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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1623

Dr THEOPHANOUS (11:08 AM) —I hope I will also be given some leeway in the debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment (TSRA) Bill 1997 , because we have obviously now gone into a generalised debate on ATSIC, at least, and also on Aboriginal affairs. I want to begin by referring to some of the matters raised by the member for Swan (Mr Randall) when he made his criticisms about ATSIC's performance and whether it is able to achieve its role. He justified the cuts made to ATSIC by the current government. At the time these cuts were made, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron) said that these were justified because there was a need to emphasise the importance of programs in education, health, welfare, et cetera.

These programs, of course, have been emphasised by the Labor government through its access and equity policies. But I guess a number of people, myself included, thought, `Okay. The minister wants to have a go at a different approach. We don't like the cuts to ATSIC. We don't like the downgrading of ATSIC and we certainly do not like the smearing of ATSIC that the minister and members of the government carried out.' All we thought was, `All right, we'll see. Let's have a look; let's see whether in fact diversion of resources to these other programs is going to have some net effect.' So the minister was able to get some credit for himself for wanting to try an alternative approach.

As the member for Banks (Mr Melham) has pointed out, the minister's attempts have been a total, complete and utter failure—an absolute and total failure. Of course, you do not have to take our word for it. You have to take the word of ATSIC itself. As is known, yesterday the ATSIC board, including the chairman appointed by the government, unanimously carried a motion of no confidence in the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

Mr Tony Smith —Absolutely disgraceful.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —`Absolutely disgraceful'—is that right? If your people were suffering the way the Aboriginal people are suffering, you might be concerned as well.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. N.B. Reid) —Order! The honourable member for Calwell will direct his remarks through the chair and will ignore any interjections.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —The gentleman interjected, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will say this: Mr Gatjil Djerrkura's comments, as chairman of ATSIC, in relation to the actions of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs clearly show that there is, to say the least, a problem in relation to the approach adopted by the minister. It is understating the matter completely to say there is a problem.

I was involved, when I was parliamentary secretary, with the access and equity program and the reports of the access and equity program, including the program reports on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. We were concerned about the underachievement of targets in relation to health, education and these other areas. But the minister's so-called new strategy has totally failed. We have got to ask ourselves: why has it failed? Has it failed simply because there was not enough money? Maybe that is part of it. But it has also failed because we as a society are failing in relation to this issue. And we as a society are failing because we have not come to grips with the reasons the problems are there.

I have spoken on this matter before in the House. It seems to me that we still have not come to grips with the importance of the cultural aspect in relation to Aboriginal affairs.

Mr Randall —What has that got to do with this bill though?

Dr THEOPHANOUS —It has got a lot to do with the programs of ATSIC, I have to tell you.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Calwell, I have given you a fair amount of latitude and I now ask that you make your point and return to the bill.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am talking about the works of ATSIC. That is what this bill is about. And the minister is the minister in relation to the works of ATSIC. I am saying that when we are talking about programs to be administered through ATSIC, or, indeed, programs that have been taken from ATSIC to be administered in other ways—a very relevant issue, I might say—we need to get something very clear in relation to these programs. That is this: we need to understand the cultural basis of these programs; we need to understand the importance of culture in Aboriginal issues.

This is not just a problem for Australia, actually. It is a problem for other countries which have had indigenous cultures and where those cultures are disappearing or have been destroyed through actions of the people coming in. What has happened—

Mr Nugent —I raise a point of order. It is with some regret that I raise the point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I understand the sincerity of the gentleman who is speaking, but it is a narrow bill and I do think the issues that are being canvassed are going way beyond the bill. There are other opportunities to canvass these issues and I ask you to bring the speaker back to the bill.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! There is no point of order. I am listening very closely to the member for Calwell and I understand he is trying to develop an analogy. I am listening closely, but I do ask that he bring his analogy back to the content of the bill.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —Mr Deputy Speaker, what I am talking about is, in fact, the content of the bill. The bill attempts to ensure that ATSIC more efficiently achieves outcomes in relation to Aboriginal people. I am now talking about what some of the problems have been in this area. I could not imagine anything more relevant than that. This is unlike the previous member, who was allowed to speak for 10 minutes on native title. This matter involves Aboriginal affairs, but it is not a matter concerning the issues that ATSIC and related programs deal with. Nevertheless, I will try to ensure that my comments remain relevant.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —If the member for Calwell looks at the bill, he will find that it is mainly related to the disposal of interest in property and that it has a very narrow constraint.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —With respect, you have already accepted, from two other speakers, a very broad discussion about—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —As with your colleague the member for Banks, I have allowed you a certain amount of latitude. I now ask that you bring your remarks back to the bill.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —I am speaking about the bill and its importance on the actions of ATSIC and its future performance. I ask you to have another look, if you are concerned with that, Mr Deputy Speaker. In talking about ATSIC, it is very important that we support ATSIC in its endeavours not only to put programs into place but also to put them in place in a way which makes sense in a cultural way to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some people, from what might be termed a Western European perspective, have decided to criticise ATSIC. The previous member talked at some length about that. Whatever its shortcomings, you cannot replace a body like ATSIC. It is a body that is determined on the basis of representation from Aboriginal people themselves.

There may be some imperfections but the reality is that it is the attempt by Aboriginal people themselves to have a voice in the programs and in the direction of the programs of government so those programs actually achieve results, especially in the key areas of the minister's concern—notably, education and health.

It is sad that the minister was criticised by the ATSIC board. It is clear that there needs to be much more communication between the government, including the Prime Minister (Mr Howard), and the board, on the issues which ATSIC deals with. For a process of reconciliation between ourselves and the Aboriginal people, we need to ensure that there is greater communication and understanding by the government of ATSIC's approach and the framework which Aboriginal people bring to their affairs. That is not what has been happening and that is why we have the sorts of problems which the member for Banks referred to at some length in his contribution.

I want to suggest a constructive way through this, if that is possible. We need to encourage ATSIC to put in place programs that are going to help restore lost elements of Aboriginal culture. It seems to me that very often young Aboriginal people grow up in circumstances where so much of their culture has already been lost. Unfortunately, there are often not sufficient details available from the previous generation for that culture to be transmitted.

We have a responsibility to use government resources, especially in education, through libraries, through materials that we have collected, through bringing people together, to try to restore lost elements of Aboriginal culture. ATSIC can play a significant role in relation to that.

I want to say something about land, since you raised the issue, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Swan talked about the native title bill, claiming that there is a contradiction between ATSIC's work in relation to language use and that of the native title bill. There is no contradiction. What is important here is that, although some people of indigenous background are going to benefit from the native title situation, other people are going to need assistance in another way to get access to land. This is where ATSIC has an important role to play.

You cannot say that, simply, the rights of those people who have claims under native title are going to be sufficient to meet the land requirements of the Aboriginal people. That is why we have the land fund; that is why we have the corporation. What is needed is some way in which we can help reconnect the Aboriginal people to the land.

As I have said in other places, land is of enormous importance to the Aboriginal people. It is not just a question of the Western idea of ownership; the very belief system, the whole culture of the Aboriginal people is tied up with this association with the land. There is virtually what we would call in philosophy a metaphysical connection with the land. It is not a simple physical connection. That is why sacred sites are so dramatically important to Aboriginal people. I believe that what is required here is a much greater understanding of and sensitivity to the cultural needs of the Aboriginal people, their ideas of the land and the general idea that we should restore, or help to restore, the cultural traditions which have been taken away.

ATSIC is a very important body. I totally disagree with the member for Swan when he wants to say that ATSIC somehow has overstepped the mark and so on. ATSIC is a very important body, and the measures in this bill are going to strengthen ATSIC. That is why we support them. We support the measures in this bill. We feel that the measures here will help achieve a better situation for ATSIC. But, if ATSIC is strengthened in this way, then the government has to take the next step. It has to start talking, especially, to the leadership of ATSIC and make sure that we get a new, more sensitive direction in this area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.