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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 72

Senator WEBBER (5:10 PM) —‘Practical reconciliation’ is a term that all Australians should treat with a great deal of concern, if not contempt. Practical reconciliation, which is used extensively by the Howard government, and has been especially over the last five years, is nothing more or less than weasel words. Confronted by the millions of people who marched across bridges throughout Australia in the year 2000 on behalf of reconciliation, the government had to do something. What they came up with was a new term: practical reconciliation. It was first used by the Prime Minister at the national launch of the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in Sydney on 29 March 2000. Many of us here are still unclear as to what it actually means.

What has practical reconciliation delivered? Here in this chamber today we are seeing what this term means. We now have before us the abolition of ATSIC. ATSIC, established by an act of parliament in 1989, came into existence in March 1990. It was an organisation which, for the first time in Indigenous affairs in Australia, established directly elected representative councils in 35 regions, with a national board of commissioners. ATSIC was charged with providing the means to allow the involvement of our Indigenous people in the processes of government that affected their lives. For nine of the 15 years of its existence, ATSIC has been the responsibility of those opposite: the Howard government. If there has been a failing of Indigenous affairs, especially of the administration, then it has been a failing of this government. It is not in a position to argue that the failing has been solely the fault of ATSIC. This government has been in charge and the failing has happened on its watch.

What is ATSIC to be replaced with? Its replacement is to be an appointed advisory body selected by the minister, with no regional structure yet announced. The National Indigenous Council is to provide expert advice, we are told. But how will the members of the National Indigenous Council be resourced to ensure that they can represent the views of Indigenous Australians? I for one am not sure how they are to go about providing expert advice to government unless they are effectively resourced to do so.

The government is replacing a democratically elected organisation with an appointed advisory council. That is practical reconciliation, apparently. At the same time that this government is sending 450 or more Australian troops into Iraq to help safeguard the new Iraqi democracy, it is presiding over the abolition of ATSIC. The irony of this escapes those opposite. It does not escape the rest of us here. There is no doubt that it was time for ATSIC to be reviewed and time for reform, leading to new structures. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that ATSIC had reached the stage where a new representative structure was needed. Indeed, the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs recognised that there were a number of problems with ATSIC’s structure and organisation. However, the Labor Party do not accept the government’s view that ATSIC should be abolished and replaced by an advisory group. In our view, there does need to be a democratically elected representative structure for Australia’s Indigenous people.

It is nonsensical for this government to send our armed forces to Iraq to help nurture democracy when at home it abolishes a democratic body. What the government is saying is that we will put Australian men and women in harm’s way to protect democracy on the other side of the world but we cannot replace a democratic organisation in our own country. The Indigenous people of this country deserve, at the very least, a representative, democratic organisation that is able to not only represent their views but also administer the programs.

What we are seeing is the ultimate failure of this government’s practical reconciliation. From the moment that they were elected in 1996 they have pursued an agenda that has been about getting rid of ATSIC and eroding Indigenous rights—not because of the problems within the organisation but because, from the very start, they had opposed the establishment of ATSIC. ATSIC, to the Howard government, is something that was never supported, always vilified and to be ultimately abolished. The Labor Party, on the other hand, believes that ATSIC needs to be reformed and replaced by a better organisation, because Indigenous people in this country deserve adequate representation.

There is no doubt that many of ATSIC’s regional structures have worked well since its inception, and we have heard about many of them in this debate. The local links with states and territories as well as local governments have worked very well. It beggars belief then that the regional structure is able to be maintained in the Torres Strait but not anywhere else in Australia. One has to ask who is to represent Indigenous people in negotiations with regional and state level agreements in the future. This of course is still unclear. We are now facing a situation where all the benefits that have accrued through the relationships built up by ATSIC’s regional structures are going to be lost.

There is no question that a one size fits all approach in Indigenous affairs, as in many other areas, is doomed to fail. A policy may work very well only in a single community. One of the problems has been the level of local autonomy within the context of regional and national structures. That problem is not being addressed by abolishing ATSIC. The government carries on about a whole-of-government approach—in other words, back to the days of a one size fits all approach as determined by government departments in Canberra. How does this government begin to pretend that it is devising a program approach that will deal with the differences in Indigenous communities around the country? We all know that they are diverse enough within my home state of Western Australia, never mind throughout the entire nation. A methodology that involves decision making in Canberra for remote communities is one destined for failure.

One of the big problems in my home state of Western Australia is that, for many non-Indigenous people, Indigenous consultations involve visits to Broome in the winter. I recognise that, in the debate of the committee’s report, Senator Johnston alluded to the fact that the committee had not visited Western Australia, though I am informed that they visited Broome. But visiting Broome is no more representative of visiting all Indigenous communities in Western Australia than visiting Cairns would be for all of Queensland or Katherine would be for all of the Territory. You cannot expect that this level of consultation will deliver reasonable outcomes for people in Kalgoorlie, the Pilbara, the Central Desert or even the south-west.

Practical reconciliation here is a failure. In fact, Indigenous affairs in this country is a failure under the Howard government. This government’s whole approach over the last nine years has been to blame ATSIC for any failings in Indigenous affairs—forget about ripping hundreds of millions of dollars out of ATSIC’s budgets over the years; no, we are not to actually consider that at all. Practical reconciliation has meant reducing the funding for ATSIC over the nine years they have been in power and then blame ATSIC for the outcome. And now we see practical reconciliation in its ultimate form: these weasel words of ‘practical reconciliation’ are replaced by direct government control of Indigenous programs. Yet again when confronted with a problem this government have no alternative other than centralising the power in their own hands—and in this case I refer to their approach of shared responsibility.

The late Puggy Hunter of the Kimberley once famously described Aboriginal community partnerships with governments as ‘like going out for a drink with a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses—no-one wants to buy the drinks’. This government can go on and on about how the relationship will be with individual communities, but we have been here before. We run the risk of repeating history because, rather than true reform of ATSIC—reform that Labor acknowledges needs to take place—what we are going to get is a return to the past.

There are compelling reasons for giving control of Indigenous programs to Indigenous communities. Ultimately, the success or failure of programs always depends on the community’s active participation. This government cannot legislate for a community’s active involvement in projects and programs that they are not involved in from the start, nor can they guarantee the communities will take up programs or projects simply because those projects or programs have worked somewhere else. Without a better understanding of the needs of a community, we are at risk of forcing solutions onto a community who need something else entirely.

How can the government suggest that this practical reconciliation will be effective simply because they are abolishing ATSIC? For all of its faults, ATSIC provided Indigenous Australians with not only a representative voice but also the ability to design and implement programs at the local or regional level. For all the good intentions, we are going back to a system that is about outcomes, based on programs and projects that Indigenous Australia does not have any voice in until the bureaucrats turn up to negotiate agreements. Puggy Hunter also once said:

You white people keep telling us Aboriginals we have ear problems. You keep showing us the graphs and the research. You know, I think you mob are the ones with the ear problems ... we keep saying the same things and you don’t seem to hear.

The government’s approach is a return to the days described by the late Mr Hunter. Indigenous communities will once again be shown the research and the graphs and then told by a mob from Canberra how it can all be fixed. Indigenous people will once again be excluded from meaningful involvement in the development of programs and simply be asked to sign agreements to fix the problems identified in the research. This new so-called practical reconciliation is something that in some cases is offensive to Indigenous communities. Recently, an ATSIC commissioner from Western Australia said in a media statement:

Mutual Obligations or Responsible Agreements aren’t new, our people have been working for the dole for over 25 years and it has been a catalyst for the Government’s own Work for the Dole program.

And now this government wants us to believe that service agreements for Indigenous communities are the way forward. The government would have us believe that these service agreements will provide the solution to the problems of health, education and unemployment in Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous people of this country are now entering into these service agreements without any democratic representation at the regional or national level. Their voices are to be hand-picked by this government. Well-meaning bureaucrats remote from any Indigenous community will design programs for these service agreements without any Indigenous input. These service agreements may or may not suit the community in question. So practical reconciliation in the future will mean that, other than expert advice being provided to government by people hand-picked and appointed by the government, Indigenous affairs will be reduced to communities signing service agreements.

The biggest failing in Indigenous Affairs in the last nine years has been by this government. ATSIC, for all its faults, was a democratically elected organisation with a regional structure that aimed to involve Indigenous people in the processes of government that affected their lives. It was an organisation in need of review and reform. This government has used ATSIC’s failings to mask its own complete and utter failure to advance Indigenous affairs in this country. What is needed is a new democratic structure for Indigenous people—a better, more effective representative body. What is not needed is a return to white people telling Indigenous people what is wrong and how to fix it. What is needed is an approach that allows Indigenous people to be actively involved not only in the delivery of programs but also in their design and control. Otherwise, yet again, it will be a case of non-Indigenous Australia having the hearing problem.