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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 4

Senator LEES (12:41 PM) —The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005] formally legislates for what is in fact already happening. The government has made funding decisions and also structural decisions that ATSIC is no longer going be supported, that it is in fact being abolished, that the delivery of services is going to be done by other means and that it will be done community by community.

I was one of those who heartily supported ATSIC. It was set up before my time in this place. I know that the hopes of many people, particularly Indigenous Australians, rested with ATSIC when it was set up in the late eighties. It has made a real difference to the lives of some Aboriginal people and to some Aboriginal communities, but unfortunately it has not been able to make the real difference that was hoped and dreamed for. The reasons that it was not successful are complex. Some of the key problems that it faced included a substantial lack of resources. But I refer in particular to the lack of power to be able to influence decisions by state, territory or federal departments and in some cases the total lack of any local government authority with which it could work and from which it could get some support for essential services—or, indeed, missing essential services—in the communities. That includes everything from roads to a variety of infrastructure programs. As I have travelled I have particularly noticed a lack of ability on the part of ATSIC to really influence education. I know it was not a key responsibility but, as I saw it, it was hindered in its attempts to really provide appropriate support. Although there were a number of successful programs, particularly cultural programs, that it funded, overall the results have not been very good.

I believe we do need a national, elected Indigenous body that represents Indigenous views, consults with Indigenous people and reports to various levels of government. But I believe that the actual delivery of services is a different issue. As I said, the idea in the eighties was that one body would do it all. But whether you look at housing, employment opportunities, education, training or sanitation—the list goes on—Indigenous communities are struggling to have their very basic, essential needs met. I constantly receive in my office letters from people who have visited communities or who have read articles. One I received recently was from a young student who had recently been in the north of South Australia. She wrote to me saying that she was appalled at what she saw on her visits and expressed her frustration that needs are still going unmet in this new century.

It is just over 15 years since ATSIC was established. On 5 March 1990, it came into being. We have to accept that, despite the huge and dedicated efforts by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Indigenous leaders and communities, we still have this enormous gap between what Indigenous people are entitled to and what is actually out there. There are some positive results and pockets of work. The Future Leaders Program and the CDEP programs are just some examples of good community programs that have been implemented and have got good results. But, unfortunately, as I have travelled through Indigenous communities, I have seen that they have been few and far between.

I believe that we now need to take the next step in so many areas. The resources that ATSIC had access to were simply not sufficient. As I said, those resources were frequently held on to by state and territory governments. As we have already heard, particularly in the Northern Territory, those resources were not shared adequately and fairly with Indigenous people. Just look at education. It is a prime example of where there was no ability to influence what was happening. Primary schools and preschools must cater adequately for all students who do not have English as their first language. But, often in Aboriginal services and Aboriginal schools that I visited, this was not the case.

To give some examples of what I have seen, I have visited a number of schools in the Northern Territory over the last few years and I found schools with 21, 25 or 26 kids and with only one teacher. In Adelaide, ESL requirements are that there is one teacher for every nine students who do not have English as a first language. Those schools would have had three and, in some cases, four teachers so that students could really have the opportunity to learn. In some schools that I visited, English was not even their second language; it was their third or fourth language. I am not suggesting for a moment that this was ATSIC’s fault. I am saying that we need another approach to deal with these problems. ATSIC simply had no power to negotiate through all of this. It was not their responsibility.

There are certainly some positives that are happening in Aboriginal education. In particular, I highlight what is happening at Woodville High School in my home state where approximately 50 talented students from the Pit lands have come down to Adelaide. They are based in a specific unit at Woodville High, boarding in Adelaide, with tremendous results. They have been joined by roughly 50 local Adelaide based Indigenous students, and it is a tremendously successful program. But this is not widespread.

Some remote communities have taken action into their own hands. On my reading of this legislation, and looking at what is already happening, this will be enhanced. I believe the opportunities for communities to step in and actually get what they want in education will be enhanced with this legislation. The Nyangatjatjara Aboriginal Corporation was established back in the mid-nineties by the Aboriginal communities of Imanpa, Mutujulu and Docker River. These communities are at the very southern part of the Territory, south of Alice Springs and in the northern part of the Pit lands. Two elders from each of these communities make up the board. Their priority from the beginning has been education. They do this by raising funds however they can scrape some money together. They run a roadhouse and they now have several tourist facilities. The money goes into Nyangatjatjara College.

They started with nothing. They borrowed dongas, caravans and prefabs that were used at a construction site. They were pretty dilapidated but they kept the sun off and a roof over the kids’ heads. When I visited, Indigenous kids were packed in and sleeping in bunks. There were 11 students per donga. You can imagine the stifling conditions in the summer without air-conditioning, but the kids were still going to school.

Previously, out of the whole southern part of the Territory south of Alice Springs, there have only been one or two students a year who completed year 12 in Alice Springs High School. When I visited Nyangatjatjara College in 2002, they had over 100 students enrolled. The way they run this school is different. It is the way they want to do it. The Aboriginal community want to run the school. For one term, boys are on the main campus at Yulara and the girls are back at the three community schools, which, in all bar one case, are temporary prefab buildings. Then they swap over. The next term the boys go back and the girls go to the campus. They keep swapping so that, in any one year, they each have two terms boarding at the college campus and two terms back living with their families in the communities.

They are already having very successful placements for work experience and are getting students ready to move on from the college through their last year or two and into employment. At the beginning of last year, they opened the first three classrooms so that they can get rid of some of those old portables and prefabs. I was able to secure nearly $2½ million in funding from the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, to put in some proper accommodation so that students and teachers did not have to stay in caravans and dongas any longer. There is still an urgent need for more funding for that community and for that school. Hopefully, through the changes in this bill, that will be facilitated.

I will move on from education and look at some more general issues. As speaker after speaker have said, whatever statistics you use, Indigenous people are far worse off than the general population. The fact that most Indigenous people live more than 20 years less than the general population is but one example of that. Recent figures for the Territory show that the average life expectancy for Indigenous men is 47 years and 50 years for women. I think this sums it all up. I want to look specifically at health services. I actively supported the ALP, in the mid-1990s, taking responsibility for Indigenous health from ATSIC and placing it with the department of health. People have since asked why, although I find very few people opposed to what happened. The answer is simple: because the resources had not followed the responsibility. The states and territories were basically buck-passing and ATSIC, with few resources, was making terrible decisions, having to decide whether one community would have a basic immunisation program or whether another would get some money to buy some four-wheel drive vehicles to get elderly folk in for services and into hospital when it was needed. Since then, resources have flowed into Aboriginal health services far more than ever before and we are beginning to see results.

There have been some improvements in Aboriginal health—in particular, in infant mortality. In my home state, infant mortality rates have dropped from 12.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1995-96 to 9.1 deaths by 2001-03. This is still unacceptable. It is still far worse than in the Australian population generally where the figure is 4.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, but it is a move in the right direction. It is not just health services that are going to influence Indigenous people’s health. It is going to involve housing, sewerage, water, good roads, jobs, opportunities for education and training—and on and on. These all need fixing urgently and there is a very long way to go in most of those areas.

I did not take the decision to support the move of Aboriginal health services away from ATSIC easily. I visited many Indigenous communities at that time and I made the recommendation to my former party on the basis of those visits, and they supported my decision. I travelled in particular through the western and northern parts of New South Wales, from Broken Hill to Bourke and on to Brewarrina, with Barb Flick. I want to mention Barb here as she is one of the many highly talented and committed Indigenous women who have made such a difference to their communities. She was one of those at the time who were wholeheartedly in support of the responsibility shifting from ATSIC. At that time I also visited the North Coast of New South Wales, Alice and some other places in the Territory. There was angst, at that time, about the move of those services. Now, as I again move around Indigenous communities—I have not been back to all of those, but I have been to most of them and on to others—I see that it is supported. I think Indigenous health services are working better than they have ever worked before.

Let us look at housing, where I know there have been changes over very recent times. Just two or three years ago, the gap between what was out there by way of resources and what was needed, and what communities actually wanted, was still absolutely massive. I have seen some excellent housing programs, particularly in the Wadi Packi communities in the south-west of New South Wales, where the local people had a say in construction. They have been involved in training their young people to be a part of the construction teams and to also then be able to do repair work in the future. But I have seen far too many communities with dilapidated, overcrowded, inappropriate housing and this sets, I believe, a tone of hopelessness and frustration.

I have also seen some very badly designed new houses that have been foisted on Aboriginal communities, basically because they had no choice. I hope that, with the community involvement in this new method of delivering services, that too will be a thing of the past and that we will not be foisting triple-fronted brick veneers on people in remote parts of the country—that they will actually work from the drawing board and all their young people will be trained to help to build those houses and to maintain them in the longer term. There are huge numbers of jobs waiting to be done in Aboriginal communities. A lack of training and a lack of opportunity are stopping Aboriginal people from fully participating in their communities.

Looking at the new model that is evolving, it will be quite some years, I would imagine, before we see any significant impact right across Australia. I have been involved with an overseas aid agency, Plan—or what was known as Foster Parents Plan—for over 25 years. Their program has always involved consultation with local communities and breaking through the red tape so that you do not have various ideas, disconnected opportunities and pockets of money. It involves actually sitting down with communities and looking at what their hopes and dreams are for the next 10 or 20 years, putting in place the basics and then letting the communities get on with it. Hopefully, the new programs that are evolving will involve cutting through some of the red tape here in Australia and not any longer having 20 or 30 visits to communities from different programs or different departments at state, territory and federal levels. All of the pilots we have seen over the years seemed to vanish and need heaps more paperwork.

Senators on both sides of this argument, both those supporting this bill and opposing this bill, have listed the statistics detailing all of the areas where Indigenous Australians are falling so far behind. I argue that something has to change. It was, after all, the Labor Party who said that they would abolish ATSIC—not reform or restructure ATSIC, but abolish ATSIC. We now have the government doing it. This is not the way that I would have liked to have seen it done. Those of us on the crossbench have major concerns about the lack of consultation and involvement. But there do seem to be, as you go through what is planned, opportunities down the track for further involvement and for Aboriginal communities to have a lot more say than they have in the past, community by community. I am not talking now about a national elected body, which I think should go hand-in-hand with this; I am talking about service delivery.

As I have travelled, I have not really found in most Aboriginal communities a strong attachment to ATSIC. At best, I would say most people were ambivalent or noncommittal. In some communities there has been a lot of support, but in a lot of communities there has been some real angst about what was happening and about the lack of services. I think this has been driven by the lack of resources that ATSIC has had to survive with. The Indigenous coordination centres that have been established and the trials that we are seeing in each state now seem to be attracting support. One indicator is that we seem to have more kids going to school in a number of cases. In the Territory, where underfunding of education has been a historic reality, it seems that there are more kids attending school at the trial site there. Indeed, there are so many that they need more desks.

I conclude by saying that a part of all of this is that we cannot just focus on service delivery, where I think the government has got it right. I think we also need to look at a national Indigenous body that is elected and that is resourced properly—and also at an apology. Unless we get all parts of this right, I do not see that we will get the quick answers that we need as far as Indigenous people are concerned. Hopefully, this new body will see the end to the buck-passing, cost shifting and blame shifting between all the various departments at state, territory and federal levels. In particular, one of the reasons that I will be supporting this legislation is that basically the buck stops over there—although the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs is not with us at the moment. Basically, Senator Vanstone is saying to us: ‘Leave it to me. It is with the federal government now; if services don’t improve, that is where the buck will stop.’ So, hopefully, on the service delivery front, we will see major improvements and we will see Aboriginal communities involved in the planning for their future. Hopefully, we will see Indigenous people, particularly young people, trained in the service delivery and also in putting the infrastructure in place in their communities.