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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10441

Mr LIEBERMAN (10:00 AM) —It is a pleasure to speak today in support of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, John Herron, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 . The bill does not do anything of great note, but it is very symbolic. It is symbolic of John Herron's careful and attentive management of his portfolio and the recognition by the government of the importance of supporting the Aboriginal people's right to achieve as much say as possible over their affairs. This bill is a progression of that—let me explain why.

The bill deals with the present structure of ATSIC, which is a representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples. It has been operating in Australia since 1990, and has a tremendously difficult and complex task, I might add. There are many critics of ATSIC; I can only advise those people that are critics to step back and look at all of the issues and then make your judgment. Do not make your judgment on one or two issues alone.

That is not to say that ATSIC is perfect—it does not claim to be. It is not perfect, and from time to time it has had problems. No doubt in the future, with the complexity of its role, it will continue to have some of those problems. But we hope that, with good government and a good minister like John Herron, these will be overcome.

Mr Zahra —And a good shadow minister.

Mr LIEBERMAN —And a reasonably good shadow minister, Daryl Melham—who is a better committee member, might I say. He is a member, as Mr Haase is, of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which I have the honour of serving as chair and which works pretty well for Aboriginal people, for Australians and for the parliament.

ATSIC regions are incorporated into zones in Australia. There are 35 regional councils, which are then divided into 16 zones. The position to date is that the minister, John Herron, and his predecessors have appointed the chairperson and one other commissioner. The rest have been elected. This provision of the act was amended in 1996 and provides that the commission consist only of elected representatives, not those appointed by a minister. I welcome that because that is the sort of thing that we need to do. White man's parliament, meaning well, should try to limit as much as possible its involvement in the decision making process that indigenous people want to make themselves. We should be encouraging indigenous people to have a go and make decisions, to be accountable to their own people and to Australians. It is better for them to do that than for governments to appoint people to these sorts of bodies. That amendment was a good one and it is about to take place. There was a deferral of the implementation of that, by agreement of both sides of politics, when we entered government in 1996.

I would also like to pay tribute to the chairs of ATSIC, who include Dr O'Donoghue. Sometimes she has been a pretty severe critic of the government that I am a member of—unjustly, I think. But on other occasions she has been a good advocate for indigenous people and is generally well respected. We wish her well. The current chair, Gatjil Djerrkura, is a remarkable man. I have got to know him quite well and I wish him every success. I am not sure what is going to happen with the current elections, but I certainly do admire Gatjil and thank him very much for his good advice to me from time to time and, especially, for his very generous comments in relation to the report on the Northern Territory land rights act that the committee which I chair recently released, which is entitled Unlocking the future. We understand that the chair of ATSIC has endorsed the general thrust of that report, and we appreciate that generous endorsement.

The bill before us today does not include any major changes to the ATSIC Act, but it does clarify the process pertaining to the new arrangements for the chairperson. The bill provides that the person who will be elected—in contrast to being appointed as in the past—by his or her fellow commissioners to be the ATSIC chair ceases to hold his or her original office—that is, of being a regional councillor and a zone commissioner. Obviously, it would be wrong to hold both positions. The present act does in fact provide that they would hold both positions, and that is not practical. The chair, having been elected, should not have those other positions. The bill deals with that situation.

The bill goes on to say that the positions left vacant by the election of the chair will be filled through a process set down in the election rules made under the ATSIC Act. What will happen is that the indigenous people in the affected region will not have to vote again, having lost their zone commissioner, that person having being made chair of ATSIC. A recount will be done to elect the new councillor—they will go through the votes that were recorded in the previous election. In the case of the vacant position of a zone commissioner, the regional councils will elect a new commissioner in a by-election. That process is facilitated in this bill. It will complement the policy of the government, allowing commissioners to be elected by the people and elected commissioners to elect the chair.

The bill is a simple one. There are no substantial financial costs on the Australian taxpayer, except that the person who fills the vacant office of the commissioner and the regional councillor would, of course, be entitled to the appropriate salary and allowances.

In conclusion, there is a lot of work to be done by all of us to address the unfortunate disadvantage that indigenous people suffer. Unfortunately, they die a third sooner than all other groups of Australians, their unemployment rates are 60 per cent higher than the rates in any other area of Australia and their health is in many cases very bad. So the government's focus, under John Herron, has been to give greater attention and targeting to that.

Hence, we have brought in a policy where all the skills of all of the health deliverers in Australia, at both Commonwealth level and state level, are brought into play. Rather than have ATSIC being the one that has to struggle to provide the health services and planning for indigenous people, it is far better to use the whole of the talents of all Australian health workers, the family of health people and the ministers to work collectively together. Michael Wooldridge has brokered agreements between all the state health ministers to that effect. That is a much better, targeted way of doing it.

My colleague Barry Wakelin, with Harry Quick, who is deputy chair of my committee—Barry is chair of the other committee—is inquiring at the moment into indigenous health and has issued a discussion paper—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —You mean the members for Grey and Franklin.

Mr LIEBERMAN —That is right. I am sorry, I am being too informal. They are doing a wonderful job. I would encourage all members to read their discussion paper because it does highlight a number of important issues. In training, the ministers David Kemp and Peter Reith, together with ATSIC and others, have put in a targeted program to create partnerships where targeted results and outcomes will be achieved. We have already got a great development there.

My colleague the member for Kalgoorlie has been briefing me about an exciting development in Murrin Murrin in Western Australia where Anaconda has formed a partnership with the local Aboriginal people and they are talking now about establishing a training college, which is a fantastic idea. So there are great, exciting things happening—good, positive things, and the best thing for us to do is to focus on the positives. Don't ignore the negatives, but don't allow the negatives to knock off the positives. It has been a shame in indigenous politics in Australia that there have been too many negatives knocking off the positives.

I support the bill and wish it a speedy passage. Again, I record my appreciation of John Herron's work for the Aboriginal people of Australia.