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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 29

Senator FIFIELD (2:19 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Will the minister advise the Senate of the role of the Howard government's new National Indigenous Council? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I thank Senator Fifield for the question. The government's National Indigenous Council is an integral part and a very important part of the government's reforms to Indigenous affairs. It will have its first two-day meeting in Canberra this week. Members of the council not only will meet between themselves but will have the opportunity to meet for a couple of hours with the ministerial task force so that Indigenous people get the opportunity to meet with all the ministers that have funding responsibility for Indigenous affairs. And, of course, the National Indigenous Council will meet with the Prime Minister. It will provide expert advice to the government at the national level. It will provide advice on general direction, on policy, on different programs and assessments of service delivery. It will give us its views on the acceptance on the ground and the effectiveness on the ground of programs. It is a vital and integral part of our reforms to improve both the outcomes and the opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

I said in here many, many months ago—not long after being given this responsibility—that our prime motivation was to give value for money to first Australians. We intend to do that. We are moving to much better national and regional advisory relationships, but nothing—nothing—will be as important as establishing direct relationships with local communities through shared responsibility agreements, listening to what the communities have to say, giving them a real voice and sharing responsibility with them for the direction in which they want to go. Local problems will need local solutions.

As Theodora Narndu, one of the elders from the Wadeye trial site, said: `The trial has opened up the door. Before, it'—the government—`never opened that door for the Aboriginal people to give us a voice. So today'—that is, when she was speaking—`I feel that strong. I am a traditional landowner speaking from my heart. That is what I feel. I can see the door is wide open.' This government is about opening that door to many, many more communities than Wadeye and the other trial sites. We want local people to have a real say, not just to listen to a few elected representatives.

While I am on that issue, I might turn to the issue of ATSIC. It just did not work. The National Indigenous Council will not repeat the experiment of that so-called representative body. I remind senators opposite that only 20 per cent of the people who could vote voted for ATSIC. Let me put that another way: 80 per cent of the people said it was not worth bothering. Mr Clark is the current commissioner of ATSIC, which we still have because Labor would not vote to get rid of ATSIC, having said it was their policy. I have some more to say about this matter. The ATSIC chairman, as a matter of interest—

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Carr!

Senator VANSTONE —Senators opposite seem to be more interested in yelling and screaming their views than in getting on board with the government for the future and the progress of Indigenous Australians. It might be of interest to senators to know that the chair of ATSIC, Mr Clark, became the chair by getting probably no more than 102 first preference votes as a regional councillor. When you add up all the first preference votes he needed to become the chair, you get a total of 140. Some people might think that getting 140 votes makes you a representative, but we do not—and he was not. Mr Clark got fewer votes than Senator Conroy. (Time expired)

Senator FIFIELD —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Could the minister further advise the Senate how the National Indigenous Council will serve Australia's Indigenous community better than ATSIC?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Quite, Senator Fifield. Why the National Indigenous Council will serve the Australian community and the Indigenous community far more effectively is that they are not dependent on the votes of a few.

Senator VANSTONE —All these councillors are there because of their own skill and their own merit.

Senator VANSTONE —They are Indigenous Australians who have walked in those shoes, jumped those hurdles and climbed those mountains. They have been successful in their own right. They are still successful in their own right and they can speak independently—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Carr, shouting across the chamber is disorderly. You have continued to do it while this question has been answered, and I ask you to cease.

Senator VANSTONE —So these people, because of their own experience, their own skills and their own expertise are not answerable to a particular group. They do not have to make sure that more money goes to Charleville, to this region or to that region. They can speak for themselves, and I am sure that they will. It is very clear that there are other Indigenous Australians keen to get on board with shared responsibility arrangements and with giving Indigenous people the opportunity to shape their futures. (Time expired)