Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 102


Senator CARR (8:18 PM) —by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 4527:

(1)    Clause 2, page 2 (table item 3), omit the table item, substitute:

3.  Schedule 3

1 January 2006.

3A. Schedule 3A, items 1 and 2

The day on which this Act receives the Royal Assent.

3B. Schedule 3A, item 3

The day on which Schedules 1 and 2 to this Act commences.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 1989

The purpose of these amendments is very straightforward. They are designed to extend the life of ATSIC regional councils for a period of six months. That is in line with recommendation 4.3 of the report of the Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, which was tabled last week. These amendments reflect the agreement that we had with the government prior to the government changing its position last Saturday week. They reflect, to the letter, the nature of the discussions that were held between the opposition and the government. They provide for the extension of time of six months for these councils and prevent existing ATSIC commissioners—they go to that point—from taking up chairs of regional councils. That is the level of discussion that we were having with the government, so in my mind it is a clear indication of the extent of the agreement that we had with the government about these matters.

We think that it is essentially a practical measure to allow the regional councils to conclude the work that the government itself said needed to be done. In the original ATSIC abolition bill, there was a provision where the ATSIC commissioners would go immediately but the work of the commissioners would continue through to 30 June. That work is not complete. The government accepted the principle last year, it accepted the principle when we discussed this matter with it a fortnight ago, but it has now changed its position. It is clear to me what has happened here: the Prime Minister’s office has overruled the minister. As a consequence of that, the government has walked away from its commitment to support the extension of time for the regional councils, which have been regarded widely as having done a very good job in not just providing grassroots representation but facilitating consultation and, furthermore, in the case of Murdi Paaki, being able to carry through important negotiations which the government has hailed as being a measure of its success.

It cannot be said that these organisations have not worked well. It cannot be said that these organisations have not got work to continue. It cannot be said that there is not a proper function for these organisations. What can be said is that this government has walked away from an agreement because the Prime Minister’s office has overridden the minister. And precisely what I do say is that the work of these bodies ought to be allowed to conclude and ought be able to provide a basis for Indigenous people to get on with the transitional arrangements between the work that had been done under the old ATSIC and the new arrangements that the government is embarking upon. It is quite well understood that the opposition has grave reservations about the direction of Indigenous policy in this country. Essentially, it is becoming crystal clear now that the power relationship between the Commonwealth and Indigenous people is changing to the detriment of Indigenous people. Regional councils provide one little break, one little opportunity, to allow people on the ground to come together and try to face up to the new circumstances being imposed upon them by this government.

We had a clear situation before the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, when social justice commissioner Tom Calma said:

… the clear view of the regional councils that I have consulted is that they are not being involved in the current processes and that there has also been very little progress in advancing alternative regional structures for Indigenous people.

So, despite all the promises, despite all the rhetoric, despite all the claims being made by the government, the clear evidence coming before the Senate select committee was that the government had not fulfilled its obligations in this regard and that there needed to be more work done to allow those commitments to be entered into.

We see the situation with regard to Aboriginals in urban communities in, for example, Sydney and Brisbane as being very different from the situation in remote communities in the Kimberley. It may well be that there is a need for different social policy solutions to be advanced, but that has to be done on the basis of genuine consultation and treating people with respect. It cannot be done on the basis of the government picking and choosing whom it will deal with—to find the smallest group, the least powerful group, the least articulate group that it can find to get its way. It has to be done on the basis of people having an opportunity to genuinely share in the discussion processes. We have a situation where, as Sam Jeffries, Chairman of Murdi Paaki Regional Council—one of the most successful regional councils, if you believe the government’s claims to this point—pointed out:

… the removal of the legislative framework—

that is, for regional councils—

will seriously inhibit having some formal or structured approach. We have got to maintain that as some sort of commonality, if I can call it that, to ensure that there is some formality about these arrangements, particularly in the partnership between Aboriginal people and government.

Labor’s proposal is to extend the life of the regional councils for a period of six months to allow those structures to be given an opportunity to adjust to the new environment. We say that it is important for stability in the regions, it is important to make sure that people have a genuine opportunity to participate. We also acknowledge the point that the government make. Their concern in discussions was that circumstances could be created by this amendment which ATSIC commissioners could take advantage of. Therefore, we have agreed with the proposition put to us by the government that there should be a prohibition on regional council chairs being replaced by former ATSIC commissioners.

That is the measure of the discussion that we had with the government. It is a measure of the way in which they have walked away from these undertakings. We are entitled to know why the Prime Minister has sought to override his minister on these matters. We are entitled to know what the government’s position is. I am led to the view, frankly, that the government have a longstanding hatred of organisations which have shown to be effective in representing Aboriginal views. I am of the view that the government are now on the public record of going right back to the beginning of the creation of ATSIC. The Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs herself stated in the debate on ATSIC what her attitude was. She said that, from the very beginning, ATSIC was a mistake and that is why it was the most heavily amended bill at the time of its passage through the parliament.

The Liberal Party has had a longstanding policy commitment to move against Aboriginal organisations such as this. It has now of course found the need to justify that position by suggesting that people are not able to manage their own affairs. It has proposed criminality all too often now—we see a pattern emerging—and has sought to establish that in the mind of the public, and it has proposed constantly, whenever there is some bad news around for the government, that some act of corruption has occurred. It has tried to present to the public mind an image of Indigenous leadership which, in the government’s mind, is essentially inappropriate.

This is a measure that the government thought was good enough a couple of weeks ago, until the Prime Minister sought to impose his view and, if it was not the Prime Minister, perhaps it was someone else in the Prime Minister’s office or in the Prime Minister’s department. Here is a chance for the minister to tell us how the agreement came unstuck. I commend the amendments to the Senate.