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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 12

Senator MOORE (1:17 PM) —Today we have been invited by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs to share in the death throes of ATSIC. She has invited us to this place to share once again in the rhetoric and to look at the final abolition of a noble organisation—one that is not perfect; no-one pretends it is perfect. It is increasingly frustrating to hear the speeches that are being given in this place that seem to pretend that anyone is claiming that any organisational or administrative structure could possibly be a perfect solution. What we have is one more round of discussions in this place to demonise and to politicise what has gone before and to laud the future—to come out with great statements about why what is going to happen next is going to be the magical solution to impose upon the Indigenous people of this country.

I am not happy to be here and to be part of this process. I am actually frustrated by the process through which we have gone, because in reality what we are seeing now is the death throes of ATSIC. To all intents and purposes, the administration, the people, the buildings, the files and the corporate knowledge have all gone. They went last year, straight after the minister announced the decision to kill ATSIC. In an amazing show of speed—something that, as an ex public servant, I was quite amazed to see—within two months we had a decision announced and we had the administrative arrangements in place to move the budget and people to new programs. That came about on 1 July last year. Subsequently we have been exhorted by the government to hurry up and get through our process so we can pass this legislation so that the government can get on with their business, which is to impose a structure and a process on the Indigenous people of this country.

That is just not right. It does not reflect the past and the hopes of the past, but it does seem to reflect the resigned feelings we were dealing with on the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. The committee started with a clear expectation that we would be looking at ways that this legislation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005], could be considered and that Indigenous affairs could be managed in the country. But, from the time it started, there was already resignation to the fact that the government wanted to move on. We had known that since 1996 and now we had the process: they were going to move on and they were going to move on now, despite the wishes of the people who were going to receive the services that we all agree all Australians—not just Indigenous people but all Australians—should have. The legislation, with its divisive nature, has been pushed through, the images have been built up, the media has had its role and all of us are indeed now part of the death throes of ATSIC.

I just want to put on the record my acknowledgment of the people who worked in this body—they seem to have been forgotten through this whole process—the people whose careers were dedicated to the delivery of programs to the Aboriginal people of the country. Their wishes and their skills were dismissed and they were moved to other departments. The expectation was that they could be moved just like chairs and would maintain their enthusiasm and commitment. All too often, that is exactly what happens: the people who work in this field, who identify with this area, do have a commitment to the work they do. They have a commitment to service delivery. They have a commitment to the true sense of public service.

No-one who is working in the Public Service believes that any structure should be sacrosanct. We have all survived many restructures in the public sector. We take it as a part of our careers. But what has been particularly concerning in this process is that it is not just an administrative process. We are talking about an organisation that was set up as a representative body and that gave people in the Aboriginal community the chance to have a voice in the determination of their futures. In fact, in many ways it is the symbolism of ATSIC that we are mourning more than any administrative changes. We are mourning the death throes of a true symbol of self-determination in our country, one that was brought in with much fanfare, with speeches in this place in the late eighties and early nineties which were celebrating the hope that there was going to be a new way forward for Indigenous affairs in our country. As a public servant at the time, I was caught up in the enthusiasm, the hope and the expectation that there were going to be real changes.

The first round of ATSIC elections was widely publicised. In fact, the way the process was going to work was internationally publicised. To see that hope dashed is for me one of the more disappointing things that has happened over the last 20 years in Australian politics. The process of destroying ATSIC has in many ways told the Aboriginal people of our country that they are able to move forward now, we can wipe out the past, the years of self-determination can now be moved aside and we will move into the next round of government decisions on how Aboriginal affairs should be handled. This happened throughout the whole of the last century, but particularly from the 1970s.

I really hope that people who are interested in this whole process will read the Senate select committee report, because we attempted through that committee to listen to people who had knowledge and interest in the field and who came to talk to the senators about what they hoped for their future and in many ways about what they mourned—the things that had not worked in the past. Once again I want to defy the government speakers who continually claim that we on this side of the chamber want some kind of protection of ATSIC. That is not what we are asking for. We are asking for some acknowledgement of the things in ATSIC that worked, not just a demonising of the things that failed.

It is my argument that, if you take too close a look at any administration in any area, you will be able to find fault and you will be able to mark that as the reason why something has not worked and why it is absolutely essential that it has to change. In fact, last year I believe some people did that kind of investigation into the operations of this place, the Senate. There is a certain argument that perhaps we belong to the past, perhaps we should do better and perhaps we have not been operating as well as we ought. If we allow without argument a simplistic proposition that everything ATSIC did was wrong and failed and that anything the new process will do will automatically work, then we as senators have failed. There would be no question about that. We would be taking the easy way out, once again all too simplistically imposing on the people who should be represented here but who are not when we talk about the future of Aboriginal affairs. People are once again talking for them.

We hear a lot about the consultation processes. Mick Dodson, in one of the hearings of our Senate committee, said:

In my experience, what the government means by consultation is, ‘We, the government, have an agenda. Let’s go out and run that agenda past the Indigenous community organisation.’ ... In that model there is no place for Indigenous decision making. It—

that is, the government consultation—

is a process by which the government or bureaucratic agenda gets some sort of legitimisation.

Given that environment, how can the new wave of Indigenous affairs have hope of success? The key element in any change is participation and the acceptance of those people who are going to be most affected by it. We have the abolition of an administrative structure, but more than that we have an attack on the spirit that formed that administrative structure. We have the simplistic—and I keep saying that word because it is the core of the argument that is being used about this whole activity—allegation that ATSIC has failed and therefore the people of ATSIC have failed. If that is the full argument, there can be no future. If we can just say, ‘There was an elected process and it didn’t work, therefore there won’t be any further elected processes,’ there will be no hope for the future. Those concerns that were raised about the place of Indigenous voices will be justified. Where we are moving forward must include the voices of Aboriginal Australia. They cannot be silent and they cannot be invisible in this process.

The key to the future is acceptance of what happened in the past, learning from that and moving forward. It is not another layer of legislation, another layer of rhetoric or another layer of rules. What we must have is an acceptance that people will be able to operate in various flexible ways. That is what Dr Shergold has been saying through the whole process: we need to be more flexible and more inclusive. We accept that. I am questioning how we can encourage people to be part of this new inclusion if we have automatically said that what has gone before has failed and that they are part of the failure.

In the determination of the select committee we were able to see evidence by a range of authoritative bodies about where there has been genuine disadvantage in Aboriginal and Islander communities across our country. No-one challenges that, no-one disagrees. Everyone accepts that we must do better. But that cannot be a process of doing to others; it must be a joint participative process. The key message that came out of the Senate select committee was not ‘protect ATSIC’, it was ‘protect the future’ and ‘involve us in the future’. But, unfortunately, the cynicism out there is overwhelming.

Just after the government made their announcement and just after all the people and the equipment and so on of ATSIC were moved on to other departments, I was fortunate enough to attend a community gathering in Brisbane which highlighted the concerns of the community about their future. I was overwhelmed by the genuine emotion at that place. For the first time I was involved in a smoking ceremony where the elder women of the community included me in their hopes for the future. They gave me to understand what they hoped would come out of whatever deliberations the Senate was going to undertake in the future. They hoped that we would:

1.  oppose any legislation for the abolition of ATSIC unless and until an alternative elected representative structure, developed and approved by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is put in place and which would, at the same time assume the functions of ATSIC.

2.  oppose any move to appoint an Advisory Committee as contrary to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to elect their own representatives.

3.  oppose any move to Diminish, Dismantle and Destroy and or/Erode the principles of self determination and self management since any such action would turn back the clock on hard won rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

4.  strongly defend these rights of self determination and self management of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People previously supported by the Australian Parliament.

5.  oppose any move to mainstream services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as this would severely disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

These were the people of metropolitan Brisbane; they were not from remote areas. Their claims were reflected across much of evidence that we had at the Senate select committee. I am fascinated by hearing people quote what happened at the Senate select committee because it seems sometimes that we must have been in different places. The bulk of the evidence can be seen in the transcript. We did not have people come in and say, ‘Let the government do whatever they want.’ We did not have people say, ‘Take away ATSIC. It’s failing. It’s no good to us.’ We had people say there were faults with ATSIC—absolutely; there is no doubt about that—but the key point in this claim from the Aboriginal people of Brisbane was that they wanted something to replace their representative voice. They did not want appointed people. Senator Eggleston, I am interested in the term ‘appointed by merit’. As a public servant, I am quite clear about what I thought merit meant and I would like to see the selection criteria and the job description for people on the advisory group, because that in itself creates some concern. Questions raised in evidence to our committee were: how were the advisory group created and on what are they going to advise? How are they going to involve the other people across the community in this process?

There was a degree of anger expressed by the Aboriginal people with whom I met, and I know that other senators from all parties have expressed the same thing. We need to ensure that the anger and disappointment do not blind people to the future, because we will not be able to succeed as a government if we do not have the engagement of Aboriginal and Islander people in this country. That is not just some kind of rhetoric to engage people in the political process; it is some sense of trust that there are programs to help them. We all acknowledge there is a need across the whole range of government service delivery to consider ways to bring the expectations of Aboriginal and Islander people up to those which we all have in education, health, housing, political involvement and daily life. We must have a process which gives people hope that their voices will be heard and respected and not just dismissed.

The key issue of mainstreaming which came out of the government’s plan for the administration has caused major worry with the people who have already experienced mainstreaming in many of the key service delivery areas over the last 50 years and longer. It is not that people reject mainstreaming; they are fearful that mainstreaming will not provide the services that they need. Throughout this process we saw very little rejection by Aboriginal people of the proposed changes. We saw concern and we saw some anger about the fact that all things past seem now to be failed, but we did not see people saying, ‘We will not be part of the process.’ We saw people saying, ‘We want to be part of the process and we want to have a voice that is truly representative.’ There was no false hope or particular aggrandisement of the past.

Concern was expressed about the lack of information about the future arrangements, and that was shared by many of the people on the Senate committee. It is one thing to have the past abolished; it is another thing to know what we are leaping into in the future. We have heard previous speakers talk at length about the lack of knowledge and accountability of things like SRAs and regional agreements. They sound good, but some of the things that were in ATSIC sounded good as well. At this stage, it is not enough to have strong, effective rhetoric. We must have much more detail about what the hopes of the future are.

I was particularly interested in the concept put forward by Dr Shergold about the ‘new’ mainstreaming, which must be significantly different to the ‘old’ mainstreaming. The degree of difference is not yet clear to me—and I do not think it is clear to many people in the community. There is hope that whatever is coming next is going to be new because we are damned sure that what came in the past did not work. The new mainstreaming in the best possible world would be a shared hope. But in the current environment, without the detail and without that core element that no-one can measure and no-one can impose, which is genuine trust, I am worried that where we are going will have no real hope for the future and no real engagement of the people who are definitely the most important in this argument—that is, the Aboriginal people, who have the right to expect more.

Commissioner Allison Anderson, when she came before our committee—and she has written about it since—talked about her concerns as an ATSIC commissioner. She was told, as were all other elected Aboriginal people at both the regional and commissioner levels, that their jobs were going to be terminated halfway through their current terms. She was concerned that their voices would not be heard and her worry was that in a number of years in the future we would all be back here again talking about the new program that would be imposed on people because the latest plans have not worked. I think that we have a responsibility to do better than that.

My friend Jackie Huggins, who was part of the ATSIC review—and we have heard much about that in this place before—said in a letter to us on the Senate select committee:

I ask you to consider and to promote the following point to your parties and to the bureaucracy who will implement the post-ATSIC changes in the administration of Indigenous Affairs: Indigenous Australians are engaged now in an historic process of determining the structures they want and need to represent them to make their communities healthy.

Do not expect it to fit within a western model of process or timing. If it is to work, if it is to provide some guidance on the leadership our people so desperately need, the process must be conducted on our terms.

We as a Senate should encourage that cooperation so that together we can make a new process which will adequately, effectively and positively fulfil the expectations of Aboriginal people in our country. (Time expired)