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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 105

Senator RIDGEWAY (8:30 PM) —I also wish to speak on the amendments which were put forward by the ALP. I understand that they deal with retaining regional councils for six months and ensuring that a commissioner does not go back and take their seat at regional councillor level for those proposed six months. We will support these amendments because Indigenous affairs are in dire straits. However, the amendments are probably more of a face-saving exercise and are a poor substitute for being able to keep regional councils entirely and oppose the bill for the abolition and force the government to go back and deal with regional councils.

We think that supporting the extension of regional councils is important because of the critical role that they play on the ground. That came through fairly clearly from the Senate select committee process. In many respects regional councils have been the lifeblood of communities right across the country. They have been treated unfairly and certainly with contempt in this whole debate not only in regional and remote areas but also in city locations. The stories that we have heard from regional council chairs and Indigenous organisations tend to provide anecdotal evidence that the administration of Indigenous affairs is in complete disarray.

I listened closely to what the minister had to say about listening deeply—I think that was the phrase she used about listening to Indigenous communities. I would applaud that if it meant something in reality, bearing in mind these stories that I have raised a few times. What would the minister say about the La Perouse community in Sydney having their renovations denied to them as a result of the new arrangements being put in place? What does she say about Indigenous women’s organisations running domestic violence programs being denied the premises that they had already been given by ATSIC? What would she say about the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network fearing that they will lose already designated funds from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Cultural Advancement Trust funds? Those three stories ought to be listened to. If the government are serious about promoting that sort of rhetoric, here is a practical example of being able to do something and here is the chance to do it.

I ask the minister to respond to one, two or even three of those stories—I am sure that there are many more right across the country—rather than stand up and say: ‘In the case of women’s programs like the MiiMi Mothers one, no, we are not listening. Where we have listened we have said no, and we will not be giving them the property. We will not be honouring the decision and we are certainly not listening to them on the ground doing the work that they are trying to do.’ You cannot have it both ways. If there are these examples on the ground and people have acted in good faith it seems to me that the quid pro quo, a shared responsibility agreement or even mutual obligation mean that the minister has to come back and honour the decisions that have been taken. But none of these situations has been adequately responded to by any minister or public servant.

We will support the extension only because the time will allow regional councils to continue the heroic work that they are doing out there. I congratulate them on the work they have done over a long period. They have somehow been lost in this, and they are the ones who have been cushioning the blow of the mainstreaming and putting in new arrangements and dealing with them as best they can. Marcia Ella-Duncan, the Chairperson of the Sydney Regional Council, was speaking to a very senior officer in the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, who asked, ‘What do regional chairs do?’ It seems insane. You have to scratch your head that these senior people have no clue about what regional council chairs do. Yet Marcia was prepared to work with them and is continuing to do that. The point is that, if we are talking about listening deeply and following the lead of people on the ground, it seems a little lost on me that when you get the practical example of the government wanting to do that then there are ample opportunities. I have named three and I am sure that there are many more across the country. That is another reason to retain regional councils.

On the one hand we are relying upon these new arrangements with Indigenous coordination centres to somehow fill the void and we have senior people who do not have a clue about what regional chairs of ATSIC do and, on the other hand, we rely upon ATSIC regional councils to be the cushion and to deal with the stories on the ground, and they are doing it without complaint. We under-acknowledge the work that they are doing out there. That is another reason why this sort of amendment ought to be taken on by the government.

I do not know how far talks on this particular issue got with the government; no-one was asking for anything permanent. It seemed to me to be a very sensible thing to put forward. Of course I am sure there are a thousand reasons why it could not be supported but the reality is that it is not the government or senators on these benches who suffer, it is the people out there in Indigenous communities who suffer—the ones who cannot get their stories heard and the ones who cannot apply pressure or do not get access to the halls of parliament to sit down and talk with people. I was glad to see the Aboriginal people who came across from Kalgoorlie last week. They drove a bus all the way from Kalgoorlie to Canberra and camped in a park down the road at their expense but they sent their message loud and clear about being left out of the process and not being asked for their views.

But it is about more than just those people; it is about people like them right across the country. I wonder whether the minister might be able to give some answers to the three stories I have mentioned or even just to one of them. I think it would be a positive and good faith message to reverse some of the decisions that have been taken essentially by bureaucrats who have applied different criteria to those about partnerships and listening to and following the lead of communities, which we were told about as part of the Senate select process. How can communities take the lead if they are being dictated to? How can they be told to turn up for consultation when it is no consultation at all but a briefing on changes to CDEP, for example?

We will be supporting these amendments; I suppose they are the second-best option. We would have preferred that the bill itself be opposed and that the government be forced down another path, but I recognise the political realities and that that is not going to occur. However, we also have to recognise that the big problem we have here in dealing with Indigenous affairs is that we spend most of our time on the riverbank, watching the babies float by. Every now and then we swim out into the middle of the river and try to recover what babies we can instead of going upstream in the first place to find out who is throwing them into the water and why. We are still not getting to that stage. All we are doing here is throwing another baby out into the middle of the river and the problem is that no-one is prepared to jump in off the riverbank and go and save it. We are all prepared to close our eyes and just let it wash on by.