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Tuesday, 7 September 1993
Page: 1025

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (11.24 a.m.) —As the previous speaker, Senator Teague, has said, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1993 is the second of three bills to be introduced this session which will pave the way for greater autonomy and a stronger voice for Aboriginal people through participatory administration of ATSIC. This bill is the next step in preparing the way for the elections for the board of ATSIC. These elections are scheduled to take place in December.

  In the last session, we passed legislation to establish a 19-member full-time board with 30 regional councils throughout Australia. The bill we are considering today goes on to establish a ward system to feed into the regional councils. It establishes interim—and that is the important word—ward boundaries for the purposes of the forthcoming election. These boundaries, I believe, are to be reviewed before the full elections take place in 1996. An independent review panel is to be established in the third bill. It will consider submissions and then determine ward, region and zone boundaries. This panel is to operate in much the same way as the redistribution committees established by the Australian Electoral Act.

  ATSIC has argued that there are a number of salient reasons why a ward system is appropriate at this point in time. The Democrats accept ATSIC's rationale, which is essentially that, with a reduced number of regions, some relatively small centres of population are expressing concern that it will be more difficult for them to be represented in the enlarged regions, particularly as there will be significantly fewer representatives; that within enlarged regions there is concern that larger population centres and larger interest groups will come to exercise a dominant influence on a council; and that a ward system will allow regional councillors to identify more closely with the people of their ward and to be more sensitive to their interests.

  This bill also outlines procedures whereby budgetary and other administrative functions will be devolved to regional councils. It seeks to ensure economic and administrative accountability at all levels. I believe that the provisions of this bill will go a long way towards addressing Senator Panizza's concerns, as outlined in his notice of motion calling for a review of ATSIC. Under this bill there is to be a tightening of provisions of direct and indirect pecuniary interest. The bill establishes the terms and conditions for office holders, including provisions for dismissal for misbehaviour. There are also provisions to limit spending on administrative costs to under 15 per cent of the total budget of the councils. If this laudable effort is actually achieved, perhaps it will be a model for other bodies. We have been really hard in what we have expected of ATSIC from the very beginning and in what we have written into the bill when we set up ATSIC.

  Our primary concern in examining this legislation has been the future of ATSIC. If Aboriginal people are ever to claim their rightful autonomy, ATSIC, which has been proposed and set up by this government, must be strong and not vulnerable to politically motivated, malevolent attacks from either the white or the indigenous communities. It seems to me that there is an orchestrated anti-ATSIC campaign going on at the moment, not in here but outside this chamber. I think that the comments by some indigenous people in Australia aimed at ATSIC, while perhaps expressing a sense of frustration, are particularly unhelpful at a time when ATSIC is reviewing the first three years of its operations.

  There is bound to be a problem when one imposes a monolithic structure which says that ATSIC is the voice of all Aboriginal people. It never can be. We do not expect that in our society. Nevertheless, it is a representative body and it deserves our support until it can be significantly demonstrated that it deserves to lose that support. I think it is important that the elections scheduled for December happen as smoothly as possible and that this new system of administration be allowed some time to be established.

  I listened to what Senator Teague had to say in support of his second reading amendment. I would argue, as I said to Senator Panizza, that this bill puts in place procedures for review. Let us give that a chance first. We cannot go on forever blaming ATSIC, a body which is just three and a bit years old, for everything that is demonstrably wrong with the living standards of indigenous Australians. Why do we not compare it, for example, with a white-fellow's body like the CAA? Can we say that that has been a roaring success in recent times in terms of following due process or delivering the best outcomes for the people who depend on it? I do not think we can. So let us not be unduly critical of something that is only three and a bit years old. Why expect ATSIC in three and a bit years to solve the problems of the legacy of a couple of hundred years? We are talking about injustices of 200 years and we are talking about a structure that has had a few years in which to address those injustices, and I think we are being unfair.

  Senator Teague referred to the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and I would like also to refer to it. We have got ATSIC, we have got the land councils, we have got the various legal services, we have got the Aboriginal community organisations and we have got the council for reconciliation. The good work that is being done there, I believe, must not be undermined by these orchestrated attacks on ATSIC.

  The council has a rural subcommittee. That subcommittee has worked hard, through DEET, to bring indigenous and white pastoralists together in joint management situations. There has been a sharing of knowledge. It has been a very productive outcome for the pastoral industry. There is the mining subcommittee, which produced that marvellous report and which for the first time is bringing chief executive officers of the main mining companies in Australia face to face in the boardrooms with traditional Aboriginal landowners.

  It is one thing to put in place the structures, as we are doing; that is important but what must reinforce and complement those structures is the dialogue. This dialogue is happening. There are proposals to set up a joint council of miners and Aboriginal people for future land management. There is incredibly new and important ground being broken here. I do not think it helps to start concentrating all the time on ATSIC and ATSIC's alleged failure to deliver, within a short period of time, solutions to a legacy of 200 years. We must stop this fixation. It is definitely not helpful. Progress is being made in this area. ATSIC is an important part of that progress. The Democrats support this bill.