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Operation and role of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO)

CHRIS CLARKE: The Senate sits in Canberra this week, and the Federal Opposition intends to use the opportunity to keep pushing for the resignation of the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Gerry Hand. Mr Hand is represented in the Senate by the Justice Minister, Michael Tate.

The Opposition claims Mr Hand misled Parliament in statements he made to the House over whether he'd decided to recommence Federal funding for the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation, or NAIHO, as it is called. The previous Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Clyde Holding, withdrew Federal funding from NAIHO in 1986 and NAIHO is now the subject of an internal government audit.

So what does NAIHO do to arouse such controversy? David Burgess is talking to its National Co-ordinator, Shane Houston.

SHANE HOUSTON: NAIHO was established in 1974 when the existing community controlled Aboriginal health services got together, in Albury, and examined the need of communities right across the country and the benefits which might flow to those communities from having their own community controlled health initiatives. The national organisation today has a role of providing support to Aboriginal communities when they request it in terms of the delivery of services to their own people. We have a role of providing a national voice on behalf of community controlled health services across the country.

DAVID BURGESS: Well, that all sounds very worthy. Why, then, was funding withheld in 1986?

SHANE HOUSTON: The problems with NAIHO arose out of the bureaucracy's inability or resistance to communities putting forward the sorts of views which communities had consistently thought of over time. By refusing to put things in their proper perspective, the relationship between the organisation and the bureaucracy deteriorated fairly rapidly.

DAVID BURGESS: Well, have you solved these problems with the DAA bureaucracy?

SHANE HOUSTON: The role of an organisation like NAIHO is to act as an agent of change. When you act as an agent of change, you run into resistance. Now, the Department and, I think thankfully, that some levels of government have listened to what communities have said and have decided it is about time now that the bureaucracy changed and that if that bureaucracy does evolve - recognising that it hasn't gone through any major restructuring or reorganisation since 1972 of any substance, then we might find then that the largely political and other difficulties of the past will be largely overcome.

DAVID BURGESS: Have you been negotiating with the Minister, Gerry Hand, on these issues?

SHANE HOUSTON: We've had a meeting with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs concerning our proposal to seek refunding from the Commonwealth for some of the activities of the national organisation.

DAVID BURGESS: Did you come away from that meeting expecting more funding?

SHANE HOUSTON: No. We came away from that meeting with the clear understanding that while the - the Minister said to us he is not going to make a decision; that he was unhappy with some of the things that we had proposed and that we needed to seek clarification on some of the issues that he had raised from our membership.

DAVID BURGESS: Well, some officers of the DAA seem to think that Mr Hand had already decided to fund NAIHO. Are they mistaken?

SHANE HOUSTON: Well, I don't know where they got their information from. The simple fact of the matter is there was a very clear understanding - and I wrote to Mr Hand in these terms the following day. I indicated then, in that letter, that there was still a need for further negotiation and further discussion. So the Department's approach to this whole issue over the last couple of weeks has not been based on fact. It may have been based on what they think, but what they think has very rarely reflected the reality in the needs of Aboriginal communities. It has generally reflected what they have wanted to believe.

CHRIS CLARKE: Shane Houston, the National Co-ordinator of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation. He was speaking to David Burgess.