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Tuesday, 23 May 1989
Page: 2483

Senator TAMBLING(6.24) —In speaking to the Appropriation and Supply Bills which are now before the Parliament, it is interesting to note the state of the Australian economy at this time. It is a time when we are bedevilled with foreign debt, a situation which worries so many Australians. There is also another issue which probably has a major bearing on the life styles of all Australians at present-people's concern about their declining living standards. When the people of Australia on the one hand have to worry about the major economic issues that seem to bedevil the nation, which is evidenced in the whole area of foreign debt and where it will take the nation, and on the other hand when those people have to attempt to balance and maintain their domestic budgets and households, this reflects very much on family living standards. With a deficit that is predicted in the 1988-89 financial year to be as high as $17,000m, is it any wonder that the Australian community cannot have confidence in this Government? When we are constantly worried about seeing the massive borrowings that are necessary from overseas sources or the sales of Australian land or other assets to foreign owners, of course there is unease at the way in which the economy is being managed by the Government.

Whenever the monthly or quarterly government statistics hit the deck the press and the media constantly home in on those figures, and this in itself becomes very much a scare tactic in the broad Australian community. It is interest rates that really hurt and hit home. I do not think I need to draw too heavily on the statistics in this area, but it is a fact that an astounding 400,000 Australians have slipped below the poverty line, while more than 500,000 Australians cannot find work. Tragically, 100,000 of these out of work people are teenagers. Basically, the Labor Government has slammed shut the door of opportunity on Australians who want to work harder, want to earn more and want to make life better. We need a change of direction. The fact that the consumer price index has risen by 6.9 per cent during the 12 months ending in March reflects this factor. It reflects on jobs, on poverty and on every Australian family. I refer to families which are seeking to strengthen their family units and to have control over their lives and who wish to be sure that there is a fair go for everyone. Whenever a member of the family is looking for housing or an improvement in lifestyle, the family has to face up to the very high level of interest rates that are constantly before them.

Last week at the Premiers Conference and the Loan Council meeting sharp cuts were imposed by the Government for the coming financial year. That will bring about dramatic changes in the communities in which we live. I know from the point of view of the Northern Territory that this raises very severe concerns. Over the past couple of years of the Hawke Labor Government's subventions to the Northern Territory Government the recurrent funding to that Territory has been reduced by some 17 per cent. That is a very dramatic figure which has a major effect on the day to day lives of every Territorian who is involved in business in one way or another. The fact that the Commonwealth did not give much prominence to the issue at the Loan Council meeting at which it slashed borrowings by Federal government authorities by well in excess of a billion dollars will have an effect on the services to be provided. I certainly hope from the point of view of the Northern Territory that the cuts will not impinge on the Federal Airports Corporation. The confidence that is required in the Northern Territory in terms of the Darwin and Alice Springs airports depends strongly on the funding of that Corporation. I believe that the Government must maintain those sorts of commitments which it has in the broader community.

The perception shown by the statistics is that the Hawke Labor Government has introduced more than 300 taxation measures since coming to office in 1983. Consequently, personal taxes have gone up 107 per cent, company taxes by 133 per cent, and sales tax by 147 per cent. Average weekly earnings and inflation have increased by only 50 per cent over the same period of the Hawke Labor Government. Even with the promises contained in the tax package of 12 April, everybody's real disposable income has fallen dramatically under Labor. For example, a taxpayer on average weekly male earnings with a dependent wife and two dependent children will require an extra $56 a week by July 1990 to restore real disposable income to the March 1983 level. A family with two working adults earning full time average male and female weekly earnings, with two dependent children, will need an extra $71 a week by July 1990 to restore real disposable income to the March 1983 level. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the Hawke Labor Government is the highest taxing government in Australia's history. Total tax revenues have increased from $44 billion when Labor came to office six years ago to an estimated $82.3 billion this financial year. Similarly, personal income tax revenue has jumped from $20.8 billion in 1982-83 to an estimated $37.9 billion in 1988-89.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.

Senator TAMBLING —Prior to the dinner break I had outlined a number of the measures relating to the current Budget provisions of the Government and had highlighted a number of the issues relating to the very high taxes which have been imposed in recent years. It is no wonder that voters are cynical about the tax cuts and about the motives of a Federal government that gives with one hand and takes with the other. Certainly, promises of increased family assistance, pensions and wage rises have failed to compensate people for the erosion of their living standards over the past six years. I contend that the policies of the Hawke Labor Government have introduced a range of new increased and indexed indirect taxes on a host of consumer goods. They have maintained unacceptably high interest rates, especially home interest rates. They have maintained an unacceptably high and uncompetitive inflation rate, despite efforts to fiddle the figures, and have ensured that taxpayers still suffer from tax bracket creep. Indeed, what the Federal Government promised in the April 12 statement to give back pales into insignificance when compared with the taxes, charges and other costs imposed over the past six years. It is interesting to note what the respected consumer magazine Choice stated recently:

An unfortunate part of our tax system is that in many cases the poor pay a disproportionately high share.

The highest 10 per cent of income earners pay only about half the proportion of their disposable income in excise compared with the lowest 10 per cent of income earners. Excise hits the poor hardest (as to indirect taxes in general).

So much for a Labor government. When looking at the issues of the Appropriation Bills, it is appropriate that we direct our attention to the reports of the various Estimates committees of this Senate. I am a member of Estimates Committee E, which looks into a number of government departments, including the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs. Certainly, this issue of the administration of Aboriginal Affairs for the past 12 months has been subject to continual and considerable scrutiny. The two questions that I and a number of other senators have asked continually are: Is the expenditure accountable, and is it efficient? When one measures that accountability and efficiency, I believe there are many issues that need to be properly addressed and taken up continually. I have not been satisfied that Aboriginal Australians can rely with confidence on the Hawke Labor Government. There has not been any real reconciliation or a commitment by the Government to eliminate the disadvantages which prevent Aborigines from enjoying equal opportunity. We want to make sure that the community in which all Australians live is one in which they can feel confident and know that the Government's commitment to finances, in particular, will produce proper outcomes and very good responses.

Once again in the report of Estimates Committee E, which Committee, I remind honourable senators, comprises senators both from the Labor side and from the Opposition, we find very trenchant and severe criticism of both the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) and the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC). If I could make an aside, I was certainly very disappointed that this time, in the preparation of this report, the Government saw fit to replace one member of that Committee purely for the purpose of getting signatures on the report in order to have a majority report. One senator was stacked onto the Committee by the Government in order just to get a report finalised for presentation to this Parliament. The senator who came onto the Committee was not part of the very comprehensive hearings that took place and therefore was not, in my view, in a position to judge the considerable weight of evidence of the hundreds of questions asked across the range of the portfolio. I think that the Government's action, in effect, has forced a reservation to the main report by Senator Michael Baume, Senator Jim Short and me; it has invited natural attention to this particular area and to the high-handed attitude the Labor Government has continually shown in trying to hide behind the actions of Minister Hand.

If one looks at the areas of performance indicators and public awareness programs and in particular, as you, Mr Acting Deputy President, have pointed out to the Senate so many times, the area of unacquitted grants of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, one sees that once again hundreds of grants-in fact, some 783 grants-worth in excess of $67m remain unacquitted, as was outlined in the Auditor-General's special report to this Parliament. The report also points out that the sheer number of questions that had to be taken on notice by officers of the Aboriginal Development Commission at the hearings reflected not only on the calibre of many of the people seeking to perform in that area but also on the fact that officers of both the DAA and the ADC had effectively been stripped of any effectiveness by the actions of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the last 12 months. The Minister has caused so many senior officers to either resign or retire that the Department and the Commission are unable to administer their work effectively. I hope that these issues are now being addressed by the new administrations in those two organisations. I hope that they in turn will not feel threatened by the legislation, which is still before this Parliament, to create a new Commission, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which legislation, I hope, will not in any way be pushed or thwarted through this Parliament by the guillotine methods that we have come to expect.

I know that the Australian Democrats share the Opposition's concern in many areas relating to the formulation of that new Commission and acknowledge the necessity, in any change of administration of the Department or the new Commission, to ensure that we get it right. The fact that the Australian Audit Office has found so many serious problems, which problems were highlighted in its recent special report, also needs to be drawn to attention. The fact that the report of Estimates Committee E, which Committee included Labor senators, was prepared to be so strong in pointing up those problems also needs to be taken into account. I highlight the point I was just making by quoting the part of the report which states:

The problems experienced with project evaluation and monitoring which are the core of the Audit Office Report are of continuing relevance to the ADC and must also be considered in the context of the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

That is a warning to the Government, not only from Opposition senators but also from the Labor senators who participated in the preparation of that report, that we are certainly not yet convinced that the new ATSIC proposals will in any way address the very serious issues of maladministration and lack of accountability that have been so evident.

Opposition senators, in their reservation to the report, highlighted the fact that there were many significant issues that needed to be further addressed-in particular, the imposition of staff reductions in DAA and ADC and how this could subsequently affect ATSIC. The effects of these staff reductions were very evident to the Committee. One cannot lose experienced staff without expecting a decline in the standards of administration and management. This has certainly happened. There are many areas that need to be addressed. In particular, I would highlight the operation of the Aboriginal Development Commission Board. The Estimates committees highlighted many issues in late 1988, and a number of those resurfaced in the report six months later. Those issues have been compounded. The fact that the Board itself did not act competently, I think, is of major concern. What concerns me even more is that I believe the Minister, in the last week, has reappointed all of those Commissioners to the Aboriginal Development Commission Board, in spite of the assurance given to this Senate recently by Senator Tate, in answer to a question in this chamber, that Minister Hand would consult widely and comprehensively with the Aboriginal constituency before any replacement positions were made. Obviously, Minister Hand chose to override the very obvious advice given to him by his Senate colleague, Senator Tate, who had heard all of the evidence before the Estimates committees in October last year and this year and was well aware of the very major and significant problems in that area. It concerns me that so many of these issues have been ignored by this Minister.

A number of issues related to the Aboriginal portfolio, I believe, need to be stressed in detail, in particular the duplication of functions that are exercised between the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development Commission. Similarly, there remains a very serious duplication of functions between Commonwealth and State agencies. It is very obvious to see, particularly from the amounts of money that are dedicated to these projects, that these duplication exercises are wasteful in terms of both finances and staff resources. Areas to do with grant funds have not been properly acquitted and need to be specially addressed. Some 425 Aboriginal organisations throughout Australia are potentially in breach of the statutory requirements of the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act. This is a most serious matter that needs to be addressed by government.

The 300-odd questions that senators raised at the Estimates committee hearings in an effort to establishing something to address the real situation again invite further inquiry. There are plenty of examples of problem areas, such as the duplicated activities that I have just mentioned and the unnecessary overlap despite claims of no duplication between the Aboriginal organisation training undertaken by DAA and training for Aboriginals provided by the Department of Employment, Education and Training. Why cannot this be properly coordinated by one department?

The special audit raised many questions as to whether projects genuinely enabled Aborigines to engage in business enterprises as required by section 24 of the Aboriginal Development Commission Act. This important issue, while under study, remains unresolved, as does the equally important issue of grants versus loans for business enterprise projects. Funds distributed for administrative expenses under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act increased significantly in 1987-88 by 457 per cent to $5.78m, and in 1988-89 by 486 per cent to $6.15m. Indeed, the administration costs are the largest outlay in the 1988-89 year. Would this massive increase in funding promotion be transferred to the proposed new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission?

I raised a series of questions related particularly to the operations of the Northern and Central Land Councils, which have in effect become the alternative bureaucracies for advice to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. In so many instances Mr Hand has chosen to override the advice given to him by the proficient and experienced officers of his Department and has relied on these land councils which, technically, have very different performance functions under their Act. The fact that the bureaucracies of the land councils have blown out of all proportion is, I believe, the area of major concern.

Whilst there have been many inquiries into the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio in the past year-and all of them have been warranted, as was borne out by the reports tabled in this Parliament-it is now timely that special inquiries also be put through the operations of the Northern and Central Land Councils. Their staffing indicators, their financial responsibilities and their advocacy on behalf of the constituents whom they represent, particularly the traditional Aboriginals in remote parts of Australia, ought to be tested thoroughly and applied to full indicators across every area. There are areas of buffalo royalties, areas of payments for the operation of community stores, areas where funding is not properly getting through and being properly accounted in the areas of the land councils.

Not only should there be special inquiries into their ongoing administration but also the Auditor-General and the auditors of these organisations should be called in to give them a very thorough going over and very thorough attention should be given to every point of detail. They are far exceeding their normal operations. I believe they are not properly representing the Aboriginal constituency which they represent.

There is just a dismal record for so many projects, whether in the departmental area or the ADC. The Government failed to act and to remedy so many of the issues raised in late 1988 in the various reports to this Parliament, which, I believe, are still on the books and still demand and will demand ongoing and close attention. It appears that it is only this Parliament that is prepared to draw those particular areas of disadvantage to attention.

One of the other significant areas relating to the Northern Territory that gave me cause for concern in the questioning was the provision of living areas for Aboriginals on pastoral properties in the Northern Territory. For a number of years there have been extensive negotiations between the Commonwealth Government, the Northern Territory Government and the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association on behalf of pastoralists in the Northern Territory. It has been an unhappy saga because the real issue that needs to be addressed is adequate and proper living conditions for Aboriginals in remote parts of Australia. The manner in which this whole area has been handled by the Government and in particular by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is of major concern. I seek leave to table a summary of the negotiations between the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association and the Commonwealth Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs in the period from 1984 to 1989.

Senator Tate —Remind me who compiled it.

Senator TAMBLING —The Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crichton-Browne) —There being no objection, leave is granted.

Leave granted.

Senator TAMBLING —I draw to the attention of the Senate some of the important conclusions of that document:

It is, however, crystal clear that:

There was a deal in June 1984 between the then Minister and the NTCA.

The Commonwealth recognised, and still acknowledges, that the cattlemen did their best to carry out their side of that bargain.

After some delay, the Commonwealth did pass amending legislation to exclude stock routes/reserves from Aboriginal Land claims. But it then failed to proclaim that legislation.

Since the present Minister took office in July 1987, he has walked right away from his predecessor's undertaking.

While he was all the time urging the NTCA to co-operate within the spirit of the original deal, the record shows the Minister was preparing to act in ways completely contrary to that deal, and did so act.

These proposals will, for the first time, allow for the compulsory acquisition of privately held property. What can be done in the Northern Territory in the name of Aboriginal Land Rights can equally be done in other parts of Australia.

The NTCA presents this brief summary of its negotiations to show that it has at all times acted in good faith. The Association has kept to its part of the 1984 agreement. Attempts to represent the Northern Territory Cattlemen, or the Association, as `obstructive' are totally without justification.

It is a very sorry and sad saga that obviously the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Hand, has chosen to participate in an open press debate on this matter at a time when this must be very embarrassing for the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and for other Ministers in the Hawke Labor Government. The article a week or so ago in the Australian by a Mr Hoy with regard to Brunette Downs highlighted particular problems at Brunette Downs, but it did not go far enough. The Minister did not address the problems that he knew had been under discussion and under consideration by his Department for some time. There was a total ignorance on his part. As I said, it must seriously embarrass the Hawke Labor Government and its senior Ministers when the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs would invite and promote open, active international participation in such an area. The ideal way to advance Aboriginal causes in Australia and in fact the very plight of Aboriginal people is not to go around playing funny games on issues as serious and as important as this one.

There is a very real need to address major disability and the lack of provision of services for Aboriginal people in remote parts of Australia. There is a need to make sure that the governing legislation that is put in place to enable that to happen properly reflects the views of those Aboriginal people. ATSIC is not the answer in that regard and fails to completely address those issues. It does not have the majority support of Aboriginal people around Australia. Instead, it has attracted the radical emphases of part Aboriginal people, admittedly with social problems, in other parts of Australia. ATSIC does not address the major issues of the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio and the intention and guise under which considerable amounts of government funding are being provided for the purposes of Aboriginal people throughout Australia.

This is probably best highlighted by the manner and way in which a Queen's Counsel (QC) was engaged by the Aboriginal Development Commission in order just to counter the arguments and criticisms that had been put forward by the special audit report. The fact that it cost well in excess of $100,000 to engage that QC when the Attorney- General's Department advised, in the details that were given to the Estimates Committee, that it could have done the same task for $3,500, and the fact that Mr Hand's radical mates choose to engage solicitors and lawyers and every other form of help they can from outside, show a complete disregard for the proper process of both Parliament and the Public Service and the way in which these matters should be conducted.

As I said in my remarks just prior to the suspension of the sitting for dinner, there are so many areas that need to be addressed. As Senator Stone pointed out in a notice of motion that was given earlier today, the declining living standards of all Australian people is the major issue before this Parliament. It is the major issue in this financial debate tonight. People in Australia no longer have confidence in any government at the Federal level, particularly a government led by the Australian Labor Party. They are scared by the borrowing situation and by the statistical information that continually flows out and is forever bad news. They know that their pockets are being hurt all the time, whether through interest rates or the cost of living. They are always worried about how their own State governments will be able to carry out their tasks. I have highlighted the particular issues that relate to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio because they certainly stand out to me, as a representative of an electorate of which some 25 per cent of the community is Aboriginal. The Government has failed miserably in all its tasks in this regard.