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Tuesday, 7 September 1993
Page: 1021

Senator TEAGUE (11.04 a.m.) —I move:

At end of motion, add'', but the Senate notes the Government's own admission that Aboriginal well-being is not improving and therefore calls for an independent review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to determine the measures necessary to ensure an improvement in its performance in order to significantly lift the living standards of the indigenous population of Australia''.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 2) is the second of a series of three similar amending bills that the parliament is considering this year. All these amendments flow from the government's consideration of the review of ATSIC that the commissioners themselves completed in February this year just before the election. It was an urgent matter to have in place those improvements to ATSIC in time for the elections to take place in December this year. ATSIC has had its first term and its first period of operation. We now have had this review by the ATSIC commissioners themselves as to the best ways to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander decisions for programs to help the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia.

  I am conscious, from discussion with the chair of ATSIC, Ms Lois O'Donoghue, a resident of my own state of South Australia, of the sincere, careful concern that ATSIC commissioners have for these reforms to the structure of the council, which is what we dealt with in the first amendment in our sitting back in May this year and now in this bill before us with four or five matters especially dealing with the election process for regional councils to be implemented in the election of December and with regard to some of the functions and responsibilities of advisory committees, deputy chairs of councils, and the like.

  The third band of amendments, also flowing from the general advice of the ATSIC commissioners, is to see later this year a third bill, which will strengthen 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, and make major changes to the arrangements for the Torres Strait, including the establishment of a Torres Strait regional authority. It is understood that the regional council arrangements as they relate to the Torres Strait are being deferred in anticipation of a regional authority in that area of northern Queensland being in place by the third wave of amending legislation later this year.

  I think that the most significant changes are those that we have yet to face. I understand the government's wish to have more time to ensure that the appropriate amending bill is properly constructed and that it is precisely determined after consultation at each stage, that consultation to include the opposition's spokesman and representatives of the other parties in the Senate. The determination of that third stage of legislation must include consultation with the present ATSIC commissioners and Aboriginal communities generally.

  The opposition welcomes these three stages of amendments to ATSIC and to the regional councils. We support the legislation that is before us today. Later in my speech I will move an amendment to the second reading which, I hope, will gain support from honourable senators in the chamber. I look to Senator Kernot and I look to Senator Margetts. That amendment is currently being distributed. I will speak precisely to that amendment in the latter part of my remarks.

  I wish to note that the principal reason why the opposition welcomes these three amending pieces of legislation to ATSIC is that they largely implement what we advocated in our policy paper of November last year. I refer to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs statement, ATSIC—the way forward: a policy for the next coalition government, published after our party room's decision by Dr Michael Wooldridge, the then shadow minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, on 5 November 1992. I seek leave to incorporate the first substantial page of that document in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The document read as follows—


Administration of Aboriginal Affairs, under a Coalition Government, will be based upon—

  a partnership between the Australian Government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to address Aboriginal disadvantage.

  the government having clearly defined objectives for achievement in Aboriginal Affairs, namely,

  1.improvement in Aboriginal health;

  2.provision of housing and infrastructure;

  3.Aboriginal education;

  4.Aboriginal economic development (including private sector employment);

  5.the opportunity for those Aborigines who choose to maintain their culture to do so.

  an understanding that, if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are to move from dependence on welfare and government, to a position of self reliance, it is essential that they be given the opportunity to develop a sound economic base.

  the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the decisions that affect their lives and determine their local priorities.

  an absolute requirement for—

  1.a focus on tangible benefits on the ground, as a result of programs, rather than the present focus on timely distribution of funds and adequate acquittal process;

  2.the decision making to be open and transparent;

  3.organisations receiving government money to provide services in an efficient and equitable manner; and

4.accountability on all levels of service delivery.

Senator TEAGUE —I thank the Senate. I refer in particular to the last paragraph, which says that in the reform of ATSIC there should be:

.  an absolute requirement for—

  1.a focus on tangible benefits on the ground, as a result of programs, rather than the present focus on timely distribution of funds and adequate acquittal process;

There has been too much concentration on just setting up the machinery, setting up the bureaucracy, and there has been insufficient concentration on actual achievements and on actual outcomes monitored against specified objectives. The statement continues:

  2.the decision making to be open and transparent;

Of course, the third wave of amendments to ATSIC later this year will go a long way, I trust, to achieve openness and transparency. It further states:

  3.organisations receiving government money to provide services in an efficient and equitable manner;

  4.accountability on all levels of service delivery.

In this document we went on to argue that there should be a reduction in the number of commissioners from 60 to about 30. What we have seen already in the May legislation is a reduction to 36, and we welcomed that. It largely implements opposition policy.

  With regard to the regional councils we wanted to ensure that there was an ability for full-time executive action by the chairman of the regional councils; and that is being implemented. We want to see a decentralising of program management to the regions, and that is being provided for in this pattern of legislation. So it is not surprising that we are supporting the legislation which, happily, the government has written to accommodate us, and to accommodate, of course, the advice of the ATSIC council and its review.

  I want to ask a precise question of the Minister for Transport and Communications, Senator Collins. Is it envisaged that the third wave of ATSIC legislation will be introduced before 1 October? Otherwise, is it the government's intention that it will be introduced in order to lie on the table? That is, we will receive it perhaps late in November and be able to study it and then have the debate upon it early in the new year? As I understand it, the—

Senator Collins —You voted for the cut-off motion. How can you propose that?

Senator TEAGUE —I understand that. What I am saying, Minister, is that the urgent matters that must be in place are in the bill we are now debating. But for the foreshadowed, substantial, further amendments I am asking if they will be introduced into parliament probably in late November so that they can then be debated and determined when we sit in March next year.

Senator Kernot —It is necessary by December.

Senator TEAGUE —I am wanting to hear the advice of the minister. With regard to any timing, we all need to know in the Senate chamber what the timing of the government is with regard to that matter. A second question I put to the minister relates to the implementation of wards. We have not the full detail of the precise number of wards and their definition in each region. By this legislation a maximum of five is to be required and I want to know what progress has been made in the definition of wards and their boundaries.

  My third question refers to clause 23 of the present bill. It relates to the understandable tightening of the disclosure by regional councillors of any financial interest they may have in a matter that is being discussed. There is a requirement that they seek the agreement of the minister, in writing, for their participation in any matter in which they have a direct personal financial interest. This is going to cause a problem with regard to the operation of a quorum in regional meetings. If someone who has a direct financial interest is required to not attend a meeting there may be, for want of that attendance, an inadequate number attending—in fact, not a quorum—and an inability for a regional council to transact its business.

  I have been in the bush as much as anybody has, and I think it would be difficult to get prior warning of all matters before a regional council in which an individual councillor may have a financial interest. It would not be practical to fax a quick letter to the minister or to get the minister's reply in time for a meeting. I envisage that there may well be a practical difficulty in the operation of this new arrangement for the disclosure of financial interests.

  I refer to, and commend, a practice occurring for many years in this parliament. Whenever an individual participating in a decision has a direct personal financial interest he declares that interest openly and clearly. Not only does the individual declare that interest to his colleagues on the decision making body but he also declares it publicly. Having clearly identified his personal financial interest, it is then in the hands of the other members at the meeting to determine whether that individual ought to participate in the meeting or ought to leave the meeting.

  I am concerned that there will be practical problems in the outworking of this new provision. I ask for the minister's reassurance that there will be some flexibility in making sure that regional councils do in fact work. The amendment that has been circulated in my name adds to the motion that the bill be read a second time. I move:

At end of motion, add: ", but the Senate notes the Government's own admission that Aboriginal wellbeing is not improving and therefore calls for an independent review of ATSIC to determine the measures necessary to ensure an improvement in its performance in order to significantly lift the living standards of the indigenous population of Australia".

We believe that there is such a serious failure of outcome in Aboriginal communities for the whole purpose of ATSIC—and for the whole purpose of public funding of Aboriginal programs—that there needs to be a review to ensure that we put in place a more confident set of programs that will improve the outcome for Aboriginal individuals and communities.

  I now refer to the speech on this matter given by my colleague Michael MacKellar last Wednesday, on behalf of the opposition, in the House of Representatives. He referred to three particular issues: the high proportion of maternal deaths in childbirth amongst Aboriginal women; the extraordinary incidence of diabetes amongst Aboriginal people, and the very high proportion of early deaths from those who suffer diabetes in Aboriginal communities; and the work of the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin with regard to the lack of child health care in Aboriginal communities. Whether we take these three examples or a whole range of other examples in health, housing and education—all of the indicators for the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities—we are distressed that the Aboriginal people of Australia are still, by a long way, worse off. The statistics still show a bleak picture for the Aboriginal people.

  I note that it is now 26 years since the referendum that many of us participated in to change the constitution of Australia to allow the federal government to make laws for the Aboriginal people—laws that would develop programs. In those 26 years we have seen a certain range of improvements. Senator Kernot, who is serving on the commission for reconciliation, will have a good knowledge of some of those positive outcomes but there are too many static, negative outcomes and areas where we have not seen progress.

  I believe that the $1,000 million that is provided each year to Aboriginal programs ought to be able to be reviewed by ATSIC. Through ATSIC's reports and through this parliament to the Australian public there should be some measurable improvements in these broad areas that affect the wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Australia. Those of us in the opposition are not satisfied that we have in place an evaluation process, a program of setting objectives and measuring outcomes against those objectives, to show how $1,000 million a year spent upon such programs is actually achieving the outcomes that we all wish.

  Let me refer to my visit in June to the Pitjantjatjara communities in South Australia. Over my 15 years in the Senate I have been to these communities about 12 times, beginning in 1978. I am very sad to say that, in the broad, the situation of these remote Aboriginal communities has become steadily worse. I say it with enormous sadness. There is more and more money; there are more and more programs, more and more housing initiatives, CDEP initiatives, education initiatives—but the outcomes are worse.

  Let me refer to Indulkana. Indulkana, at the moment, is a very sad example of what 15 years—or 26 years if we go right back to the referendum—of a large number of federal programs have provided for this community in my state of South Australia. Very few children go into secondary education in the whole of the community. The actual achievement level in the primary school is more at a ceiling of about level 5. The 10 years of bilingual education in English and Pitjantjatjara have now been abandoned.

  If I look at the health outcomes: there are more health problems now through communicable diseases, respiratory diseases, eye diseases and so it goes on. Television has had an impact upon the community. Drink is still a community problem. We need a review and we need it to be constructive.(Time expired)