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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 21

Senator HEFFERNAN (1:55 PM) —It is depressing. What has happened to Indigenous people since the 1770s is very depressing. Part of it has been brought about simply by the adventures of white men and the way those adventures have interfered with the natural way for Indigenous people. What this legislation today is about is just another sad episode in hundreds of years of sadness and not much outcome for a lot of Indigenous people. It is not necessarily the case that the further you get from the bus stop in a city the greater the disadvantage and unfairness. There is a lot of unfairness in the cities but there is heaps of unfairness in remote communities.

This debate is really about the shutting down of ATSIC; it is not really about the future. I commend everyone on the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, who put their hearts and their minds in a generous way to the issues that we face. I think there is a lot of goodwill on the committee to what is going to happen in the future. I am interested in what is going to happen in the future. The outcome of this bill is inevitable.

Professor Larissa Behrendt from the University of Sydney said something that made sense to me when I asked her, ‘If we had compulsory elections and we did all those things, what would be the difference in the outcome?’ She is an Indigenous academic—a smart young lady. She did not think there would be much difference, because, as in all elections, the winners are usually the key political thinkers—the people with the time and the motivation to get the numbers together. She observed in her answer that, on the data we looked at, one of the things that seemed to get lost was that a lot of women who had quite high primary votes were not getting through the regional council process; so we thought there might be one way of reforming that system. I agree with her, because a new election would probably produce the same outcome: politicians, politics and political operations which would overpower policy thinkers, intellectual firepower and outcomes on the ground for thousands of Aboriginal people in remote communities that have got nothing to show for all the hundreds of years of failed effort. As a matter of fact, there is a mob down at the tent embassy now—the Kalgoorlie mob—that I have been talking to this morning. They say that they warned ATSIC some time ago that by removing the money for the small programs in remote communities they would get the problem that we have now. We have a lot of Indigenous people who are fringe dwellers in cities and who live in ghastly circumstances.

You could go on for hours about this, but I do not think there is much to be said about the bill itself, because the bill is inevitable. But I would encourage everyone to participate in the thinking process for the future for Indigenous people. I would like to think that people like Boni Robertson, Melva Kennedy, Pam Greer and Les Bursill could be part of the thinking for the future. I do not think I need to say much more than this: if we really want to look at what has gone wrong in the past, it should be compulsory for every person interested in this debate to read the report Child sexual abuse in rural and regional and remote Australian Indigenous communities: a preliminary investigation to see the failings for the children and women that have been provided by the present system.

I do not think this is a very complicated piece of legislation. I think it is inevitable that ATSIC will be shut down, and I would encourage everyone to look to the future. There is a lot of goodwill in the community now; there is a lot more knowledge than there used to be about the plight of Indigenous people, and I think it would be fair to say that the goodwill should carry forward in the debate to make sure that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past in our deliberations on what the future should be and what system will provide fairness for Indigenous people—where you can walk to the corner and a bus turns up, or you can turn on a tap and the water comes on. Those sorts of privileges should be afforded to people who live in remote communities where currently none of that happens. Thank you very much. I think it is time that I sat down and shut up.

Debate interrupted.