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Friday, 18 August 1989
Page: 397


Senator DEVLIN(10.34) —We are debating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill 1989, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Bill 1989 and the Aboriginal Development Commission Amendment Bill 1989. The Government is very pleased finally to be debating legislation to establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Members of the Opposition have tried everything to prevent this debate from occurring. They spent months attacking people in this chamber in an attempt to discredit this proposal. They have failed. They set up a Senate committee to try to discredit the Government's plans for long overdue reforms in Aboriginal affairs. They have failed. They have tried to malign and smear the reputation of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand). They have failed. Finally, they attempted the tired old tactic of the filibuster. They were hoping that, if they stalled long enough, the Government would not proceed with this debate. They thought that if they threatened a lengthy and drawn out debate the Government would back down. Again they have failed.

It has been two years since the Government first announced its proposal to set up a new administrative body for Aboriginal affairs. Since then much has happened. The original proposal, announced by the Minister in December 1987, has gone through some changes. The principle has not changed but some of the mechanics have. The first changes occurred after a round of extensive consultations with Aboriginal and Islander people in the early part of 1988. The Minister's consultations were not token consultations. The legislation we are debating today reflects the very changes suggested by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people during those consultations. In fact, the legislation we are debating today reflects the views and demands that Aboriginal and Islander people have been promoting for many years. They have said again and again, `We have to have a say in the decision-making process. We have to decide what is best for us'.

Today the Senate has before it a piece of legislation that will implement Aboriginal and Islander involvement in the decision-making process. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission will allow people to be part of the system rather than just being on the receiving end. Members of the Opposition have said that the existing system does not need to be changed. Senator Peter Baume repeated this yesterday when he quoted the old saying, `If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it'. At the same time, members of the Opposition have quoted relentlessly from the Auditor-General's report, which has highlighted the range of problems that in many cases date back to the Fraser Administration. This is particularly so with the Aboriginal Development Commission. The reality is that the system is broke and it desperately needs fixing. To quote the words of the former Secretary to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Perkins, the system is old and tired.

Senator Baume said that the Government should not change the system, it should reform it. Despite the fact that `it ain't broke', according to the Opposition it needs reforming; but there is no mention of these reforms in the Opposition's policy on Aboriginal affairs. The Opposition, according to its policy, wants to hand over the administration of Aboriginal affairs to the States. Why has not Senator Baume argued that course in this chamber? Whereas ATSIC is based on the principle of Aboriginal involvement in the decision-making process, the Opposition's policy advocates reducing the involvement of Aboriginal people in the delivery of services-for example, in Aboriginal-controlled medical and legal services. The reality is that the Opposition has no idea how to improve the delivery of service to Aboriginal and Island people. Members of the Opposition have not put forward one workable suggestion that would bring about sustained changes in the current system. All they have done is criticise the Government's plans for change. They have said that the Government has not made a case for ATSIC. This is absolutely wrong. The case for ATSIC has been made over and over again.

The current system needs to be changed. It is old, tired and in need of reform. The Aboriginal and Island people have very little input into the current system of administration. They have few opportunities to determine the programs that would best suit their needs. Where Aboriginal and Island people have had the opportunity to determine programs and priorities, the success rate has been far greater. An example of this is the way in which the combined Aboriginal organisations at Alice Springs operate so successfully in determining the priorities of Aboriginal people in their region. The administration of Aboriginal affairs needs to be decentralised. Resources should be where the people are, not just in Canberra.

According to the Opposition, the points I have made do not justify a case for ATSIC. If that is so, how does the Opposition respond to the very real need for Aboriginal involvement in the decision-making process? Does the Opposition feel that the ADC, with its Government appointed board, or hand-picked commissioner, to use its words, adequately addresses this real need? Does the Opposition believe that handing back the administration of Aboriginal affairs is going to bring about the reforms that Senator Baume was talking about earlier? Where is the Opposition's case? Why have not Opposition senators come in here and argued these very points? They have not done so because they have no argument.

The Opposition's case against ATSIC can be summed up in one word-paternalism. Senator Baume's comments reflect that view. The Opposition has said that Aboriginal people cannot operate as administrators as well as elected representatives. Why? Senator Baume argues that they are susceptible to family and peer pressures, that we can cope with that but Aboriginal people cannot. What paternalistic rubbish! The reality is that the Opposition has no case. It has in fact gone backwards in its policies and views on Aboriginal affairs. It offers no worthwhile contribution. ATSIC is needed and it will work. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will properly be part of the decision-making process and it is that very fact which the Opposition cannot condone. That is a very sad reflection on it. I support the Bill.