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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 8

Senator EGGLESTON (12:59 PM) —Many years ago when I was a doctor at the Port Hedland Regional Hospital, way back in 1975, I was invited to attend an Aboriginal bush meeting on the banks of the Coongan River near Marble Bar. The Pilbara Aborigines used to hold these meetings every quarter. They would have about 300 people there who would come from all over the Pilbara—people from around Onslow and people from the desert communities in the east, some of whom did not speak English. There was no agenda at these meetings—anybody could raise any issue that they wished to—and they lasted for three or four days until everybody had talked themselves out. I was invited there to talk about the health service at the Port Hedland Regional Hospital. They had concerns about the way some Indigenous people were treated in the outpatient department which I had to answer for and explain away, which I did my best to do. But it made me conscious of the fact that the Aborigines were very aware of the rest of society and that we were perhaps a little naive to think that these people did not understand how the rest of mainstream Australia worked.

The issues identified by the people gathered there over that weekend as being the most important problems faced by Indigenous people were health, housing, education and what they described as ‘the grog problem’. Alcoholism was recognised by them as the biggest problem facing the Aboriginal communities in the north. It was equally made clear that the issues that the politically active white advisers and their politically active Aboriginal friends were pushing, such as native title and land rights, were not the priority issues of the ordinary Indigenous people of the Pilbara. For me, this meeting was a turning point in my understanding of what the objectives of ordinary Aboriginal people really were. I came to the conclusion that in fact these objectives were really no different to those of the rest of the Australian community. As I said, they saw health, education and housing as their chief problems.

I thought that the problem then was one of implementation in order that benefits could be brought to Indigenous people in terms of health services, education, housing and so on—these very practical measures and very practical matters. I thought that when ATSIC was set up in 1990 the new organisation would be able to take leadership in delivering better on-the-ground services to the Indigenous people of Australia and ensuring that the needs of the Aboriginal people of Australia were adequately provided for. But, sadly, this proved not to be the case.

I have to start by saying that, after all the high hopes which surrounded the establishment of ATSIC in 1990 by the then ALP government, ATSIC lost its way. It forgot that its primary responsibility was to improve the quality of life of the Indigenous people of Australia. It is sadly all too evident that it failed in that task and diverted its efforts in various ways, which I propose to go into to some degree. The report of the review of ATSIC, In the hands of the regions—a new ATSIC, commented: ‘Perceptions of failure permeated every meeting with the review panel.’ The review found that there was a perception that ATSIC was failing in its advocacy and representative function. As put by the report:

In some regions of the country, the relationship between ATSIC and the people it is designed to serve is tenuous at best.

A disconnect was seen between the board and the regional councils and between the regional councils and their communities, and even more of a gap was seen between the communities and the body of ATSIC. Even the Labor Party has acknowledged that the body it created, ATSIC, has been a failure. In an interview on PM on 30 March last year, the then opposition leader, Mark Latham, said:

ATSIC is no longer capable of addressing endemic problems in Indigenous communities, it has lost the confidence of much of its own constituency and the wider community. Unhappily, the current model has not delivered sufficient gains to Indigenous communities ...

The Bennelong Society notes that ATSIC essentially imposed a Western style construct on Indigenous people that was alien to their culture, asking them to engage in a political process that involved nominations, campaigning and elections. This is typified by the fact that 80 per cent of those people entitled to vote in ATSIC elections, which cost between $7 million and $9 million to run, chose not to vote. In its submission to the ATSIC review the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council of Western Australia stated:

The selection process itself is modeled on the Westminster system and does not take into account traditional methods of selecting leadership or spokespeople from within the community. In addition, the people elected through the ATSIC system are not necessarily the same people from within a community who have the traditional authority to represent the area.

The result has been a lack of effective governance within ATSIC and what might best be described as nepotism. As the Bennelong Society stated in its submission to the ATSIC review committee:

The politicisation of Aboriginal service provision ... has created a Tammany Hall style of grace and favour politics. The politicians have constituencies that are so small, and so dominated by clan allegiances, that votes can be bought en bloc. Placing more services at the discretion of Aboriginal politicians is against the interests of needy Aborigines.

In practice, some ATSIC politicians have used their control of funding to benefit particular family groups, with the result that funding and grants have not necessarily been directed to areas of greatest need or in the most effective and transparent manner. Mr Jack Waterford, Editor in Chief of the Canberra Times, wrote in the March 2003 edition of the Public Sector Informant: ‘One group’s grant is another group’s grant refused. ATSIC politicians fit into a new mould of being people who can deliver, who make deals, who horse-trade, who buy favours and remember grudges, who can reward friends and punish enemies.’ In 2003, the government moved control of funding away from ATSIC to a new body: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, ATSIS. Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, a former chair of ATSIC, welcomed this as a positive development. According to a Parliamentary Library paper:

Lowitja O’Donoghue ... suggested the changes were the only way to end the ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘nepotism’ which she suggested were currently rife within ATSIC ...

The previous Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Philip Ruddock, said that, prior to the creation of ATSIS, ‘There was a perception that ATSIC elected officials were making funding decisions that lacked transparency and may have involved patronage or personal gain.’ He went on to refer to the ATSIC review panel’s finding:

The governance of ATSIC, its Board and Regional Councils was raised particularly by Indigenous participants who exhibited a level of overwhelming concern.

ATSIC’s funding has not always been allocated in the most effective way to bring about lasting benefits to the Aboriginal people. Minister Ruddock has referred to policies and procedures in respect of ATSIC’s programs and grants that have not accorded with best practice, which he says has resulted in ‘significant losses of funds from failed businesses and Indigenous organisations’.

An example of ATSIC placing less emphasis on its basic charter of providing services to the Indigenous people of Australia has been its focus on participating in international forums. Not only does ATSIC send representatives to participate in overseas conferences and United Nations forums; it also funds a permanent presence in Geneva. This must necessarily come at the expense of putting resources on the ground in order to fund practical measures to overcome Indigenous disadvantage. It is symptomatic of a loss of direction, and of a lack of focus on what should be ATSIC’s main priority. Participation in these international forums, which might be labelled talkfests, does not bring any practical benefit to those living in remote Indigenous communities or to those living in poverty in the cities.

One of ATSIC’s functions was to develop policy proposals to further develop and improve the quality of life of Indigenous Australians. The ATSIC review noted concerns about ATSIC’s lack of policy effectiveness. It said that there were widespread concerns about ‘ATSIC’s policy input, influence and capabilities’. It also said that ATSIC’s senior leadership admitted that the organisation had not always responded to requests for policy input in a timely manner and in some cases had failed to respond at all. The review panel found that stakeholders had little faith in ATSIC’s ability to influence the policy agenda and achieve positive outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Concerns were expressed to it about the quality of ATSIC’s policy advice. It said that stakeholders ‘believe that the organisation does not have the requisite skills and understanding of government to drive a policy agenda’. So ATSIC had a lot of problems and it was necessary to change the way in which services were delivered to Aboriginal communities.

In travelling around the north-west of Western Australia over the last five or six years, I have had endless complaints about ATSIC from ordinary Indigenous people living in both towns and communities. Let us look at what the government is doing. The government has made sweeping changes. It is concerned that, while there has been some improvement in the quality of life of Indigenous Australians, overall the progress has been slow. The new approach is based on all of us accepting responsibility. We all need to do better—Commonwealth, state and territory governments and Indigenous people themselves.

This government is strongly committed to improving the lives of all Indigenous people and ensuring that they enjoy the same opportunities as all Australians. In 2004-05, $2.9 billion has been directed to Indigenous-specific programs. This represents an increase in funding in real terms of 39 per cent over and above the funding by Labor in its last year in office. It represents what is an undeniable commitment by the Howard government to improving the life of Indigenous people.

The government has appointed a National Indigenous Council, whose members have been selected on the basis of merit. Minister Vanstone announced the make-up of the National Indigenous Council on 6 November. It had its first meeting in December. The council consists of men and women who bring with them a range of expertise, including in business, native title, the resource sector, the military, academia, education, tourism, sport, health, local government, the law and criminal justice.

A criticism of ATSIC has been that there was insufficient participation by women in its organisational structure. Of the current 18 ATSIC commissioners just one is a woman. By way of contrast, five of the 14 members of the National Indigenous Council are women. Additionally, the chairperson is a woman, a distinguished Western Australian magistrate, Sue Gordon, who I happen to know personally, as she comes from Port Hedland.

The programs that were being delivered by ATSIC—or, in more recent times, ATSIS—are instead going to be delivered by mainstream agencies; that is, existing agencies of the federal government will, as a component of their service, provide programs for Aborigines. This will mean that there will be greater transparency of funding decisions and no scope at all for patronage, personal gain or nepotism.

The government is determined to work cooperatively and in partnership with local communities to identify their aspirations and priorities and to develop appropriate solutions. Funding decisions will be made on the basis of need. In particular, the government is determined to overcome the culture of passive welfare dependency that has proved so pernicious for many remote communities and for Aborigines living in towns and cities. The principle of mutual obligation has been extended so that the government will negotiate shared responsibility agreements with local families and communities. These agreements will be based on a long-term community vision, looking at 20 to 30 years into the future.

In conclusion, it has become increasingly obvious that ATSIC failed the Aboriginal people. This was clear from the findings of the ATSIC review, which revealed some serious deficiencies along with widespread disillusionment by Indigenous people over its performance. The general failure of ATSIC simply cannot be ignored. The government has decided, as I said, that we all have to do better and that ATSIC will not be part of the solution in the future. In a sense, ATSIC very much became part of the problems faced by Indigenous people in Australia.

The government’s reforms are well intentioned and have only the welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at heart. It is hoped that the mainstreaming of services will result in enhanced service delivery and better value for money, which will in turn hasten the progress of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage while at the same time ensuring that we as Australians in general can feel that at long last something is being done in a very real and practical way to improve the lifestyle of the Indigenous people of Australia and the conditions under which they live.