for example?


BONI ROBERTSON: Not under the current structure because I think just being an advisory—and Warren, as much as I love our people on that committee, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way because I don’t want it to get into where we’re fighting our own people, but you do represent us. Every time we open our mouths, whether we like it or not there is some politician out there that listens to what we say, or they don’t listen to what we say, and so by default we do represent our people.


And so no I think what that council needs to do, if it’s going to have any teeth, if it’s going to have any bite, it needs to be given the mandate to negotiate our way forward, because you can advise all you want but at the end of the day the government doesn’t have to accept it.


WARREN MUNDINE: That also goes for the committee that you sat on in Queensland.


BONI ROBERTSON: Absolute, but we fought.


WARREN MUNDINE: You fought and you made a lot of change and you admitted tonight that you did a lot of change and a lot of move forward which is going to be positive and that’s going to move forward to the future …


BONI ROBERTSON: That didn’t represent a national structure, Warren.


WARREN MUNDINE: … and that’s what I want to do in regard to highlighting the real issues because what is happening is that we’re getting away from a lot of this stuff. A lot of people are talking about a lot of things but the real issue is that our communities—and it has been identified within your report—our communities are imploding across the country with a lot of domestic violence, a lot of sexual assault, and a lot of these problems that are happening on economic development.


Now, the fact of life is the government and the opposition, which is the Labor Party and my party that I’m a member of—and this is a policy of our party is that we’re abolishing ATSIC. That is the fact of life.


BONI ROBERTSON: Whether ATSIC is being abolished or not ….


PHILLIP ADAMS: Okay, everyone take a deep breath because we’re running out of time and I want to raise another all-important issue. The political reality is that we have a government in total control, or very shortly it will be in absolute and utter control, an event without recent precedent. And Warren, you have called for a bipartisan approach to indigenous policy. This is, in a sense, code for the fact that the ALP will be almost devoid of influence in the next few years and you’re going to have to create friendships and alliances on the other side of the House.


WARREN MUNDINE: Not necessarily so. It’s in regard to two areas. One is in the major area, that Aboriginal people are getting pretty sick and tired of being used as a political football between the different political parties—and I put the blame at all political parties in regard to this—and that we get kicked around and they play games with us to win partisan elections and that. That’s the major issue.


The other issue is that the state governments and territory governments who control a lot of Aboriginal affairs, especially in the area of children’s welfare and domestic violence and policing, they are controlled by the Labor governments. The federal government is the coalition; the Labor governments control the states and territories. Those people need to sit down and work together to come out with proper outcomes for Aboriginal people.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Chris Graham, do you like the idea of bipartisan policies on Aboriginal issues?


CHRIS GRAHAM: Well, it depends what the policies are, and if the policies are what the government is admitting that they are, then I can’t imagine anybody supporting them in a bipartisan fashion or in any other fashion. They are complete rubbish. The government calls them radical reforms. Radical is not revisiting failed policies from 50, 60 years ago. That’s just rank stupidity. So to support that in a bipartisan approach I think would be bipartisan and stupid.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Boni Robertson, I’m going to give you the last word.


BONI ROBERTSON: Thank you, I appreciate that. I think that, look, we’re at a stage now where all levels of government, the Australian community generally, indigenous, non-indigenous, have to work together to solve the problems that have been allowed to just sit and rot and manifest in our communities. And I honestly believe, whether it be through bipartisan support, whether it be through whatever, I think we have to be courageous enough to admit that we’ve gone wrong in the past—be  it ATSIC, be it government departments—we’ve not got it right. So let’s get it right. And I think this reliance on archaic methods of providing service, of developing policy, we have to move beyond that.


Surely to goodness as a country we are intelligent enough, rigorous enough to be able to look at where we’ve gone wrong in the past, work together to solve it. And I think we are mature enough as a group of people, as a cultural group of people, to be able to sit around that table with government representatives as equal partners to negotiate our way forward instead of just constantly advising governments. So I just think that there’s a new structure needed.


PHILLIP ADAMS: On that aspirational note, Boni, I thank you very much. Boni Robertson, Director of the Gumurrii Centre at Griffith, which does some fascinating work; Chris Graham, the somewhat beleaguered editor at the moment at the National Indigenous Times —in the sense that he keeps getting raided by the police and has plenty of critics; Warren Mundine, Deputy Junior President of the ALP, member of the new NIC and CEO of the New South Wales Native Title Service.