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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 75

Senator BARTLETT (5:25 PM) —There is no doubt that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission had its failings, but that should be no reason for throwing out the whole thing—certainly not until a clearly worked through alternative had been considered with consultation with Indigenous Australians. If we scrapped every government department that had its failings there would be no department left standing. It is very unfortunate that the controversies over some of ATSIC’s leaders have not just been used to mask this government’s own failings in Indigenous areas. Of course, the fact is that the vast majority of responsibility for programs dealing with Indigenous Australians was and is the responsibility of this government, not ATSIC.

The other problem is that the controversy over some of ATSIC’s leadership has also obscured the very significant positive stories, particularly amongst many of the regional councils. It is the failure to recognise the positive actions of many of the people within ATSIC, the significant achievements that have occurred and the potential that has been built up for more progress to be made that is the real tragedy here. I could focus a lot on how this government has failed to deliver on the group in the community that has by far and away the biggest disadvantage out of anyone in our whole nation. Of course we could focus on some of the failings of ATSIC in recent times, but we do have far too much focus on the negative in political debate in this country; we certainly have a lot of focus on the negative when it comes to Indigenous Australians. That is appropriate because their disadvantage is so enormous, but we should not forget that there are many good news stories out there that are not given the attention they deserve. In my view, that is because of the issue of ensuring that Indigenous Australians throughout the country—city, regional, remote, northern, western and southern—are given the priority that they are entitled to.

The only time Indigenous Australians get priority is when there is some scandal—when there are some political points to be scored. There is never priority when there are just long hard yards to be dealt with in overcoming entrenched disadvantage. There is never priority when there are successes or are good news stories—when there are advances and achievements—unless perhaps you have some sort of one-off celebrity situation like a sports star, musician or film star, when you might get some attention. But if we are looking at the positive achievements of Indigenous communities it is very rare that they get the attention that they deserve. I would say frankly that that is a failing of all of us, not just of political parties and parliamentarians. It is a failure of the media focus and of community focus. That is because in so many ways Indigenous Australians’ day-to-day lives are not connected with the rest of the community anywhere near as much as they should be.

If there was one area that I found more frustrating than any other in the election campaign—and it was a pretty frustrating election campaign for the Democrats, as I am sure people would appreciate—it was the inability to get recognition for the absolute priority that we should be giving to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. When all the facts are so stark and you have a group of people in the community whose life expectancy is 20 years less than that of the rest of us, I find it astonishing that it is not a national scandal. Not only is it not a national scandal but it did not even rate any mention of significance from either of the political party leaders during the last election campaign. Once the election was over we had some statements from the Prime Minister, prompted, it appeared to me, by actions such as those of Michael Long and his walk to Canberra from Melbourne, but neither Mr Latham nor Mr Howard launched his party’s policies on Indigenous issues. There was very little effort on the part of the mainstream media to press them on what they were going to do about what should be the most significant national issue, and that, in my view, is a sign of why we continue to fail.

Of course it is a hard issue and of course nobody has all the answers, but those should not be reasons to not give it priority and not try to address the issue. I will certainly continue to do what I can to ensure we give it priority, because you can come out with all the greatest sounding statements you like about all the new programs, the new policies and the new funding arrangements, but if it is just a one-off exercise with no follow-through as a top priority then we will continue to fail. That is something that, as a nation, we really cannot afford to do.

We have a lot of talk in this parliament about a whole range of policy issues and the opportunities for us to move forward as a nation. As I said before, I believe we focus much too much on the negative aspects of things. Part of that is the nature of politics and representing concerns that people have, but I for one feel actually quite optimistic about many of the opportunities we have as a nation going into this new century. In many respects we are well positioned in the world to do far better and have people living in Australia do far better in a quality of life sense than people in most other countries. The one thing that is going to prevent us from realising our potential as a nation is having a group in the community that cannot share in the prosperity, the achievements and the quality of life of our nation. It is quite clear that Indigenous Australians—Aboriginal people around the country and Torres Strait Islander people—are in large majority not able to share in that prosperity and in those opportunities. There are many indications that that disconnection, that inequality, is actually getting worse.

The government may use that as a reason to say, ‘That’s why we’ve got to scrap ATSIC and try something different: it hasn’t worked,’ but, as I said at the start, you do not throw out something lock, stock and barrel until you have sorted out what you are doing next, and you do not decide on what you are doing next until you consult with the people that it is meant to be affecting more than any other. The total lack of any consultation with Indigenous Australians has made this move almost doomed to produce far less positive results than it might otherwise have done. The government, of course, set up their own review with Jackie Huggins, Bob Collins and John Hannaford and then proceeded to completely ignore it, wasting not only taxpayers’ money in running that review but the time of all the people who communicated with it.

An aspect of ATSIC’s achievements that I think should be emphasised, and which is at very big risk of being lost as a result of this legislation, is the build-up in experience and expertise amongst both black and white people. ATSIC and ATSIS certainly gave younger and older Indigenous people experience in dealing with the white bureaucratic world, which can be bamboozling even for people who spend their whole lives working within it. It was a place that enabled and provided a more effective opportunity for many Indigenous people to increase their skills in this arena which they could then take elsewhere. The atmosphere within many of the ATSIC offices at the regional level was actually supportive, with mentoring and an understanding of cultural differences and cultural requirements, and those things were given some priority in the workplace rather than being tacked on as afterthoughts or tokens.

Equally importantly, it gave many white people experience in working in that environment as well. Most white Australians—and I would include myself in this group—do not have much experience in working in a meaningful way with Indigenous communities and Indigenous cultures, with the different issues and the different reality. Getting connected with that reality, from both sides of what is still an unforgivably large divide, is what we need to be doing. Frankly, I cannot see anything in what the government is doing now that is going to do very much at all to improve that, and quite a few things are potentially going to make it much worse.

When you are required to deal with the health statistics and the reality of race relationships on a day-to-day basis and face-to-face, there is the reality of white people actually having black bosses for a change, instead of the other way around, and the procession of funerals that so many Aboriginal people have to deal with and work through as part of their lives. There are not many other bureaucracies where mainstream Australians have to deal with those types of situations, and that one opportunity is now, if not completely lost, very much diminished. It seems to me that the government, with its so-called ‘mainstreaming’ approach, in large part is taking just another bureaucratic approach.

It is all very well to talk about focusing on results and so-called practical reconciliation. I do not have any objection to half of the message that is meant to be communicated with that. Of course we want practical results. Of course getting improvements in health, educational opportunities, employment opportunities and housing is critical. But it is a simple fact that those things do not exist, operate and succeed in isolation from community, society and the world view of the people who are supposed to be being addressed in these matters. To try to separate them out and disconnect them is to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Sometimes I feel that, in this debate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, there is a perception that we are talking about the long-gone past; that it is all very sad and tragic but it was a long time ago. In some ways it was a long time ago. But I was reading a book just last night about my own area, where I live and have lived basically all of my life—that is, around Brisbane in inner-city suburbs like Windsor and Albion—and the last sizeable Aboriginal corroboree in that area was in the 1890s in the Kedron area. That is maybe three or four kilometres from the centre of the city of Brisbane. That still might seem like a long time ago, but people who were alive then and witnessed that would have spoken and communicated their experience of it to people who are alive today. So, in some ways, there is still a direct link to first-hand eyewitness accounts of traditional Aboriginal life in the heart of a city like Brisbane. It is not that long ago.

When you think of the absolutely enormous dispossession that was involved there, it is not surprising that the world view of many Indigenous Australians is still affected by that massive loss not just of land but also of culture, family and history, and that sense of injustice. Australians sometimes shake their heads in quite a patronising way, I think, about centuries-long hatreds in parts of Europe. They say, ‘Why don’t people just get over it—they’re still arguing about wars of the 15th century or whenever.’ But the fact that those types of traumas can run deep over centuries shows just how significant a thing it can be to a people when they feel that they have suffered such a massive hurt or injustice. Certainly, in the Australian context, there is nothing that comes anywhere near the level of dispossession and human tragedy that Indigenous Australians have faced not just through dispossession but also through death, disease and family destruction.

To just try to sweep all of that to one side and say, ‘We’re just dealing with practical matters now,’ is not practical or real. It is unrealistic. It is really just going to be repeating the mistakes of the past. I do want to emphasise that, on top of that, we are actually throwing away very good things as part of this process. Sure, people will think, ‘We’ve gotten rid of the problems that were in the headlines of the newspapers.’ But we have also gotten rid of a vast network and a mechanism that has not only provided results on the ground in different parts of the country but also built up that expertise. That takes a long time. That is not something that can be done in a few years. To just keep chopping and changing I think is incredibly short sighted. That is the real tragedy of what is being done here.

I take the opportunity to note the contribution of my colleague Senator Ridgeway, particularly on the report on this area called After ATSIC—life in the mainstream? by the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, and the extra comments he has provided here. I take the opportunity to note his work in a whole range of areas in Indigenous issues over the last six years. It is a sad irony that the passage of this bill will see the end of elected Indigenous representation in this country. On 30 June we will see the end of ATSIC as a directly elected body. Also, that is the day the only Indigenous member of federal parliament ceases his term. That is an unfortunate indication that things are not necessarily progressing in getting a clearer, stronger voice for Aboriginal Indigenous Australians.

I want to mention briefly, given that I am from Queensland, an issue relating to representation of Torres Strait Islanders who live outside the Torres Strait. We have a bit of an irony with this legislation: Torres Strait Islanders in the Torres Strait retain control of an organisation that both represents them and delivers services while Torres Strait Islanders throughout the country lose that representation. I think that is an issue that we need to consider also when we are looking at the representation of Indigenous Australians. The Torres Strait has its own specific and unique issues. I know there are always varying views about how closely or otherwise it should be intertwined with the main processes in ATSIC and in Aboriginal affairs more widely. Certainly, we want to make sure that, if we are talking about representation, Torres Strait Islander people who are outside the Torres Strait region still have the opportunity for representation. We need to make sure that happens. I understand that an amendment has been circulated in the chamber which I would like to move.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—You are foreshadowing that, Senator Bartlett?

Senator BARTLETT —Yes. It goes particularly to the issue of the structure of the regional councils because of their strong benefit and the role that they have played, as I said. It also goes to issues to do with Aboriginal women, the committee of ATSIC and the need for that aspect to be reconsidered. It also calls on the government to implement accountability and evaluation mechanisms for these new arrangements. In closing, it is a sad outcome in a whole lot of ways. It is unfortunate that, given all that the Labor Party senators have said, they will also be nonetheless supporting the legislation. If it passes, as looks likely, we certainly still need to continue to focus on addressing that disgraceful gap and disadvantage in the Australian community. It is certainly something that the Democrats will continue to do.