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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29316

Mr HARDGRAVE (Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister) (9:34 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of the bill before the House is to make major changes to the Australian government's institutional structures in Indigenous affairs in order to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians.

The government, along with the majority of the Australian community, believes that Indigenous Australians should be able to enjoy the same opportunities as other Australians. We have consistently demonstrated our determination to achieve that end. In 2004-05, we will allocate a record $2.9 billion—39 per cent more in real terms than in the last year of the Keating Labor government. The bulk of this funding goes to the practical areas of health, housing, education and employment.

While there have been real improvements as a result of this effort we believe that the rate of progress is not good enough. I am sure that most Indigenous Australians would say that they are not getting value for money. The Productivity Commission report Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reinforces the need for fundamental change. No-one can say that the current approach is working.

Going beyond the abolition of the ATSIC board, replacement of regional councils and consequential amendments in this bill, the government will be introducing radical and necessary changes to the way in which services are delivered to Indigenous Australians. The changes will build on what we have learnt from the whole of government approach adopted in the COAG Indigenous trials currently operating in each state and territory.

Over the last 30 years governments of both political persuasions have sought to implement measures to address the longstanding disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These measures have included a range of programs, legislation and representative structures.

In 1990, Labor established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). It soon became evident that no single body could seek both to represent Indigenous people and to make independent decisions about the allocation of funds. The commission found it difficult to effectively advocate on behalf of Indigenous people and to provide impartial advice to government.

Labor's ATSIC experiment failed on a number of fronts. Its focus was almost exclusively on Australian government programs and services. The fundamentally important role of state and territory governments was neglected. All too often the specialist Indigenous agency, ATSIC, provided an excuse for mainstream departments to avoid their responsibilities to Indigenous Australians. Moreover, only a very small proportion of eligible Indigenous Australians bothered to actually vote in ATSIC elections.

This is not to say that ATSIC has not been well served by a number of distinguished Indigenous leaders, including the inaugural chair, Ms Lowitja O'Donoghue, and the late Mr Djerrkura, whose passing, sadly, we are today mourning.

The Howard government took a major step to address problems in ATSIC last year with the establishment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS). This separated the representative functions from decision making on funding. However, this was a transitional arrangement which did not represent a long-term solution to the issues facing ATSIC.

A review of ATSIC delivered to the government in November 2003 acknowledged a number of significant problems. These included a lack of leadership at the national level of ATSIC, insufficient connection between the national, regional and local levels of the organisation, and a lack of engagement between ATSIC and its constituents at the local level.

It is against this background that the government has taken the decision to abolish ATSIC and overhaul the way in which services for Indigenous Australians are delivered. I note that there is a general acknowledgment on both sides that change is necessary. I think we all recognise that the crisis in ATSIC is now so serious that it cannot continue. The real losers are the very people ATSIC was established to assist, the first nation people of Australia.

The aim of the new arrangements we are putting in place is to produce better outcomes for Indigenous people. The programs which ATSIC and ATSIS were responsible for will be allocated to mainstream government agencies. One of the advantages of mainstreaming will be to focus the specialist service delivery expertise of mainstream agencies on specific aspects of Indigenous disadvantage, to focus their minds on serving 100 per cent of Australians, 100 per cent of the time. It is important to point out that ATSIC was never responsible for all Australian government Indigenous specific programs. Indeed, in 1995 the previous government transferred responsibility for Indigenous health from ATSIC to the Department of Health and Ageing because of concerns about the performance of ATSIC. It is important to stress that no programs will cease as a result of the changes we are making and existing levels of funding will continue.

We acknowledge the need for better coordination and for strengthening accountability. Accordingly we will be implementing a series of new measures to enhance coordination and accountability.

A ministerial task force chaired by the minister responsible for Indigenous affairs will be established to provide whole of government leadership on Indigenous issues. It will coordinate the government's Indigenous policies and report to cabinet on directions and priorities in Indigenous policy. The ministerial task force will report annually to the Expenditure Review Committee of cabinet on the performance of Indigenous specific programs and the allocation of resources across agencies.

A secretaries group will support the ministerial task force. It will report annually on the outcomes of Indigenous specific services. Department secretaries will be directly accountable for successes and/or failures of specific programs and services. Performance in Indigenous programs and services will be included in their personal performance agreements.

We are establishing a National Indigenous Council to provide policy advice to the government at the national level. In particular, it will directly advise the ministerial task force on a range of Indigenous issues. The National Indigenous Council will be a non-statutory body comprised of Indigenous people with expertise and experience in key policy areas.

The new arrangements will be underpinned by regional agreements as well as shared responsibility agreements at the local level. While some regional councils work well, arrangements for engaging with Indigenous Australians at the regional and local level need to be improved.

We will be discussing the best way forward with the states and territories at the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. ATSIC's regional councils will have the opportunity for input and we recognise that different models are likely to emerge in different regions and jurisdictions.

A new Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs will provide policy advice to the minister, coordinate policy development and service delivery across government and oversee relations with state and territory governments. It will also monitor the performance of government programs and services including arrangements for independent scrutiny.

We will strengthen service delivery in the regions where a network of Indigenous coordination centres in rural and remote areas will replace ATSIC/ATSIS offices. These centres will operate as a multidisciplinary team offering a whole of government service to local communities.

The government will expand the role of the Office of Evaluation and Audit (OEA), currently located in ATSIC. This will be in addition to the role of the Australian National Audit Office and will provide a particular focus on the performance of those programs. OEA will also continue to investigate the performance of bodies that obtain funding from Indigenous specific programs.

The legislation provides for the transfer of the Regional Land Fund to the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) and ATSIC's Housing Fund and Business Development Program to Indigenous Business Australia (IBA). The bill also makes provision for the ILC to give funds to IBA to allow it to promote economic development on the land the ILC acquires for Indigenous people.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) which provides a range of Indigenous specific services to Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait will continue to perform its current role. The TSRA had some time ago separated its representative and funding functions and is working effectively in meeting the needs of Torres Strait Islanders in the Torres Strait. The Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board which provided advice to ATSIC about issues affecting Torres Strait Islanders on the mainland will cease to exist as a result of the abolition of ATSIC. Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland will be represented on the National Indigenous Council.

The measures contained in this bill and the other initiatives I have outlined are long overdue and seek to address the failings of the recent past in providing equality in service provision and equality in opportunity to our first people, the Indigenous people of Australia.

The time for defending the status quo and protecting vested interests at the expense of Indigenous Australians has passed.

I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Swan) adjourned.