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Wednesday, 1 September 1993
Page: 812

Senator SHERRY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (6.33 p.m.) —I move:

  That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The speech read as follows

Mr President, this Bill follows on from the changes to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 which were passed by the Parliament in the Autumn Sittings. Its primary focus is not on the Commission itself (commonly referred to as ATSIC) but on the Regional Councils.

The Bill provides, in essence, for:

reforms to enhance the roles, effectiveness and accountability of Regional Councils including strengthening of the provisions relating to the declaration of pecuniary interests;

the election processes to be followed for the Regional Council elections;

the introduction of a ward system for those Regions where this is considered desirable;

proposals for further boundary changes to the 36 regions established under the Act; and

a number of other desirable administrative measures including provisions relating to the Minister's power to remove Council Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons and to establish unambiguously what constitutes misbehaviour.

This second package of amendments, like those introduced earlier this year, flow from recommendations contained in the Commission's report to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs on the operation of the Act. They will further enhance the representative nature of the organisation and strengthen the role of the Regional Councils as the linchpins of empowerment for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Honourable Senators will recall that, when I introduced the first package of reforms, I foreshadowed that further changes would be required.

As I pointed out at that time, the responsibilities of Regional Councils have been progressively increased. They are making more of the decisions about how the funds appropriated to ATSIC are distributed, and are becoming progressively more involved in the whole range of activities and policies that affect the lives of their people.

It is highly pleasing that other Commonwealth agencies, and State, Territory and local governments, are increasingly recognising the important co-ordinating role of Regional Councils in planning and in prioritising programs and activities to meet the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The first Bill included provisions dealing with two of the recommendations of ATSIC Commissioners relating to Regional Councils. The Regional Council structure was strengthened by reducing the numbers of Councils, as from the next round of elections due later this year, from 60 to 36; and by providing for full-time appointments for Regional Council Chairpersons.

This Bill builds on those reforms. It does not, however, cover all the further changes to the Act that are necessary to implement the totality of the reform package flowing from the Commission's review of the operation of the Act. In particular, it does not deal with:

major changes that are envisaged to arrangements for the Torres Strait, including the establishment of a Torres Strait Regional Authority;

streamlining of the financial provisions of the Act—one of the effects of which will be to facilitate the further devolution of authority to Regional Councils; and

strengthening of the role of the Office of Evaluation and Audit to include powers to evaluate and audit Regional Councils, Aboriginal Hostels, the CDC, Land Councils and ATSIC funded organisations.

These are important and complex matters. It has not been possible to complete drafting in time for their inclusion in this Bill, which needs to be passed quickly in order that its provisions apply to the forthcoming Regional Council elections. The Act requires that these elections be held before the end of this year, and it is essential that those who wish to stand for election are aware of the new rules that will govern the elections, and the operations of Regional Councils.

It is my intention to introduce a further Bill encompassing these further reforms later in these Sittings.

I turn now to the major provisions of the present Bill.

Parts 1 and 2 are formal provisions. Part 3 relates to changes to Regional Council Advisory Committees. Currently members of such Committees are not entitled to receive any remuneration and allowances for their time and contribution. Clause 4 provides for such remuneration and allowances.

Clause 5 adds a requirement for members of Regional Council Advisory Committees to declare any direct or indirect pecuniary interests in matters being considered by that Committee. This has been included to bring the requirements for members of Advisory Committees into line with those of Regional Councils and is considered important as a consequence of provisions of the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. The Clause also provides for terms and conditions, including resignation procedures, for members of Advisory Committees.

Part 4 of the Bill provides for the introduction of a ward system for Regional Council elections. Clause 8 includes a new section 100A to provide for Regional Council election rules to make provision for the division of a region into such wards as are specified in the rules and the setting of boundaries for such wards. There will be a maximum number of 5 wards for each region.

Honourable Senators may recall that I foreshadowed, when introducing the first package of amendments to the Act, that a series of workshops would be held to discuss the proposed changes, and that one of the key matters to be discussed would be the option of introducing a ward system. There was widespread support for this idea as such a system could provide an assured level of representation for each significant area of a region. These changes are included as a direct consequence of the outcome of those discussions.

Clause 10 amends sub-section 102(1) to provide that a person is not qualified to stand for a Regional Council ward election if the person does not live in that ward. This is consistent with the existing requirement that a candidate for election live in the region concerned. Clauses 11 to 19 also relate to the election processes for wards and operations of Regional Councils and are consequential to the decision to move to a ward system.

Clause 20 relates to the timing of the application of the changes and provides that the amendments (other than those included in Clause 17) apply to the elections due in 1993 and subsequently.

Part 5 of the Bill relates to the operations of Regional Councils. Clauses 20 to 26 strengthen the eligibility requirements and obligations of Regional Councillors. These provisions result directly from the Commission's report to the Minister and is a clear indication of the strength of the Commission's commitment to the highest standards of management and public accountability.

Clause 22 amends section 102 of the Act by adding a provision that a person is not qualified to stand for election as a member of a Regional Council if he or she is bankrupt or in similar circumstances.

Clause 23 amends section 119 of the Act by replacing the existing disclosure of interests provisions for Regional Councillors with strengthened requirements, similar to those provisions applicable to Commissioners. The clause will also provide the Minister with the power to issue determinations in relation to pecuniary interests. Currently, the definition of what constitutes a pecuniary interest is a matter for legal interpretation. The new provisions allow for the Minister to provide a comprehensive list of criteria to guide Regional Councillors in understanding their obligations.

The Minister will also be empowered to determine when a Regional Councillor may continue to participate in the discussions on a particular matter notwithstanding any declaration of interest. This flexibility is considered important because of the difficulties which may be associated from time to time with maintaining a quorum for the meeting.

Clause 25 widens the circumstances whereby a person ceases to be a Regional Councillor, which includes continued failure to attend meetings. Clause 26 makes provision for suspension and removal from office for physical or mental incapacity.

Clauses 27 to 30 relate to the positions of Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of Regional Councils. Currently the Act provides for the election of an Executive Committee. Given that Chairpersons will become full time, as a consequence of the amendments already passed by the Parliament, it will be important to ensure that there is always some person able to undertake the role of Chairperson in his or her absence. The replacement of the Executive Committee by a Deputy Chairperson, and provision for election for an alternate to the Deputy Chairperson, fulfils this requirement. Provisions for the suspension or removal from office of the Deputy Chairperson similar to those for the Chairperson have also been included in this Part.

Part 6 of the Bill relates to the Torres Strait Regional Council and provides for the deferral of the election of members for the Torres Strait Regional Council from 1993 to 1994 to bring it into line with elections due pursuant to the Community Services (Torres Strait) Act 1984 of Queensland. As I have mentioned, major changes to arrangements for the Torres Strait are expected to be included in a further Bill, and this Part provides a fall-back in case of delays in passage of these changes.

Part 7 of the Bill relates to the remuneration and allowances payable to certain office holders under the ATSIC Act. These amendments ensure that the Commission can set a global limit on the remuneration and allowances payable to members of advisory committees established under sections 13 or 96, the Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board and Regional Councils. This provision is not meant to restrict the independence of these bodies nor to impose restrictions on the number of meetings. It is intended to provide parameters in relation to the commitment of funds and ensure that the budgets approved under Division 8 of Part 2 of the Act are effectively managed.

In this regard I should emphasise that the impact of the amendments on total Commonwealth appropriations will be neutral. It is ATSIC's intention to introduce these significant changes from within its global allocation, offsetting costs from efficiency gains.

Under Part 8 of the Bill the Minister will be empowered to make determinations about what constitutes misbehaviour thereby ensuring that Councillors are aware of their full obligations and responsibilities.

Part 9 of the Bill replaces Schedule 1 of the ATSIC Act bringing the 36 regions into line with those recommended during the round of consultations held in June this year.

Part 10 of the Bill provides for transitional provisions relating to the replacement of 59 original Regional Councils by the 35 new ones and are essential for the transfer of estimates, draft budgets and other necessary matters to ensure the proper transition from the old Councils to the new ones. This Part does not apply to the Torres Strait Regional Council, hence the reference to 35 not 36 Regional Councils.

Mr President, let me return briefly to the proposal to introduce a ward system. Given the level of support for the idea I believe it essential to introduce provisions allowing for the subdivision of regions into wards in time for this year's Regional Council elections.

The boundaries of the wards that I will set in place are to be regarded as interim. In establishing the boundaries I shall take into account advice from the Commission following consultations that they have held with Regional Council Chairpersons in each State and Territory. I will also have regard for the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons living in each ward and communities of interest within Council boundaries. Providing that this Bill is supported I will make Rules establishing the first ward boundaries prior to fixing the date of the 1993 elections.

In Amendment Bill No. 3 that I will bring forward in a few weeks I will set out details for the establishment of an Electoral Review Panel and a process of appeals. This Panel will provide an independent report on electoral processes and boundaries. The Panel will have as one of its key responsibilities examining any further changes that need to take place to Regional Council and ward boundaries.

Overall, the effect of this package of amendments represents a careful balance between implementing the principles of self-determination and self-management and the accountability requirements of Parliament. ATSIC, and particularly the Regional Councils, are further empowered to make their own decisions while ensuring that the processes they follow are open to public scrutiny. This is something which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have themselves demanded, and reinforces ATSIC's established commitment to high standards of accountability.

I present the Explanatory Memorandum for the information of Honourable Senators, and commend the Bill to the Senate.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.