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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 11

Mrs VALE (9:46 AM) —I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2005, which I believe is part of a new and promising beginning for Indigenous Australians. The purpose of this bill is to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. This bill is largely identical to the bill passed by the House of Representatives in June 2004. However, the Senate referred that bill to a Senate select committee.

This bill illustrates the fact that this government is serious about reducing Indigenous disadvantage. The opposition talk about the terrible circumstances that many Indigenous people face. But that was a legacy that this government inherited. We have to try and break this cycle. I agree that the problems we face are not the fault of ATSIC alone. We have all in different ways failed to get the sorts of results that Indigenous people need and indeed all Australians want. This parliament has an obligation to set new directions to achieve those results, and this important legislation points the way. It is not good enough to keep working within the same flawed framework that was designed by Labor. I believe very strongly that it is time to draw up a new model. That is why this government is going beyond abolishing ATSIC to introduce some radical reforms to Aboriginal affairs.

Before I talk about this government’s reforms I would like to give a few reasons why I believe ATSIC needs to be abolished. The first issue that concerns me is that there is not enough money hitting the ground where it is most needed. When we consider the amount of money being delivered to Aboriginal programs we have to wonder why the average Aboriginal person has so little and still languishes with limited resources, poor health and poor education and, of course, the resultant limited opportunity. The second reason is that Indigenous Australians, as we all know, have many serious and pressing needs. What they have never needed, though, was an ineffective, ego driven, thoroughly discredited Indigenous bureaucracy, and it is because of this that ATSIC has completely lost the confidence of the Australian people generally and the Aboriginal community specifically.

The commissioners of this bureaucracy were, and still are, well paid to promote positive change but they have, through their self-serving actions, brought shame to themselves and their organisation. You could not describe the leadership of ATSIC as anything other than a stumbling shambles. To quote from an editorial published in the Herald Sun on 17 April last year:

They have reinforced the negative stereotypes they were elected to fight.

The final reason I will go into as to why I believe ATSIC has to go is that the ATSIC elections are voluntary and not many Indigenous members vote. Actually, only 20 per cent of people who could vote voted in the ATSIC elections, meaning that around 80 per cent of the Indigenous population indicated that they did not believe the effort was effective for their needs. To any observer, this looks like the vast majority of Indigenous Australians have effectively rejected political self-determination by consistently not voting in ATSIC elections.

But what is currently of major concern to me is that Australian taxpayers’ money is still paying wages for no work. Every week costs another $65,000 and when the board is abolished there will be a minimum payout of four months salary for each commissioner. The longer this bill is delayed the more it is going to cost the rest of us. The opposition could have stopped this waste last year. I think it is interesting to note that it was the Labor Party which originally raised the issue of the abolition of ATSIC, but now they are playing the political card and stalling and it is costing Australian taxpayers big money.

The opposition is well aware of the political reality faced by Indigenous Australians. Most Aboriginals have long recognised the ineffectiveness of ATSIC and, with relatively few bothering to vote in the ATSIC elections, they have showed little enthusiasm for separate political representations. This outdated and complex approach suggests Labor is out of touch with most Indigenous Australians, who are fed up with failed self-determination experiments imposed by others. This government, however, has the fortitude to implement major reforms in the approach our country takes on Indigenous affairs. This new approach is and will continue to be guided by five characteristics. They are collaboration, regional need, flexibility, accountability and leadership.

The bulk of the reforms to Indigenous affairs have proceeded independently of this bill. The changes have been under way since 1 July 2004. With these changes government departments have no alternative but to work together at departmental secretary level right down to regional offices to better spend the $3 billion a year committed to Indigenous specific programs. This government’s aim with these changes is to improve collaboration between government departments and agencies, with a whole-of-government approach to policy development and delivery. The opposition and some of the media suggest that ATSIC’s demise represents a return to the past. This could not be further from the truth. No new bureaucratic structure will be created to administer Aboriginal affairs. The vision of a whole-of-government approach can inspire innovative national approaches to the delivery of services to Indigenous Australians.

Mutual obligation has also been part of this government’s welfare reform. This approach will be based on the principle of shared responsibility. This shift reflects a realisation that old government models of intervention based around servicing Indigenous clients have often reinforced passive welfare rather than created a sustainable basis for self-reliance. Labor national vice-president Warren Mundine has even called on Labor to embrace this government’s policy of mutual obligation. In the Australian on 14 December 2004 he said:

‘I think the [Howard Government] is taking the right direction.’

He then went on to say—

‘People who say it is paternalistic don’t understand. [Indigenous] people are stuck and trapped and they need a drastic and radical change.’

Another part of this government’s reform is the National Indigenous Council, which will include Indigenous leaders with expertise and knowledge on a range of issues affecting Indigenous people. Mainland Torres Strait Islanders will also be included in the National Indigenous Council. The structure of this board will allow Indigenous people to continue to participate in the design and delivery of their own programs for their own objectives.

The opposition has attacked this government on the fact that the new body has been appointed rather than elected, alleging it will expose the advisory body itself to criticism and that it is unrepresentative and undemocratic. But I would like to remind the opposition of a point I made earlier: ATSIC has a disappointingly low voter turnout. I would even go as far as to say that the old ATSIC board was unrepresentative of the Aboriginal population.

The council this government has selected includes a broad range of people to be above party politics. There is also a spread of gender and a spread of age. With five women, including the chairwoman, on the council it has a broader range of people than ATSIC did. The 14-member National Indigenous Council will be chaired by magistrate Sue Gordon, who has stated that the council will focus on practical solutions to Aboriginal problems. Ms Gordon has an impressive background. She served with the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps before working in Aboriginal affairs in the Pilbara. Ms Gordon then went on to become the first Aboriginal to head a Western Australian government department in 1986 and two years later she was appointed to the Children’s Court. Ms Gordon also headed the 2000 inquiry into family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities known as the Gordon review. She has stated that her focus as chairwoman of the new National Indigenous Council would be to also continue that work.

It is because the government are serious about reducing Indigenous disadvantage that we have introduced some radical but positive reforms to Aboriginal affairs. However, we cannot finish the first part of the reform agenda until this bill is passed and ATSIC is finally put out of its miserable ineptitude. It has to be done. ATSIC has failed, and failed the people it was established to represent and encourage and protect. I warmly welcome this bill and the promise that it brings to the real advancement of our Indigenous Australians. I commend this bill to the House.