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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9886

Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (12:11 PM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC, was established by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989. ATSIC began operations on 5 March 1990. ATSIC gives indigenous people a voice in the processes of government.

Its representative arm consists of 35 regional councils on the mainland and Tasmania, and the Torres Strait Regional Authority. Every three years, indigenous people vote in regional council elections. Their elected representatives consult with local indigenous communities about programs and policies affecting them, and represent their interests to the ATSIC Board.

ATSIC regions are incorporated into zones. There are 16 zones, and the regional councillors in each zone elect one of their number to be on the ATSIC Board—their zone commissioner. There is also a zone commissioner from the Torres Strait, elected by members of the Torres Strait Regional Authority. To date, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs has also appointed the chairperson, and one other commissioner. This provision in the ATSIC Act was amended in 1996, to provide that the commission consisted of only elected representatives, and that the ATSIC chairperson be elected by the commissioners from amongst their number. This amendment to the act will apply after the forthcoming ATSIC zone elections which will follow the ATSIC regional council elections scheduled for 9 October 1999. It is expected that the elections of zone commissioners will take place in early December 1999.

I pay tribute here to the achievements of the founding chairperson, Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, and the current chair, Mr Gatjil Djerrkura. Both are widely respected and admired for their significant contributions to indigenous affairs in Australia.

The bill before the Main Committee today does not include any major changes to the ATSIC Act, but it is important in that it clarifies the process pertaining to the new arrangements for the chairperson. The bill provides that the person elected by his or her fellow commissioners to be the ATSIC chair ceases to hold his or her original offices of regional councillor and zone commissioner. The positions left vacant by the election of the chairperson will be filled through the processes set down in the election rules made under the ATSIC Act. The indigenous people in the affected region do not have to vote again—a recount is done to elect the new councillor. In the case of the vacant position of zone commissioner the regional councillors will elect a new commissioner in a by-election. This process results in a commission of 18 members, rather than the 19 currently.

To ensure that the number of commissioners should equal the number of zones, plus one—the chairperson—the bill also provides that a chairperson who resigns is also taken to have resigned as a commissioner. The bill removes the current reference to 17 members in section 27 of the act and clarifies that the minister must appoint as members of the commission those persons elected to represent the several zones. The bill will commence when commissioners take office after the zone elections in approximately December 1999.

There are no financial implications arising from this bill except that the person who fills the vacant offices of commissioner and regional councillor will be entitled to salary and allowances. I commend the bill to the committee and present the explanatory memorandum.