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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9887

Mr MELHAM (12:15 PM) —The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 before the parliament seeks to amend the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 in relation to the election of commissioners and ATSIC's chairperson.

Following the regional council elections to be held in October this year, the ATSIC board will consist of 17 commissioners, plus the chairperson. These commissioners are elected from the 16 zones and one from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, which comprises its own zone. The bill clarifies that the minister must appoint as commissioners those persons successfully elected by the regional councils within each zone. The bill also facilitates the election of the chairperson from within the number of the 17 zone commissioners and provides for the forfeiture by the chairperson upon election of his or her role as a regional councillor and zone commissioner. The bill also ensures that, if a chairperson resigns, he or she is taken to have resigned from the commission.

This bill does not provide for the election of the chairperson from within the body of commissioners; it rather tidies up some loose ends associated with previous legislation dealing with that matter. The then Labor government first proposed the election of ATSIC's chairperson by the commissioners in early 1993. On 18 May 1993 Senator the Hon. John Faulkner stated of the proposed changes:

. . . [t]he changes are based on the Government's commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination and our confidence in indigenous people managing their own affairs. They are fundamentally about shifting greater decision-making power to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. They are also in line with the thrust of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Labor's proposal in early 1993 to have the chair of ATSIC elected, rather than appointed by the minister, was in line with its commitment to indigenous self-determination. But the proposals met with opposition at the time from both the coalition and the Democrats and had to be abandoned. Following structural changes to ATSIC, the amendments providing for the election of the chair were reintroduced by Labor and supported by the Democrats, passing through the parliament in late 1993.

The amendments which passed through the parliament in 1993 providing for the election of the ATSIC chair were not due to commence until the 1996 round of regional council elections. Prior to these elections, the amendments were postponed until the 1999 elections, with the minister retaining the power to appoint the chairperson until that time. The postponement of the election of the chairperson was made in a cooperative manner between the coalition government and the Labor opposition.

Labor is committed to cooperating with the government on any initiatives that are supported by the indigenous community and are for their benefit. We have illustrated this commitment through our support for the indigenous employment policy, launched earlier this year by the employment minister, and through welcomed health initiatives. We have illustrated that commitment here again by our willingness to facilitate the passage of this amendment bill.

ATSIC has had a vibrant and often controversial history. Since the introduction of the concept in 1987 by the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Hon. Gerry Hand, in his working paper Foundations for the Future, ATSIC has attracted criticism and support alike. ATSIC began operations on 5 March 1990. It was an initiative put forward by a committed minister with the unqualified support of the Prime Minister of the time, the Hon. Bob Hawke—by a government which chose to take a fresh approach to indigenous issues.

ATSIC's history is common to any new organisation that takes a fresh approach to a controversial and sometimes difficult area of public policy. Nevertheless, ATSIC deserves our support and our understanding. The most frequent attack on ATSIC has been over accountability. One of the first acts of the Howard government in 1996 was to appoint a special auditor to look at ATSIC and indigenous organisations. The Federal Court, in a unanimous three to nil decision, subsequently found that appointment of a special auditor to be unlawful and illegal. That witch-hunt went nowhere.

It should be stressed that ATSIC and other indigenous organisations are subject to continuous scrutiny from the Australian National Audit Office, ATSIC's own Office of Evaluation and Audit, ATSIC's Fraud Awareness Unit, annual reports, Senate estimates procedures and applicable corporate law due to the incorporated status of ATSIC funded indigenous organisations. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most scrutinised and accountable of public bodies. This fact needs to be constantly reinforced for those people who refuse to accept the fact.

ATSIC has developed over the years, despite attacks on its integrity and efficiency. This bill is the finishing touches to a further development in the history of ATSIC by the election by indigenous representatives of an indigenous chairperson. As Labor's amendments of 1993 foresaw, this development is a further enhancement of indigenous self-determination and of indigenous people's control over their own futures.

Government needs to take a cooperative approach with indigenous representatives to address the obvious disadvantage indigenous people face in our society. Cooperation is possible. We have seen it several times here between the coalition government and the Labor opposition despite our philosophical differences concerning various issues within indigenous affairs.

I have travelled to many indigenous communities throughout Australia and seen many different approaches to projects addressing the problems faced by indigenous Australians. From my observations, it is the projects which have involved indigenous people from the start through to their completion which are the most successful in assisting indigenous Australians to help themselves. These are the projects which have the support of indigenous elders and the community and which go about their purpose in a culturally and regionally sensitive way.

Cooperation, negotiation and facilitation are the roles of government in indigenous affairs, not blind criticism or the undermining of indigenous bodies such as ATSIC. ATSIC also deserves the understanding of government. As I have said, this bill puts the finishing touches on the procedure surrounding the 1999 regional council elections. ATSIC has been criticised for poor turnouts in elections, despite the fact that more people voted at the first ATSIC elections than in the New South Wales local government elections. ATSIC elections often attract a higher voter turnout than other non-compulsory ballots, both in Australia and overseas.

Yet there persists this incredible view out there that, even though European society developed a democratic political culture over at least 2,000 years, Australia's indigenous people should be fully participating in it after little more than 40 years of access and after a long period of dispossession, discrimination and exclusion from our society. This view is both ridiculous and preposterous. It is about time that public commentators learned that more can be achieved from negotiation, cooperation and encouragement than from mindless and often unfounded attacks, criticisms and detractions.

As this bill deals with the upcoming election, I take this opportunity to encourage all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to participate to their fullest potential, whether they are a voter or a candidate. On 9 July this year, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs announced that the date of the election would be 9 October. This is the fourth set of elections held since ATSIC's commencement of operation in 1990. I encourage all indigenous Australians who are not on the electoral roll to enrol before 24 September when the rolls close. It is important that any person eligible to vote does so. This is a unique election. For the first time indigenous Australians will be participating in the process that will directly elect the chairperson of ATSIC.

I would like to reiterate Labor's commitment to indigenous self-determination and the translation of that principle through these upcoming elections. To borrow a term from ATSIC's web site, `Your vote can make a difference. Your future is in your hands.' I wish all candidates and participants in this unique election well and encourage everyone who can to get involved in the political process.

ATSIC has already followed along a difficult road and no doubt has a long, sometimes difficult, but also exciting journey ahead. I also want to pay tribute to the outgoing commissioners who have faced a difficult time. I have had the opportunity of working with them and attending board meetings over the last three years. I have a tremendous respect for the ATSIC board that served over the last three years. They were difficult times. There are some colourful characters on that board. Some of them are not backward in going out and defending their constituents and what they believe is right. We should not hold that against them.

Surely we are not in a situation where the only people we listen to are those that come to us with a beggar bowl approach or a beads and blankets approach. Indigenous communities are vibrant communities. They are entitled to participate fully and have their views heard on their merits. It is a diverse community. They do not all speak with one voice. That is why it is important to allow them to go out and consult. We in the non-indigenous community disagree on issues but that is not new; we accept that. But we all expect ATSIC or migrant groups to speak with one voice. When there is a difference of view, we say, `They don't speak with one voice.' I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, that the non-indigenous community does not speak with one voice, and we accept that. We should accept that for the indigenous community and the migrant community as well.

The coalition's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs policy that they took to the election in 1996 had in its executive summary the following commitment:

In Government the Coalition will:

. retain ATSIC and seek the views of Aboriginal people on how they would like to see it evolve;

I support that policy. I think that is the way forward. That is the way we can work together, both government and opposition. I note that this week the Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs tabled a report on the Northern Territory land rights act. We were commissioned by the minister to go out and seek Aboriginal people's views and the views of the community—and we did. It was an interesting development. At the end of the day, we produced a unanimous report on a subject that is more difficult than other indigenous issues in the marketplace at the moment. But we went out and we actually listened. There were differences of view and I pay tribute to the chair, who is in the chamber today, and to government members of that committee. I know that the minister who presented this bill is a former chair of the House of Representatives committee. He produced a wonderful report—I think it was in 1982—to do with legal services. His report led the way. It said that, if you want indigenous participation, they should have their own legal services. That has worked well. That report has stood the test of time. The history of the House of Representatives committee is one of always producing unanimous reports because there are men and women of goodwill on both sides of the political spectrum. The committees provide an opportunity for us to go out and see these things at the coalface.

I do not stand here and say, `Look, all wisdom resides with opposition members.' It does not. The minister who presented this bill has a long history. We have got to make sure that he does not just become a captive of the executive or the cabinet. But we are all in trouble in relation to that. The concept is the same. The mistakes of the past were that we thought we knew what was best for indigenous people. We were not listening to them. They are not the same as we are. They have not got the same hopes and aspirations. I am a fan of ATSIC. I am not saying ATSIC cannot be improved; it can. It has to evolve. But in the United Nations and in other forums in the world community, ATSIC is looked at with envy by other indigenous groups in other countries.

This is an opportunity for indigenous people to elect their representatives who engage with government. That should not just be in regard to policy advice to government; there should be involvement in programs, because it is a partnership thing.

Debate adjourned.