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Friday, 19 November 1993
Page: 3274

Senator TROETH (12.38 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill, which is substantially in line with what the coalition has been advocating for some time and, clearly, in some parts, is in direct response to coalition pressure. However, I would like to comment on some of the main provisions of the bill and, at the same time, indicate the coalition attitude to it.

  This is the third and final set of amendments to the ATSIC Act flowing from recommendations contained in ATSIC's review report to the minister which was tabled in parliament earlier this year. This review was carried out as a requirement under section 26 of the ATSIC Act 1989, the principal act covering that organisation.

  It proposes amendments to that act which will, firstly, establish the Torres Strait Regional Authority to replace the existing Torres Strait Regional Council with the objective of cutting down on the volume of duplication with ATSIC and other bodies operating in the Torres Strait Islands. Secondly, it will devolve some financial functions to the regional councils but will try to ensure that there will also be safeguards to deal with the regional councils that do not perform properly. Thirdly, it will establish the Electoral Review Panel. Fourthly, it will strengthen the role of the Office of Evaluation and Audit.

  The provisions in the bill for the Torres Strait regional authorities propose the establishment of an independent Torres Strait Regional Authority to replace the current Torres Strait Regional Council. These provisions occupy a major part of the bill. The Torres Strait Regional Authority will be established as a body corporate and will operate in much the same way as ATSIC. The provisions cover things such as: funding powers, including the appointment of advisory committees and the disclosure of pecuniary interests; the provision of 20 elected members and election procedures; the appointment of a general manager by the minister; staff appointments; and reporting requirements, such as estimates of expenditure, annual reports and financial statements.

  While the coalition recognises the practicality and advantages of rationalising multiple government input into the Torres Strait, we understand from visits there that many people living in the Torres Strait Islands have aspirations towards a type of self-determining rule similar to Norfolk Island or the Cook Islands. The coalition's support of these rationalisation measures does not reflect support for some form of independence, and certainly not for sovereignty.

  There are problems with some of the proposals in that there are people who have lived in the Torres Strait Islands for some time who are not indigenous people. I give the examples of members of the European, Chinese and Japanese populations. Rather than making a set of laws for one section of the population, we feel that there should be no blank cheque given by these proposals.

  This is not a purely federal concern; it also involves the Queensland state government. That complicates the debate somewhat. To some extent, these proposals would need to get through state laws dealing with police and schools, and that needs to be taken into account. Whilst we are supportive, we appreciate that the islanders wish to maintain their cultural integrity and want their own body outside ATSIC. However, at this stage, we emphasise that the coalition is not making a commitment to sovereignty.

  As regards the devolution of powers to the regional council, this bill strengthens reporting arrangements and accountability requirements for those regional councils. It provides them with increased funding responsibilities with wider powers to approve funds and issue guarantees. These powers may also be suspended if deemed necessary by the ATSIC chairman. The regional councils will now be required to provide draft budgets which are tied to a regional plan for their region. ATSIC will have the power to remove regional councillors who fail to perform functions or comply with budgetary or reporting requirements.

  The coalition wishes to comment that this devolution of power to regional councils comes from the ATSIC bureaucracy, which should cut back its size. I would hope that this means that the money saved can be put towards projects on the ground so that the money gets to the people who need it for essential services. The coalition welcomes these moves.

  We also welcome moves in the bill which strengthen the power of ATSIC to deal with those who do not perform satisfactorily. This is essential in any organisation, regardless of size, in order to achieve peak performance and optimum accountability. It is important to remember that a crucial aspect of self-determination resting with regional councils lies in their function to allocate funding. Perhaps it is testimony to their success in handling this role that a large number of complaints against them are from those who have failed to convince the regional councils of their eligibility for funding. In other words, they do not distribute money willy-nilly.

  This bill will also significantly expand the Office of Evaluation and Audit to include regular audit and evaluation of ATSIC, Aboriginal Hostels Limited, the Commercial Development Corporation and the Torres Straight Regional Authority. It also provides the mechanism to allow the minister or ATSIC to request the evaluation and audit of particular aspects of operation of regional councils, any individual, body corporate or unincorporated body receiving one or more grants or loans from ATSIC, and any borrowers whose loans have been guaranteed by ATSIC.

  It would be the coalition's intent in government to review where the Office of Evaluation and Audit is actually situated within the structure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to make it even more independent. But we are pleased that the government has finally moved—obviously under pressure from the opposition—to require organisations receiving funding from ATSIC to be accountable for the allocation of that funding.

  There are also other areas of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations receiving government funds through other mechanisms which are not touched by this legislation, and therefore not subject to this added scrutiny. The coalition would like to see the same scrutiny applied to those outside the ATSIC funding umbrella. We would also like to ensure that the function of the Office of Evaluation and Audit is not conducted on an ad hoc basis with auditing and evaluation requests merely conducted at the whim of the minister or the commission, which is how this bill is set up.

  It is therefore our intention to move an amendment—and I foreshadow that I will be moving an amendment in the committee stage of the bill—which requires the Office of Evaluation and Audit to perform regular evaluation and audit of those receiving funding through ATSIC. The object of our amendment is not just to provide the option for audit and evaluation, but to make this a requirement. Obviously the amount of work that this will involve will vary according to the nature of the organisation and the size of the grant or funding. Importantly, organisations will be held accountable for their actions, and this is no more nor less than we would expect in any area of government expenditure.

  The fourth item to be dealt with by this bill is the Electoral Review Panel. The purpose of this section is to review boundaries and the groupings of the regions and wards, and review the electoral system generally, reporting to the minister, and ensuring that such a review is independent and objective. There have been criticisms that the arrangements for the December elections have been carried out too hastily, without adequate consultation, particularly in relation to the planned system of wards.  But the coalition is in favour of the Electoral Review Panel which will have ample time for consultation and planning prior to the next set of elections.

  As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the bill is substantially in line with what the coalition has been advocating for some time. Whilst we do not oppose the bill, I have taken the opportunity to constructively highlight areas for further improvements. We make the point that we do not see the setting up of the Torres Strait Regional Authority as a commitment of any sort to separate sovereignty. We flag our possible intent in government to move the Office of Evaluation and Audit out of ATSIC. I will be moving an amendment which will cover the other parts of our concerns.