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Victoria: Federal Court quashes suspension of ATSIC Chairperson.

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Friday 27 August 2004

Victoria: Federal Court quashes suspension of ATSIC Chairperson


MARK COLVIN: The Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Ge off Clark, is in a strange position tonight. 


The Federal Court in Melbourne has ruled that the Federal Government acted unlawfully when it suspended him over his involvement in a pub brawl. 


So is Geoff Clark Chairman of ATSIC again? 


You'd think so, except that the Federal Government has already started to disband the organisation. 


In Melbourne, Guy Stayner.  


GUY STAYNER: Despite being a man conditioned to legal setbacks, Geoff Clark has always maintained a public air of optimism. 


This afternoon was no different as he entered Melbourne's Federal Court. 


GEOFF CLARK: Oh, well, it's sink or swim, isn't it? I'm a pretty good swimmer. 


GUY STAYNER: A short time later he was victorious and defiantly stated he'll resume the mantle of his crumbling organisation. 


GEOFF CLARK: I'm most grateful for the decision this afternoon. I've always maintained that it was an injust act, and that the suspension was wrong in a number of areas including, I think, this has been a great disappointment to indigenous people that we've had to deal with this nonsense over the last 12 months.  


I now assume the chair. We want to find some truth and justice for Aboriginal people, and I would be now wanting to engage whether it's with the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, or the Minister, or Peter Costello for that matter. We would want to engage on a positive note from here in and see if we can fix this mess that's been created. 


GUY STAYNER: In August last year former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Philip Ruddock, suspended Geoff Clark as the ATSIC Chairman because of his conviction over a pub brawl in the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool. 


Under the ATSIC Act, a commissioner can be suspended for misbehaviour. But Justice Peter Gray ruled the word misbehaviour had a more limited definition in the Act than the one used by Mr Ruddock to suspend Geoff Clark. 


Part of a written summary of Justice Gray's finding reads as follows. 


WRITTEN SUMMARY OF PETER GRAY'S FINDING: There is no universal meaning of the word misbehaviour. That word must take its meaning from the context of the ATSIC Act. It was not open to the former minister to specify behaviour selected at large from the range of behaviour that might be viewed subjectively by some people as misbehaviour. 


GUY STAYNER: The full ramifications of the 70-page ruling are still being digested by Geoff Clark's lawyer, Mark Yorston. 


MARK YORSTON: We need time to read it. It's a very detailed judgement, and it would be wrong to speak in any detail about it until we've had a chance to read it carefully. 


GUY STAYNER: But what does it mean to be reinstated as the head of an organisation in the process of being disbanded? 


GEOFF CLARK: I've got a job mate. I'm the Chairman of ATSIC. You'd better believe it. 


REPORTER: For how much longer? 


GEOFF CLARK: Well I think that there is a process now - a Senate committee - that Senate committee is going through and interviewing people right throughout the nation in relation to some of the deception and perceptions that are being created by this government. And I'm sure that their findings will justify the remaining of ATSIC and the continuation of an Aboriginal voice in this country. 


GUY STAYNER: The decision also gives Geoff Clark a political lifeline. 


GEOFF CLARK: This gives me and allows me a platform to bring about some change that's much needed. It's okay to get out there and advocate the difficulties that Aboriginal people face, but it's more difficult to find a solution. I've always been willing and able to help find that solution. 


GUY STAYNER: While today's ruling was a significant victory for Geoff Clark, Justice Gray did not set aside a Government decision requiring Mr Clark to show cause why he should not be suspended. 


For both ATSIC and Geoff Clark it appears to have been a day of taking two steps and one step back. 


In a statement issued by Current Indigenous Affairs Minister, Amanda Vanstone, she expressed disappointment in the decision and blamed the Opposition for Geoff Clark's reinstatement as ATSIC Chairman. 


She says if Labor had supported the Government's bill to abolish ATSIC from July the first, Geoff Clark's reinstatement wouldn't have been possible. 


MARK COLVIN: Guy Stayner