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Wednesday, 30 August 1989
Page: 573

Senator TEAGUE(11.32) —The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill 1989 is one of the most important proposals for change in Aboriginal affairs that we have seen in this Parliament. I believe that it is misconstrued and that it is an unwise change, and I am totally opposed to it. I do not trust the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand) and I do not believe that his deception in the construction of this Bill has been sufficiently widely perceived by the Aboriginal communities of Australia, nor by the public of Australia, nor even by his own colleagues in the Government. I therefore will direct my remarks to what I see as the central weaknesses of this Bill and illustrate how those weaknesses are seen to be all the more dangerous, given the events of the last two years while this Minister, Mr Hand, has been responsible for Aboriginal affairs.

I concur with my colleagues' remarks, in particular those of Senator Peter Baume in his systematic criticism of this Bill. I, like him, reiterate that there are many of us in this Parliament who have an enduring concern for the well-being of the Aboriginal people of Australia. From the beginning of my time as a senator, more than 11 years ago, I have paid regular visits to the Aboriginal communities of my State of South Australia. It has become a regular annual expedition to visit the most remote communities, the Pitjantjatjara communities, in my State of South Australia. Time does not allow me to give a summary of my readings and my assessments year by year over the last 12 visits to those Aboriginal communities, but let me assure the Senate that my opposition to this Bill is spurred as much by what I have seen happen under this Government's Minister over the last two years as it is by my positive concerns for the Aboriginal people of my State of South Australia, indeed throughout this nation.

It has been put forward by Government spokesmen that this Bill brings about three major reforms. It, first of all, consolidates Aboriginal programs under one umbrella, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Secondly, it sets up a national representative council elected from 17 zones throughout Australia and the elected persons must be members of the 60 regional councils to be set up also by this legislation. So we have, in what would appear to be a governing position in this new umbrella body for all Aboriginal programs from the Commonwealth, some 17 elected Aboriginal people. However, that is a facade and a hollow shell. I will come to that later on. The third reform is the setting up of the regional representative councils.

I believe there are fundamental fallacies in all three of these so-called reforms. Before I mention those fallacies, let me introduce that critique by referring to the important concepts of self-management and self-determination. They are motherhood concepts and they are supported by every member of parliament whom I know and who has made any comment at all about Aboriginal affairs. So when we have pages and pages of rhetoric from the Government about this Bill achieving self-management and self-determination, do not let anyone be gulled. Let us look beyond to see what actual practical steps are being given to these important concepts. I believe that the facade of this Bill does appeal to self-management and self-determination, but that the actuality is that the practical decision making and power given in this Bill are retained even more centrally by the Minister, and that this is a deceit on those who are actually aspiring to self-management and self-determination.

The second introductory remark I would make is that Aboriginal affairs for the last 20 years-indeed, for the last 200 years-has been beset by many difficulties, and so it is easy at any time for persons to stand up in Australia, even in this Senate chamber, and find fault with one or other program that is actively pursuing goals in Aboriginal communities. Many people, looking at the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC) or at the context in which Aboriginal Hostels Ltd works, or indeed at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs itself, can, with a lot of material, point criticisms at these three major bodies. That in itself is not any reason for virtually abolishing all three and incorporating them together into one new umbrella organisation called ATSIC.

Do not let us be distracted by the fault finders in the present system. I take the general approach that, with regard to the gross inadequacies in the way in which this Government has handled Aboriginal affairs and Aboriginal programs, including in the Department, in the ADC and in Aboriginal Hostels, the appropriate way ahead is to reform those existing bodies and to ensure that they are accountable to the Aboriginal communities and to the public through this Parliament and that there is a genuine and practical encouragement of self-management and self-determination in making those existing programs work.

Let me go to my critique of the three reforms. First of all, I do not believe that bigger is better. I do not believe that, by amalgamating the three major existing organisations into one, they will all of a sudden magically become more successful. In the same way, I do not believe that amalgamating universities magically makes them more effective. We need to look at the detail before we can assess whether that is the case.

There is a deceit as well in that this national representative council, ATSIC, gives a feeling of an Aboriginal parliament, but it is not an Aboriginal parliament even though it has legislative-that is, policy-functions and executive functions. It would be wrong for any who felt there was some appeal in the concept of this being like an Aboriginal parliament to take that concept any further because we are one nation, we are one people, and there is one Parliament. The important programs that relate to Aboriginal communities need to be addressed in their own practical ways without any such notion of a separate apartheid parliament for the Aboriginal people of Australia.

My main criticism of this consolidation is that it increases ministerial control over Aboriginal affairs and denies the presence of the existing structures that have already been moving towards greater Aboriginal self-management and self-determination. I will come back to that point in a moment. The national representative council should not be pointed to, in the way that Senator McMullan did in his speech, as a step forward because it is representational. It is a hollow shell when the Minister still has control. It does not even begin to approach, nor should it, an Aboriginal parliament.

Some 60 regional councils are to be set up. The Bill does not tell us their boundaries or the election rules. We do not, therefore, know how they will interfere with the existing Aboriginal community arrangements that have been established in the States and in conjunction with Commonwealth programs. I fear that the 60 regional councils will cut across the stable and reasonably successful local community associations, particularly those under the auspices of the States, which have important responsibilities in Aboriginal affairs. By interfering with those stable associations, the regional councils will act to the detriment of the Aboriginal communities.

I see this Bill as a partisan push by an untrustworthy Minister. Let me back up that statement. I do not frequently call a Minister untrustworthy. The Minister has lost the trust of the entire Opposition in this matter and he has lost the trust of at least half the Aboriginal people. The numbers would be even greater if they knew the deficiencies in this ATSIC proposal. The Minister is from the socialist left of the Australian Labor Party. He has had an agenda to put forward his own reform, his own structure on the way in which Aboriginal affairs should be conducted in this country. When the Senate set up a select committee to inquire into the Minister's concept, it met with all manner of controversy in the submissions that were put to it, leading to a divided report to the Senate. My Opposition colleagues Senator Peter Baume and Senator Boswell gave a substantial minority report which totally opposed the concept of ATSIC and not just this legislation. The way in which the Minister has contrived to get political numbers in Aboriginal organisations about the country, to win by the numbers some public support for the ATSIC proposal, is a fraud. It has cheated open discussion and substantial evidence being brought to the discussion.

I will outline the clauses of the Bill which give powers to the Minister. Under clause 8 the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) will be able to give any new functions to ATSIC and, presumably, take those functions away.

Senator Peter Baume —Yes, without the Parliament.

Senator TEAGUE —Without the Parliament's knowledge; I agree. Clause 12 (1) empowers the Minister to require ATSIC to follow his own general directions. Under clause 21 the Chairperson and two other members of the 20-member council are to be directly chosen by the Minister. He is to appoint the full time chairman of ATSIC. He is also empowered to appoint two other positions: a legal expert and a financial expert. In a Yes, Minister fashion, those experts could hold sway in a council of 20. The Minister will also appoint the Chief Executive Officer. Under clause 38 (1) the Minister can suspend a commissioner for misbehaviour. Clause 38 (7) defines misbehaviour as any disagreement with the Minister's instructions. Therefore, if a commissioner disagrees with the Minister's instructions, he will be deemed to be misbehaving through that disobedience and immediately sacked from the Commission by the Minister's practical decision.

Under clause 42 (1), the convening of meetings is to be determined by the Chairman, not by the Commission. The Chairman will be able to determine when the meetings of the Commission can take place and the Minister can override such a determination at any time and convene the Commission. Under clause 42 (4), a quorum for the 20-member council will be 12, but it can be eight. Twelve members are required to begin a meeting, but there may be only eight remaining by the end of a two-day meeting. As the numbers dwindle, the agenda will need to be stacked to get matters discussed. I am not being cynical; I have observed this sort of thing happening in such bodies over the last two years. Clause 44 provides for the Chief Executive Officer-the person who runs the entire staff, in a body that is likely to have a budget of about $20m-to be appointed by the Minister. The Bill before us actually says that the Minister need not consult the Commission in the first appointment and that, if he disagrees with the second, third and fourth appointments, the Minister will make his own appointment. Even the acting Chief Executive Officer is to be appointed by the Minister. Under clause 60, the estimates will be as determined by the Minister.

Clause 73 empowers the Minister to give financial directions to the Commission. Under clause 83, the Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board is to be appointed entirely by the Minister. Under clause 89, the 60 regions will have boundaries determined by the Minister. Under clause 104, the election days, polling places and the election rules will be-guess what-determined by the Minister. Clause 110 says that the election rules may be determined by the Minister. Clause 128 says that the 17 zones from which councillors will be elected can be varied from time to time by the Minister. Clause 147 (3) says that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation must have a corporate plan specified by the Minister. Clause 154 says that the nine directors of the Development Corporation, which is effectively taking over the existing Aboriginal Development Commission's $100m budget, are to be appointed by the Minister.

Let me refer to the way the Minister has, in fact, dealt with the pre-existing body-the Aboriginal Development Commission. Let me remind the Senate that the Minister was appointed in mid-July 1987 and that nine months later he interfered with the ADC by requiring it to support this ATSIC concept. But, lo and behold, the ADC commissioners at that time had entirely different views. They did not believe ATSIC was in the best interests of the Aboriginal people. When it became clear that they were disobeying the Minister, two weeks later he sacked them all except one, the Chairman. He could not get rid of the Chairman because the Chairman, Mrs McPherson, had been appointed by the Governor-General. There was one other who was also appointed by the Governor-General and who was retained, that is, Zona Martin. The other eight were all sacked on 11 May. The Minister said, `You are not sufficiently behind the ATSIC concept'. Then he appointed eight hand-picked persons who were behind the ATSIC concept to become the spokesmen or the majority voice in the ADC. Those persons were: Patrick Dodson, Esther Carroll, Robert Lee, Getano Lui, Lois O'Donoghue, Terry O'Shane, Peter Yu and Charles Perkins. Let me say that, of those, Lois O'Donoghue is well known to me as a South Australian. She has a very careful and sincere support for the ATSIC concept and I would like to know her views much more clearly, but in some of my remarks hereafter I do not wish to make any inference with regard to Mrs O'Donoghue.

Let me ask for the incorporation in Hansard of one paragraph of the General Manager's inclusion in the annual report of a summary of the ADC's year, 1988, and also an organisational structure for the ADC.

Leave granted.

The documents read as follows-

During a very difficult year the Commission has been able to attain ambitious targets in program performance, achieve significant progress in computerisation of systems, document manual procedures, particularly in program areas, and achieve a very high standard of accountability to Parliament. Communication with Aboriginal people has been very successfully maintained through the efforts of the full-time Chairman, part-time Commissioners, and Regional and Branch staff in 25 locations around Australia. Despite the difficulties of the year Commissioners and staff should be well satisfied with their cost-effective administration and program performance throughout the year. All will no doubt look forward to 1988-89 as a year of challenge but one in which the ADC can continue its excellent work in the area of economic and social development for Aborigines throughout Australia.

Senator TEAGUE —Despite Michael O'Brien's rather glowing summary of the ADC year that has just been incorporated, and despite the fact that he is listed in the structure under Mrs McPherson as the General Manager, later in 1988, as is well known to the Senate, both of them were compelled to be confined in the exercising of their positions in the ADC. The Chairman was circumscribed-not allowed to make public statements-and undermined at every point by the Minister's appointed commissioners. The General Manager was sacked from that position by the new commissioners and put aside, and he no longer had control of the organisation.

Let me refer to excerpts of a discussion by the eight new commissioners in July of 1988, some two months after the Minister had sacked the old commissioners and put them into place. I give some excerpts which are soundly based:

This lady at the end-

referring to Mrs Shirley McPherson-

she runs the whole Commission. She has made all those press statements and got all you mob, the Commission, to be against ATSIC. She is telling us lies. She thinks we're stupid. Have you read her press statements? They're absolutely scandalous and it's all her. Also she's gone to the Minister plenty of times without the other commissioners. She is scheming with the Minister. She's swanning all over.

... ... ...

As for Mick O'Brien, he should not appear before anything. We should have a look at his delegations and remove sections of them and the powers that he's got to go and charge in like he does. He's the greatest . . . of them all. He's the devil in disguise. He's a dangerous man. He was used before on the House of Representatives. He's destroying our whole case before the Senate Committee.

... ... ...

Its up to the record of the papers. What we have indicated is that this lot would have never been presented or ratified by this (new) Commission.

What the Senate Committee then looks at, without being ratified by the Commission is up for query. There's no legitimacy in what's been put forward.

... ... ...

Also I've acquired the information which is very damaging to the Minister and to us.

... ... ...

I just want to show here a point. I can go real hard in on her and show her to be a liar and a false . . . and a schemer.

... ... ...

We're gonna want them responsible to us, directly, to every Commissioner.

... ... ...

Stand Mick aside and say that the Chief Officer of the ADC is now Mike Stewart and all staff answerable to him. That's it.

... ... ...

Are we going to sit down, sit back and be dictated to. It's quite obvious. We have to override them. Now, that's utilising your authority. Right. Override them. And change their position.

... ... ...

We should knock this into a resolution. Mike Stewart is now the position of General Manager. Put Mick O'Brien on special duties, and if he can't come at those, we can put him aside. Mike Stewart will hone in on them and Shirley is not to leave Canberra.

... ... ...

The other thing is we want to cover the political scandal. We don't want Mike Stewart getting involved with all the administrative matters. We've got to be careful about that. If we give him all O'Brien's delegations, he's going to be tied into knots. They'll make it hard for him. They'll just try and knock him off. What we want is a politician.

... ... ...

I tell you what you call him: Mike Stewart is the Chief Liaison Officer for the Commission.

What this, along with all of the other public material, indicates about the 1988 ADC year is that there was a civil war launched by the Minister within the ADC in May of 1988. This is confirmed by all that we know about the ADC. This civil war was the direct objective and responsibility of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Hand. He, on 11 May, sacked the ADC commissioners and on 13 May appointed the eight new ones to go about his bidding, to achieve his objectives and to subvert the legitimate views of the old ADC that were directly opposed to ATSIC. He wished to silence the then Chairman, Shirley McPherson, and the General Manager, Michael O'Brien, and he wished to defend the ATSIC proposal by putting in people who were going to systematically further his own political line.

Let us be reminded that this was a crucial battle to win. The ADC was the principal body to be replaced by ATSIC. If the public are to learn what the ADC's view is about ATSIC, it is going to be a most important piece of information. So we see that throughout 1988 and 1989 there was a civil war raging in the ADC. I regard both sides of that civil war as having been less than frank to the Senate Committee and having been less than frank to the public and to this Parliament in frankly saying that there were two views-a view imposed by the Minister through his eight cronies that he had appointed to the Commission and the views that had been well developed by the old Commission and still held by the Chairman and General Manager.

My colleagues in this place referred to a number of elements arising from that civil war to the Privileges Committee of this Parliament, of which I was a member. We went over days and days of inquiry and some two or three feet of papers to try to analyse this. I have no criticism of the protagonists in the ADC itself. My criticism is reserved for the Minister, Mr Hand, who deliberately subverted the ADC to his own political line. The tactics of the Minister's men in the civil war were conspiratorial, secretive and dissembling, using every delegated power to the hilt for their own advantage and using the violence of numbers to bully a conclusion through. That is the context in which we are to assess this ATSIC legislation. That is the kind of tactic that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Hand, has used to try to subvert public opinion to support this Bill. The Senate should not be conned by this Minister. He is an untrustworthy Minister, and this legislation, which gives him increased power in Aboriginal affairs at the expense of the Aboriginal people of Australia, should be wholly rejected by the Senate.

There is no evidence that the Minister has encouraged discussion built on trust, openness, free debate, the tendering of clear evidence or soundly established material. My criticisms are not directed to the Minister's puppets but to the Minister himself. He should be ashamed of himself; he should be censored, and he should not be rewarded by the Senate giving him the prize which he has sought to gain all along during the last two years when he has been the Minister. I draw the attention of the Senate, in particular, as I have just a minute or two in which to conclude, firstly, to the fact that the ATSIC legislation gives new power to the Minister in the ways that I have described. He can appoint the chairman and the chief executive officer. Certainly Shirley McPherson would have gone in May 1988 under this ATSIC arrangement. Secondly, it gives the Minister a new power to appoint the Commission's chief executive officer. There would not have had to be that conspiratorial stratagem that I have referred to to get rid of Mick O'Brien-the Minister could have done it himself under the ATSIC Bill. Thirdly, the ATSIC Bill increases the powers of the Minister with regard to all of its operations and, in terms of being able to get rid of commissioners who disobey the Minister through so-called misbehaviour, this is a contemptible Bill. I urge the Senate to reject it and to support the minority findings of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs that it is a Bill which is unjustified, unnecessary and culturally inappropriate.