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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 116

Senator RIDGEWAY (4:48 PM) —I also want to speak on the message from the House and the position that has been arrived at by the government in rejecting the amendments put forward by the Democrats and by the ALP. I am not surprised on this occasion that this is the point at which we have arrived. Most of all, I would have to describe it as being both indecent and immoral. There has been a lot of truth missing in relation to the picture that has been painted about whether ATSIC has been a failure or a success. Given the debate that we had earlier this week and have had over the course of the last two weeks on Indigenous affairs more broadly, there are going to be some tough times ahead in terms of expecting that the right sort of truth and information is going to be put out there to deal with what is a blind spot in the Australian psyche: issues concerning Indigenous affairs. We all know that they do not garner broad community support, and so it is easy for anyone in a position of leadership to, if you like, stroke a prejudice that exists as opposed to standing up for what is morally correct.

I want to take issue with some of the deliberately misleading statements that are being made by the government to the Australian public about the interest or otherwise of Indigenous people in this particular debate. The fact that there are Indigenous people here sitting in the public gallery is testament to that fact. But, most of all, it is not good enough for the government to keep saying that Indigenous people are not interested or that they are complaining about ATSIC or the like. The reality is that if you speak to people in communities and ask them a question about whether they are happy with the local land council or the local housing company or any local organisation you will invariably get a complaint—most of that in relation to dissatisfaction with services. That does not mean that we decide to get out the bulldozer or the broom and sweep it completely clean. It comes back to the reality that people are saying that they are putting up a challenge to make sure that services are delivered better.

I want to acknowledge particular people in the public gallery today, because they have demonstrated their commitment to and passion for being heard in Canberra. The consequence of this bill disappearing on this day and the position that is being taken by the opposition in supporting the government is that there is no effective national voice for Indigenous people to have their say. I want to acknowledge Commissioner Cliff Foley, the commissioner for the Sydney region. He has come here at his expense, most of all because of the passion that he feels for this particular issue. Another person who it is important to point out is someone the government engaged to give them advice about what the future ought to be for ATSIC—Ms Jackie Huggins. She was part of the review panel with Mr Hannaford and Mr Collins. We spent $1.4 million of taxpayers’ money to come up with recommendations that have, by and large, been ignored by this government. Of course, there is also Pastor Geoffrey Stokes and the mob that has come across from Kalgoorlie—if there is no passion there then why jump on a bus and drive all the way from Kalgoorlie? That has got to demonstrate something. Why go down to the park and camp there? That has got to demonstrate something about their commitment to being heard.

I think it is a shame that we have arrived at this point and I am sure that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs will have a very different view, as she always does on this particular issue. But I think that what we keep forgetting in this whole process are three fundamental principles. The first principle is about truth—about truth being put forward in such a way as to provide the basis on which change ought to occur in the first instance.

The second principle is about universality—making sure that Indigenous people in this country are treated no differently from anyone else. I put a challenge out on this occasion, since we are coming up to the May budget: we live in a country where we still have Third World and Fourth World health conditions within Indigenous communities, where many communities are still not even connected to the electricity grid and where water quality is so low. But we do not hear anything coming from the government, who keep talking about surplus amounts of money. It would take a measly $450 million—even half of that would make a big difference—just to bring us up to par with the rest of the nation. So it is no longer sustainable to keep peddling this rhetoric and saying that all of a sudden we can ignore it and that we might put in an additional $10 million and that will be fine.

The third principle is about basic citizenship rights. In the last two weeks I have spoken about many of those. This morning I spoke about the passing of the late Judge Bob Bellear, who could not even get a taxi in his home town of Sydney. That is about citizenship rights. It is about anyone walking out on the street being able to hail a taxi. It is about a bus driver letting you on the bus if you have a ticket. It is about going into a real estate agent and being treated the same as any other person—the books are open and you can access housing accommodation. That is why problems are so bad within this country: because the government has this blind spot in its thinking. The government is perpetuating the blind spot style of thinking right across the Australian psyche and no-one is prepared to stand up and do something about it.

I heard the minister on the radio this morning talking again about why ATSIC was such a failure. Two reasons came up. The first was the fact that only 20 per cent of people voted in ATSIC elections in 2002. I have read the same reports from the Australian National University that talk about what has happened over the years since ATSIC has been in place. I think that it is a misrepresentation of the situation entirely—again, truth gone missing. The turnout of 21.6 per cent in 2002 was in fact an increase from 1999, despite the fact that there are other shock jocks and pundits out there who will say again that this is a complete failure—a failure and an experiment of some mythical separation that has occurred in this country. This indicates to me that some things take time and that eventually you do get there, but I think what we forgot to mention is that, in other countries where non-compulsory voting exists, you get similar results. It is a very significant point that the minister has neglected to mention this fact when peddling the message that ATSIC has failed because only 20 per cent of Indigenous people voted.

In addition to that, there are many other factors which should be taken into account when we comment on how representative an elected body is. I would advise the minister to perhaps go back and have a look at the ANU report and see more broadly the other things that are determining factors, if you like, in relation to why people participate or not. But one of the key things to point out in this report is that 30 per cent of the elected members of regional councils across the country—they are the ones that are being kicked in this particular case—are women. I do not see that same sort representation in the national parliament or in the state or territory parliaments. Yet we have got one success there that says that women are getting a chance to have a voice in a formal way on behalf of their communities in regional councils. It seems to me that when you look at it as being better than the representation of women in the Australian parliament, that says a lot. I would have thought that the government would have come on board and supported that right from the very start.

Regarding the statement that regional councils are non-Indigenous structures—the other message that is being put out there—the minister is also being very disingenuous when she pretends that regional councils should go because they do not represent traditional Indigenous structures. This is something that she has latched onto in an attempt to portray the government as supportive of Indigenous self-determination as the alternative. You have got to ask the question: where is self-determination in the decision that is about to be taken by the government? Where is self-determination in what is happening out there on the ground, where shared responsibility agreements arise largely because of an unequal power relationship between those that negotiate and the government? They do not get a choice. It is not a real choice if there is no alternative but to take the money and run.

Mulan is the classic example of that. And yet we do not deal with the broader issues of trachoma or about fixing up the roads, housing and the circumstances of water quality within communities—let alone whether water is available. We all know, and the government have stated many times, that they are opposed to Indigenous self-determination, and I think the government should stop curtailing genuine debate by pretending otherwise. If there were real care about Indigenous people being represented, the first thing they would have done would be to sit down and look at the ATSIC review report and at least make an attempt to adhere to some of the recommendations that have been put forward.

The review report outlined a system by which Indigenous people would have the flexibility to design more traditionally representative structures if they desire and would have a capacity to do so. Yet we are being told on this day, when we come to the final vote on whether ATSIC remains or not, that somehow the government have achieved this revelation, that they have now just discovered traditional structures for governance of Indigenous communities. That is what Indigenous people said as a result of the review that took place across the country. They said that over two years ago, but there has been no response to that particular fact or acknowledgment that it even occurred.

We recognise as well that the ATSIC act and the way that it works does have problems. Indeed, the ATSIC review report did consult widely and address this very issue back in 2003. In the Senate committee we heard discussion about the varying community opinions on preferred representative structures, which are more reflective of traditional representative structures. That is what regional councils like Murdi Paaki in my home state of New South Wales were saying to us and that is what is happening in other parts of the country.

It must be emphasised that, before the ATSIC elections, there were years of consultation on how it should work. Many options were presented to Indigenous people. This government has done no consultation at all in putting forward its alternative policy and vision for dealing with Indigenous affairs in this country. It is not enough to create the National Indigenous Council, as much as I respect the people who have been chosen to sit on that. Every one of those people is credible and respected for the work they do out there in the communities. But they know, like I do, that there is a limit to what can be achieved if you have no authority and lack the legitimacy of being there representing your community, whether that is regionally or locally. It is simply not there. There is no guarantee that the government is even going to listen to them in any instance.

We should also remember in these debates that the regional councils as a whole have been extremely effective. They have delivered services of quality and they have done that with limited resources over the past 15 years. I want to remind the Senate that the problem of different traditional representative structures is not a new one that has been recently discovered. This was realised and grappled with when ATSIC was being established. It is something that the communities have spoken about over many years. The election system, of course, is based on a Western understanding but it is also well accepted in many areas, not just in relation to ATSIC. Let us not forget that.

What will the government do when it comes to community councils that exist out there in communities and function like local government bodies? What will the government do to the various community organisations that have been established under laws akin to the Corporations Law in this country which are not traditional but based on a Western system? How will they respond to that? Will they abolish all of these organisations such as legal services, land councils and housing companies and so on? There are organisations out there doing a pretty damned good job and they need to be supported. That message is not coming from this parliament.

I am going to ask the minister some questions to get a better explanation, at least in Hansard and certainly to the Indigenous people here, about why the government does not agree with the amendments that have been put forward by the Democrats and the ALP. I want to put it on the record because there has been so much confusion, chaos and mixed information coming from government, even through the Senate select committee process, about whether the government has a clue about what it is doing in Indigenous affairs. What I do say about the changes in this country is that Indigenous people have to be responsible for their ideas and the things that happen within their communities. What we have is the government telling them from the top down that it will be in charge of deciding what is good and how that is going to occur within a community. That is not good enough. The government and especially the minister ought to explain the rationale behind and reasons for the decisions that are being put forward, why the government has taken the path that it has and why it has ignored the review committee. (Time expired)