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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 89

Senator RIDGEWAY (7:34 PM) —by leave—At the request of Senator Bartlett, I move the Australian Democrats’ second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion add:

         “but the Senate is of the opinion that:

              (1)    the legislative structure of the ATSIC Regional Councils should remain in place whilst operating within the ATSIC Regional Council structure, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should have the opportunity, provided in the legislation, to negotiate with each other to create a representative structure within the boundaries of the current ATSIC regions or wards which reflect the cultural leadership of the residents more appropriately, as recommended by the ATSIC Review Report In the Hands of the Regions.

         (2)    The Government should resource the continuation of Kungkala Wakai (“Our Women’s Voice”), the committee of elected female ATSIC members headed by Commissioner Alison Anderson.

         (3)    Where a legitimate decision has been made by ATSIC relating to assets held by ATSIC, the government department now responsible for administering the relevant assets must honour the decision and follow through by administering the full implementation of this decision in an expedient manner.

         (4)    The government must immediately enter into negotiations with the Torres Strait Regional Authority as to which is the best Torres Strait Islander representative body to replace the Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board as the body which recommends the Torres Strait Islander member to be appointed to the AIATSIS Council.

         (5)    The Government must produce and make publicly available, guidelines for Departments, governments, Indigenous organisations and individuals regarding Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRA), including:

                   (a)    a clear description of what they are, and what the principles behind their use is and;

                   (b)    a clear account of what is and is not acceptable for use in SRAs, for example that no basic citizenship rights are to be bargained for; and

                   (c)    arranging for translation of the guidelines into the local languages (either in published format or through oral presentations) so that communities fully understand the processes.

         (6)    “Noting that the government has no developed way of evaluating the ‘new arrangements’ in Indigenous Affairs, the government should:

              (a)    fund a comprehensive needs analysis of Indigenous communities;

              (b)    task the Commonwealth Grants Commission to establish a measure of relative need in Indigenous communities;

              (c)    increase it’s monitoring and reporting of information about outputs and outcomes of government funding for Indigenous related programs including the development of a comprehensive national benchmarking regime; and

              (d)    provide a clear breakdown of all expenditure on Indigenous affairs including what is for the benefit of Indigenous Australians, what is for the benefit of all Australians and what is funding used to contest Indigenous people’s rights”.

                   (a)    a clear description of what they are, and what the principles behind their use is and;

                   (b)    a clear account of what is and is not acceptable for use in SRAs, for example that no basic citizenship rights are to be bargained for; and

                   (c)    arranging for translation of the guidelines into the local languages (either in published format or through oral presentations) so that communities fully understand the processes.

I want to speak to this second reading amendment because it has been circulated late in the chamber. I think it is necessary to give some explanation to the government and to the opposition in particular to try to enlist some support and, at the very least, to demonstrate the chaos that the government’s decision to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission leaves many Indigenous communities in right across the country. The amendment particularly relates to the need for a regional network or structure to coordinate how services are run and how views are going to be listened to under the government’s new arrangements. The amendment also relates to the question of how women are represented in the process—I spoke during the course of last week about that particular issue—and to the committee that had previously been put together by ATSIC under the Kungkala Wakai initiative.

The amendment also goes the question of property assets. Legitimate decisions have been made by ATSIC relating to assets held by them, and government departments now have responsibility for administering those assets. The amendment seeks support for those decisions to be honoured—particularly those that were taken over a year ago, not the ones that were caught up in recent debates.

The amendment also deals with the issue of the Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board. The government may not be aware of the confusion that has been created there. I think what has not been spoken about in this debate is the fact that, whilst the government have moved to make sure that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission itself is abolished, the Torres Strait Regional Authority is unaffected by these changes. But there are questions in relation to the Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board and relationships between that and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Last, and probably not insignificant, are questions in relation to accountability mechanisms in order to look at how shared responsibility agreements are put together and at the evaluation of new arrangements. The Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs was not provided with any comprehensive information from government or from government departments about how these new arrangements would work and what the evaluation criteria would be. Rather, it has been left open to communities to somehow work that out for themselves. I think it does raise questions. If we are talking about allocating public moneys and expenditure in communities, I think there is a need to make sure that you do get results but most of all that there is a way of being able to assess and measure them.

This is not an issue that is new to this process. It came up in a Senate inquiry in 2003 looking at the national progress towards reconciliation. That looked at how the evaluation of Indigenous programs across the country was going to work. Now that we have the new arrangements, I think that at the very least there is a need for an Australia-wide analysis of Indigenous communities. We should look at giving the Commonwealth Grants Commission the capacity to establish a measure of relative need within communities, if need is to be the basis on which services are provided. It should look at increasing its monitoring and reporting of information about outputs and outcomes and should certainly put in place a comprehensive national benchmarking regime.

On that point I have to be little bit critical of the states and territories for shirking their responsibilities and for looking at measuring themselves after the fact, as opposed to setting some standards that ought to be achieved and doing that in partnership with Indigenous communities. They should make sure that there is a clear breakdown of all expenditure on Indigenous affairs, particularly that which goes directly to Indigenous communities and provides some sort of benefit. We are coming up to the May budget, and I do not believe that the smoke and mirrors about record amounts of money being spent in Indigenous affairs is lost on anyone here. Very little information is being provided on what is old, what is new, what is being spent within government departments and what actually drip-feeds down to services on the ground. These are all important matters.

In considering the entire bill we also need to remind ourselves that, even with the speech that was given by Minister Abetz about the positiveness of these changes, it is hard to understand how he could trumpet this bill as achieving those outcomes. He talked about the failures of ATSIC when it has been said time and again in evidence put before the Senate select committee—and certainly through the ATSIC review committee process, where we spent $1.4 million in establishing both evidence and reasons—that there was a need for reform but for the retention of a national and regional structure. All of that has been lost on the government.

There is no evidence that mainstreaming itself will work. The government has not been able to put forward any practical evidence to support the claims that mainstreaming processes will improve the position of Indigenous people. Indeed, the opposite is probably the case. That is shown in overseas jurisdictions. I hasten to mention the whole question of community control, which the government seems to harp on about. It talks a lot about putting Indigenous services and decision making into the hands of Indigenous communities, yet at the same time it is trying very hard to diminish the capacity of the representative structures across the country. The rhetoric does not seem to ring true with what is actually going on. It is certainly not about empowering communities.

I mention again the MiiMi Mothers Aboriginal Corporation. I mentioned that many times in this place during the hearings of the Senate select committee. I point out that the decision in that case was taken over a year ago, when property was transferred to the Aboriginal Housing Corporation. I would encourage the government to look at that again. They say that they want to help that community and that they want to look at practical ways of moving forward. I could not think of a better way. So far the Department of Family and Community Services have made a decision against criteria that do not necessarily match the local aspirations and certainly do not support the mothers and the youth programs that are currently operating under very difficult circumstances.

It seems to me that we have to move beyond some of the rhetoric. Otherwise the successes that are out there at the moment will run the risk of floundering. I note that Senator Abetz, speaking earlier, mentioned the failure of ATSIC and yet at the same time neglected to mention that the health, housing and education programs were programs that, by and large, ATSIC did not deal with. When looking at the programs that were successful, one would have to ask: if they were so bad then why are none of the programs being abolished? During the Senate select committee process, I asked Dr Shergold, now head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, why he thought that, after being the CEO of ATSIC, he was promoted to being the head of PM&C—or the head of the Public Service, for that matter. It seems to me to be a contradiction and an argument against what the government proclaims in this case.

I believe that there is a genuineness in wanting to overcome the endemic poverty that exists within communities. I think we all aspire to that, but we have to get a bit more real about the rhetoric that is being used and start looking at the body of work that shows the truth about this issue and life in Indigenous communities. It seems to me that the truth itself is going to be necessary as a prerequisite if we are going to bring about positive change. Most of that is going to have to come from communities. We are going to have to listen to what people are saying. I do not think we should be having contests about who is right or wrong when it affects so many people’s lives.

Another issue is that—and this is particular to Indigenous affairs in this country—Indigenous assertions are consistent with the whole principle of what universality of fair treatment means. I have to say that that is what white Australia claims to embody, but it does not necessarily always apply to Indigenous communities equally. That was shown again recently with the re-enactment of the freedom rides in New South Wales. There is a story about a young Aboriginal man who had his ticket for a seat on a CountryLink coach. He was trying to get on the coach and the bus driver denied him access to the bus because he was running late. A young non-Indigenous woman ran after the bus—she had a ticket as well—and the bus driver stopped and let her on. Thankfully, the freedom riders were there and they gave the man a lift to the nearest roadhouse. They caught up with the CountryLink coach and confronted the bus driver. The young girl that he picked up stood up for the young Aboriginal man. The bus driver told her that she ought to button her lip. In the end she was thrown off the bus and the young Aboriginal guy was not allowed on either. The point is that we have to recognise that there are some issues that really make it difficult out there to get some of the services provided and to get change brought about.

Finally, if we are talking about fairness in relation to universality, the government cannot continue to ignore what is, I think, the No. 1 priority—that is, the appalling health circumstances in communities, particularly the high mortality rates. It seems to me that the investment of new levels of resources is required. If we are to bring the health of Indigenous Australians up to par with the rest of the nation, there is an opportunity to do that come the May budget—and I think it is pertinent that we are dealing with this bill at this particular time.

The second reading amendment that has been put forward by Senator Bartlett on behalf of the Australian Democrats highlights some of the chaos and confusion that exists on the ground. The government has taken the credit for the Murdi Paaki COAG trial which has been running successfully in my home state of New South Wales. It was conveniently rebadged as a shared responsibility agreement towards the end of last year, not recognising or not acknowledging that most of the good work was done by regional councils themselves. Certainly from my experience right across the country, where Indigenous coordination centres are being established, the regional councillors are working side by side with officers within the ICC. The regional councillors are the ones providing their expertise and the opportunity for introduction to communities and they are the ones making sure that the best comes out of this process. I do not bother too much about the board of commissioners, given some of its behaviour over recent times, but the regional councils and councillors deserve better treatment in this process.

This second reading amendment is really designed to try to pick up some of the issues there and to get an undertaking from the government that they are serious about these issues. I am glad to see the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs here. I know that she has a commitment to this issue and I know that she has been speaking to Indigenous members in the community as well as the new NIC. All of them have their particular views, and I hope that they are able to convince her of some of the things that need to be done and need to change in the way that these things are being pushed forward.

Most of all, whilst the government talks about any new structure that might arise from initiatives from within communities, there will be a need for support. We got conflicting ideas in the Senate select committee process, some from government saying that there would not be any funding and others from government saying that there definitely would be funding. So we still do not know whether the government is going to come on side and support those councils or communities across the country that do create positive initiatives.

I commend this second reading amendment to the Senate. I know that it was circulated late, and I can understand that the opposition may have some reservations about that. Given that they are apparently going to be supporting the government’s bill, I certainly encourage them to at least get an undertaking from the government that it will start to look at these issues—to make sure that the Senate sends a message that is loud and clear. I think that is the least that we can do. As I have indicated to Senator Carr, whilst it is a second-best option, the whole notion of regional councils being around for some time longer is something that I think is necessary as part of a transition process—but we will deal with that when the time comes.