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Wednesday, 5 May 1993
Page: 188

Senator IAN MACDONALD (6.59 p.m.) —by leave—The review of the operation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act is a very interesting document. It has a very strong connection with the amendments recently announced by the Government in relation to the operations of the ATSIC Act.

  It is very interesting to note that, in very many important aspects, what the Labor Party Government has done is simply learnt yet again from the policy which the Liberal and National parties put out at the last election. What is said in this report and in the action that the Government has announced in recent times is simply an endorsement of what our then shadow Minister, Mr Michael Wooldridge, put up to the people of Australia at the last election as our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy. Specifically, the Government—and this report makes mention of it—has adopted our proposal to have an office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs to give independent policy advice to the Minister.

  There is, of course, a difference between the way in which the Labor Party has introduced this proposal and the way in which we did it. We did it after nine months of consultation, after a discussion paper had been put out and after Dr Wooldridge had had very lengthy discussions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. The Labor Party has simply made the announcement and lumped it upon these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

   The second proposal stolen by the Government from our election policy—already on the second day of the Parliament the Government is taking over the proposals that we put at the last election—is the reduction in the number of regional councils from 60 to 36. This is referred to on page 25, item 5 of the report. Another proposal that we put up and the Government has now adopted is to have commissioners working full-time and for a salary. We also proposed that regional chairmen should act full-time and on a salary; again, a proposal that has been adopted by the Government. In our policy we have also proposed that decisions should be made at regional council level rather than in the central government in Canberra. That has also been taken over by the Government.

  The Government still has a couple of other things to do to legislate correctly in so far as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is concerned in accordance with our policies. Still left to be adopted is our proposal for enhanced accountability. I would certainly urge the Government to look at our proposals in that regard and adopt them in future.

   The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has bipartisan support; certainly it has the support of the Liberal and National parties. However, I should sound a note of warning. It will only get that bipartisan support for so long as it acts responsibly. I was distressed to learn during the campaign that one of its commissioners was promoting some grossly inaccurate statements about our policies, suggesting that petrol and medicines would go up under our GST, when everybody knew that petrol would fall by 26c a litre in cost and that there was to be no GST on medicines. We were rather concerned to see a responsible commissioner going around promoting this sort of Labor Party propaganda.

  Although commissioners should have a view on matters of current debate, we hope that they will at least express their view in accordance with the facts and not in line with political propaganda that has been distributed around at the time. Having said that, we continue to offer our bipartisan support to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. We think that the amendments proposed and referred to this in report go a long way towards making the commission even more effective. We wish it continuing success.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.