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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10448

Mr HAASE (10:29 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 . This marks a stage in the evolution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. ATSIC, as it is known, was established under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989. One of its objects, as set out in its legislation, is `to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders in the formulation and implementation of government policies that affect them'.

ATSIC has an elected arm to represent the interests of indigenous people. There are 35 ATSIC regional councils throughout Australia, plus the Torres Strait Regional Authority, whose members are elected by indigenous people. These regions are then grouped into 17 zones. A short time after an ATSIC election, regional councillors from each zone meet to elect one of their number to represent the zone on the ATSIC Board. The next ATSIC election is scheduled to be held on 9 October this year. It is expected that the elections of zone commissioners will take place in early December 1999. Those regional councillors elected as zone commissioners following this election will, for the first time, elect one of their own number to be the new ATSIC 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 process 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 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.

There is quite a history to the choosing of the chairperson. Originally, the minister chose the chairperson. Later, the act was amended so that the minister appointed the chairperson from amongst the commissioners. Still later, an amendment was passed which provided for the commissioners to choose their own chairperson. This amendment will come into effect after the next election on 9 October. This bill concerns the arrangements that follow from the appointment of one of the commissioners as chairperson. Section 26 of the ATSIC Act allows the commission to review, from time to time, such aspects of the operation of the act as it determines. The bill also provides that a commission chairperson who resigns is taken to have resigned as a member of the commission.

In April 1997, the board of commissioners determined that a review of the act under section 26 should be undertaken. This review involved comprehensive and wide ranging consultations with indigenous people. The ATSIC board requested that appropriate arrangements be put in place prior to the next ATSIC election.

In 1998 the board reported to the minister, putting forward a number of recommendations arising from the review. Recommendation 7 says:

Where the person elected to represent a zone is subsequently elected as Commission Chairperson, the person should cease to hold office as a member representing the zone and as a Regional Councillor, with these offices to be re-filled through the normal electoral process.

It is this recommendation that is reflected in the bill before the House today. In its report on this recommendation, the commission said:

There was strong support from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community for such a provision to be included in the Act.

It went on to say:

Bearing in mind the strong support expressed for the proposal during the consultations and the undoubted heavy workload falling on the Chairperson, the Commission favours, on balance, that he or she be replaced as the Commissioner representing the zone and as the Regional Councillor.

This bill reflects the commission's view and its provisions will be in place before the next ATSIC elections. I am sure that ATSIC and the indigenous community will welcome the clarity and certainty that this bill brings.

In particular, it is pleasing that representation at the regional level will not be diminished. There is much to be positive about in indigenous affairs, not only for indigenous people but for all Australians. Indigenous people are undeniably severely disadvantaged against all socioeconomic indicators, but we are beginning to see some real and lasting improvements. As a government we are committed to addressing that disadvantage in a practical way so that indigenous Australians can enjoy equality of opportunity with other Australians. While money alone is not the answer, we are committing record levels of funding to specific programs that will address that disadvantage.

Self-reliance through greater economic independence is the ultimate goal in enabling indigenous Australians to create their own businesses, generate employment and generally create a more positive future for themselves and their children. A new indigenous employment program, IEP, has been announced in the budget. This program has an emphasis on private sector opportunities and support for indigenous small business. Major features of the IEP include a strategy to encourage chief executive officers to recruit and train indigenous staff, private sector structured training and a national cadetship program for cadetships in the private sector.

In my own electorate, in the towns of Leonora and Laverton in the north-eastern goldfields, exists an organisation called the Leonora-Laverton Cross-Cultural Association. This is a group formed with the cooperation of mining operations in the area and is a classic example of the opportunities created under our new employment programs. The opportunities for Aboriginal people in the goldmining and exploration sectors are quite extensive. One of the sad realities, however, is the level of base education currently possessed by Aboriginal people in the goldfields area, and it is creating a great problem for the LLCCA to effectively employ and continue to provide employment for Aboriginal people.

The problem highlights itself in a specific area. In Western Australia, state legislation enacted allows for the forfeiture of driving licences in the case of unpaid traffic infringements and other fines whereby individuals owe money to the government. A consequence of this may arise if Aboriginal people who have sat for, passed, been issued with a motor vehicle driver's licence and had it forfeited apply for employment in this particular local employment scheme and state that they are licensed to take a position that involves driving on a mine site. It is a clear requirement of the mining companies that all drivers so employed be licensed under state legislation as drivers. It is subsequently realised, often through a routine licence check on community roads, that the individual has had outstanding fines, has not paid them and that their licence has been forfeited. The fact that they have been stopped whilst driving a motor vehicle results in a further fine for driving whilst unlicensed, and the revolving door continues to revolve.

Of course, the immediate consequence is that the individual is no longer licensed and able to hold down employment on a mine site as a driver. Once again, the opportunity to gainfully employ one more Aboriginal person and get them out of the welfare paddock is lost. I believe that my approaches to the state government are being considered, but more needs to be done in this field to effectively remove this insidious and revolving door situation. Some of its solutions are to be found in more effective communication when licensing drivers—I am not just referring to Aboriginal drivers but to all new drivers gaining their licence—that informs them of the consequence of not passing on their current address to authorities and of not paying fines.

However, that said, we have made great progress with programs for employment and education, health and housing of Aboriginal people generally. In fact, 70 per cent of the $2.2 billion budget this year is going on health, housing, education and employment programs for indigenous Australians. To give you just a few examples of these practical improvements, four years ago there were just 800 indigenous Australians doing apprenticeships or traineeships. Today there are 4,800. The number of indigenous apprentices and trainees is an example of the success of the coalition's approach. When we came to office in 1996 there were just 800 indigenous apprentices and trainees Australia-wide. Three years later, this number has grown to 6,000.

Twenty years ago, only 8.6 per cent of indigenous students stayed at school until their final year. Today, over 33 per cent finish school, and that figure continues to rise. Expenditure on indigenous education programs will be increased by $16.3 million in 1999-2000. The Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program will target indigenous students' literacy and numeracy competencies and school attendance levels. A decade ago there were 1,600 indigenous university students. Today, there are almost 9,000.

The indigenous infant mortality rate is of great concern, but even in this area things are improving. Twenty years ago, the indigenous infant mortality rate was more than 20 times that of the wider community. Today, with still some improvement to be made, it is only three to four times higher, a considerable improvement. This is an area that will continue to be addressed, particularly in remote communities where there has always been a lack of prenatal and postnatal care. Over the past three years, 35 additional Aboriginal medical services have been provided, mostly in remote areas. Indigenous health funding has quadrupled over the past decade.

The Indigenous Business Incentive Program has provided about $18 million in seed funding to 84 businesses. Successful indigenous business means more indigenous employment opportunities and therefore less dependency upon welfare. The CDEP Work for the Dole Program is a great success in indigenous communities with 33,000 indigenous Australians voluntarily working for the dole.

In conclusion, these may be only small steps towards addressing disadvantage and there is still much work to be done. Nevertheless, they are steps in the right direction because they are steps away from welfare dependency and towards economic self-sufficiency, and they are important steps on the road to reconciliation. I commend this bill to the House.