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Opposition critical of range and number of nominees for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission; Aboriginal groups plan legal challenge to national ATSIC elections

PETER THOMPSON: In black politics a new storm has broken over the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission following the release of details of candidates nominating for national elections to be held later this year. The Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner, has hailed the field of candidates as showing strong support for the new commission. But as Marius Benson reports, key Aboriginal groups say they'll boycott the elections and they're planning a legal challenge to prevent the elections going ahead.

MARIUS BENSON: For the national ATSIC elections Australia's Aboriginal communities have been divided into 60 regional council zones, and yesterday was the deadline for candidates to nominate to stand for election in those zones. In seven of the 60 zones, the number of candidates nominating fell short of the number necessary to have a vote. But Robert Tickner has said the overall level of interest and participation shows strong support for ATSIC. In all, just over 1,600 people have nominated to fill 808 positions and that was despite a boycott announced at the last minute by one of the countries biggest Aboriginal groups, the Northern Land Council. But the Opposition spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs, Dr Michael Wooldridge says ATSIC can draw little encouragement from the level of nominations.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: We now have people as far away as Tasmania, through the south coast, up to Arnham Land all calling for boycotts of ATSIC. You've got Mr Yunupingu coming out yesterday expressing concern and I think this reflects the fact that firstly some there's very great confusion and lack of understanding amongst Aboriginal people as to what it all means and secondly, very great scepticism as to all the hype that's surrounded ATSIC.

PETER THOMPSON: Michael Wooldridge. The Opposition's pessimism about ATSIC's prospects is naturally not shared by Lois O'Donohue, who heads the Commission's Interim Board. She had this reaction to yesterday's nomination figures.

LOIS O'DONOHUE: Well we're absolutely delighted with the numbers of aboriginal people who have nominated.

PETER THOMPSON: The next test for ATSIC will come in November when you have the national elections. The estimated electorate is about 135,000. What level of participation would you expect in the national elections?

LOIS O'DONOHUE: Well, of course, the indication that we have already with the numbers of people who are interested in nominating, I think there will be a very high level. There will be only a minority of people who will consider it as inappropriate to vote on 3 November.

PETER THOMPSON: Lois O'Donohue, the chairperson of the Interim Board of ATSIC. Despite her optimism, opponents of the Commission say they're still hoping ATSIC becoming fully operational. One of the strongest critics of the Commission, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, says legal challenges are planned.

GARY FOLEY: As I understand it, there's at least half a dozen potential legal challenges being plotted and planned around Australia. Basically people do not believe that ATSIC is going to be beneficial for the Aboriginal community. The Government has created some sort of an illusion whereby they're maintaining that it represents Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs when in fact if you look at the reality, the bureaucracy of ATSIC is exactly the same bureacracy that managed to stuff things up for the last 20 years at the old Department of Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy. So what's the change; what's the difference, Mr Tickner?