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Wednesday, 1 September 2021
Page: 84


Ms BURNEY (Barton) (17:32): [by video link] I rise to speak to the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Amendment Bill 2021. This bill will introduce significant changes to the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 following a recent review carried out by the National Indigenous Australians Agency. The CATSI Act, as it's known, establishes a special form of incorporation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. It is designed to make it easier for First Nations people to form and manage corporations that reflect their unique needs and practices.

As a special measure under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 the CATSI Act is intended to promote First Nations rights, particularly the right to self-determination. Critically, the act is intended to provide the flexibility for First Nations people to run organisations in accordance with their cultural practice and traditions. It also functions to ensure strong governance. Many of the most valued and recognised organisations are registered under the CATSI Act. They are part of the backbone of our communities, carrying out essential tasks and advocacy on behalf of First Nations people across the country.

Nowhere has this been more plain than in recent times with Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, ACCHOs, which have played such an important role in the pandemic response. There are 143 ACCHOs across Australia employing over 700 workers, half of whom are First Nations people. The majority of ACCHOs are registered under the CATSI Act. Over the course of the pandemic they have been the front line of the response in First Nations communities. Where they have been listened to and adequately resourced we have seen their capacity to provide flexible and effective services to First Nations communities.

Labor strongly supports the continued operation and improvement of the CATSI Act. It is a special measure to promote First Nations economic advancement and self-determination. We welcome the parts of this bill that will make it easier for First Nations organisations to do business and to strengthen transparency. However, if we have learned anything from the pandemic, it's that we must listen to and support First Nations organisations. At a minimum, we owe it to them to ensure that the adjustments we're making to the CATSI Act strike the right balance. We owe it to them to make sure they're supported, not impeded, by the changes to this critical act.

While many First Nations organisations support aspects of this bill, they have also raised significant concerns, including about the consultation process in the development of this bill. Labor notes that the exposure draft bill was available for consultation for just a month, from 8 July to 9 August this year. This was a time when many First Nations organisations, including ACCHOs, were dealing with the growing COVID-19 outbreaks in First Nations communities. This made it difficult for organisations to respond, especially given the complexity of the proposed reforms.

NACCHO, the peak body representing Aboriginal community controlled health organisations has criticised this lack of engagement. In their submission on the draft exposure bill they said:

NACCHO has been disappointed in the cursory approach to engagement undertaken in the review. It is NACCHOs view that the National Indigenous Australian Agency (NIAA) has lost a valuable opportunity to not only demonstrate its commitment to the new process of partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership as set out in the priority reform areas of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

They went on to say:

The main criticism we have of the process with the review of the CATSI Act is that all we have had is consultation and there has been no clear and systematic engagement with senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in the process of the review and in the decision making in relation to the drafting and the preparation of the exposure draft.

They called on the government to delay the progress of the bill to rectify these failures. They also proposed the establishment of a joint governance review group, with key leaders of the community controlled sector. This would provide a vehicle for partnership and shared decision-making in the reforms of the CATSI Act. As far as we can tell, neither of these requests have been fulfilled. These are requests from the Aboriginal health services who, as we speak, are battling to protect the most vulnerable communities.

Other concerns have been raised in relation to the impact on registered native title bodies. These are the organisations established to manage and protect native title on behalf of the traditional owners. Native title bodies are required to and must comply with the onerous regulatory obligations under both the CATSI Act and the Native Title Act. Many native title bodies operate with very limited resources. They also have the challenge of bridging traditional and mainstream law to manage the rights and interests of native title holders.

The Native Title Council raised concerns that the bill ignores the recommendations from the review to create a separate chapter, or division, of the act specifically concerning native title bodies. The Native Title Council supports parts of the bill, but it also identifies a number of impractical and overly onerous changes. They're concerned that the framework could see many organisations, including native title bodies, breach the act because they're too poorly resourced to comply. Others are concerned that changes could increase the risk of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being manipulated by parties seeking to profit from organisations with Aboriginal status. I am glad to note that the bill has been referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee for inquiry. Labor supports the changes in this bill that make it easier for First Nation organisations to do business. We also support improved transparency and accountability of First Nation organisations. It is essential that representative corporations operate for the benefit of their members and do so in a way that is consistent with strong governance principles, but we must be sure that the right balance is struck and ensure that the self-determination of First Nation organisations is not undermined.

In closing, while we will not oppose the passage of this bill through this chamber, it is important that the broader impacts of the bill are examined. This process will enable the parliament to hear directly from First Nation organisations and interest groups that are most closely affected, including ACCHOs and registered native title bodies corporate. Labor will reserve its final position on the measures in this bill until we've had an opportunity to consider the inquiry's report, which is due to be completed by 14 October 2021. In the meantime, we urge the government to support and adequately resource all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, particularly those community controlled health services that are on the front line of the COVID 19 crisis currently unfolding in western New South Wales.