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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2203

Senator CHAMARETTE(11.12 a.m.) —The Senate has before it the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1996, which seeks to make a range of changes to ATSIC. According to the summary provided by the second reading speech of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron), the most significant changes are a reduction in the size of regional councils, continuing the practice of the chairperson of ATSIC being appointed by the minister, improved accountability arrangements for regional councils and the provision to appoint an administrator to manage the operations of ATSIC under certain circumstances.

The Greens (WA) objected to this bill being exempted from the cut-off motion because of the sweeping nature of the changes being proposed, changes which have certainly not been discussed in the community. We were told at the time that the bill is urgent because failure to deal with it now would create timetable problems for the forthcoming ATSIC elections. We reject that argument because the ATSIC elections will be substantially affected by the passage of some of the measures in this bill. Those changes should not be inflicted on the community just months before a triennial election round. They should be put off until after those elections.

The measures in this bill should be thoroughly discussed throughout the country. It is all very well for the minister to say that the changes have the support of the ATSIC board. But the ATSIC board does not necessarily encompass the totality of views of the indigenous community. The rest of the indigenous community has barely heard about these changes. In fact, the committee hearing of which I was a participatory member last Friday vividly illustrated that there is not anywhere near the support for these changes that the government would have us believe.

In fact, it became clearly apparent in the proceedings of that committee hearing that these policy changes had been made in the form of cabinet decisions which were then imposed. This is my interpretation entirely, I might add, and no doubt the minister would disagree with me. To my mind they seem to have been imposed by the cabinet on the minister and the minister was left in the very difficult position of having to justify those policy changes before he had even become totally familiar with his own portfolio.

It is highly questionable to go ahead with that state of play in relation to policy changes, irrespective of what portfolio you are in. With Aboriginal and Islander issues, it is even more important. We have continually marginalised and disenfranchised the indigenous people of this country by making laws that do not take their views into consideration. We do not have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in this place. Therefore, we have no excuse for not having the most wide-ranging consultation before policy changes of such magnitude are contemplated by this parliament.

Many honourable senators are very familiar with the time needed to consult effectively with remote indigenous communities and the diversity of indigenous communities throughout this country. The minister is setting a worrying precedent early in this government's term of office if he can insist that such fundamental changes be made with little or no consultation.

I will now deal with our objections to some of the measures in this bill. The first is the continuation of the minister's role in choosing the chairperson of ATSIC. This was to have been a power which lapsed with the 1993 elections. It was continued then, as honourable senators would know, largely because of representations made to Senator Kernot. The Greens (WA) opposed the extension then and we most certainly oppose this further extension. We will be supporting an appropriate amendment to be put by the opposition.

It is a sad indictment of the conduct of relations between government and the in digenous people in this country that ATSIC is not trusted to choose its own chairperson. I wonder whether the Liberal Party would put up with an outside group choosing its party president, or would the party accept the idea that the Governor-General should choose its parliamentary leader? This measure should be opposed by every honourable senator who upholds the policy of self-determination in whatever form that person might choose to define such a concept.

The changes to schedules relating to numbers of regional councillors may well be worthwhile, but we have no way of knowing whether that is the case. Certainly numerous submissions we have received from regional councils and regional councillors do not agree. Many argue that reducing the number of councillors will also reduce the effectiveness of the representation they are able to offer and reduce the effectiveness of regional council decision making.

I must object to some of the usage that is being made of statistical tables which show how many people will be represented by the regional councils. There is a failure to take into consideration the geographical factors involved. For example, there might be what looks like a very favourable ratio of councillors to members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in certain areas, such as in the remote areas of Western Australia. However, they are largely mythological in their benefit because of the enormous amount of ground that has to be covered for those people to get together. In some cases, it is utterly impossible. As far as we are concerned, we cannot support those kinds of statistics and arguments.

Proposed changes subsumed in the general rhetoric of accountability have also been coming from the government. In another context, we have seen the confusion, not to say chaos, which the government has managed to bring about in the indigenous community by its accountability measures. I have repeatedly said that bureaucratic accountability is not the problem; it is about accountability in the communities to the people in terms of service delivery. Adding layer upon layer of bureaucratic accountability measures does not necessarily increase the overall accountability and effectiveness of service delivery to Aboriginal communities.

I suppose that we should not be surprised if we find draconian measures under the accountability banner heading. Accountability has come to mean only one thing in the lexicon of government: it means axing programs and appointments whenever a breach of some funding schedule is hinted at.

Senator Kernot —Except for Mr Downer.

Senator CHAMARETTE —Except for some areas, I might add. I acknowledge Senator Kernot's interjection. Some people have more favourable access to absolution than others. In my lexicon, accountability means providing a proper service to those whose lives are affected by the funding. It means that people who receive the benefit of the program have a say in how it is run and have a say in evaluating whether it is effective.

Certainly there needs to be the proper acquittal of funds. But we have gone berserk in almost every area of government in recent years. Community organisations cannot get their work done because they are too busy being accountable to their funding masters. I hear this complaint often from all sorts of sectors of the community where government funding is involved.

I suggest that providing more funding for training for Aboriginal people so that they can understand the kind of bureaucratic hoops they are required to go through when they receive a grant may be far more effective than diminishing the amount of funding in order to provide yet another layer of bureaucratic accountability. I refer here to the $700,000 that it is going to cost to have a super auditor put in place. It is not under the measures in this bill, but it has been made at the same time as the policy changes in this bill were mooted. That $700,000 for the so-called super auditor is being taken away from the ATSIC budget. It will result in a lack of funding to the community.

It is easy for those in government to gain community support for this skewed idea of accountability. They have only to hint at money not being accounted for and there is an inevitable outcry in the community or the media. Government has only to chant that well-worn mantra—the previous government did it too—`the taxpayers are not prepared to put up with this' and all heads appear to nod in approval.

It seems that the subgroup of the population known as taxpayers changes according to the program and the speaker. I personally find it extremely offensive when that term is used with the implication that a taxpayer cannot possibly relate to an Aboriginal person. We have to be very sure when we bandy that phrase about that we are not actually being quite offensive in what we are saying. We are implying that some citizens in this country have rights while others have privileges. I believe that we all have responsibilities in this regard. There are people within our community who seem to take for granted the benefits of having employment and the privilege of paying tax. We should be grateful that we are able to do that.

The Greens have long suggested that a review of the taxation system is needed so that it guarantees more equity and allows the population to be much more balanced in their access to resources than they are at the moment. Australia used to be noted for being a very egalitarian nation. I believe we are now approaching the same kind of balance that is common in developing countries where the decreasing number of rich are getting richer and the increasing number of poor and middle earners are becoming increasingly impoverished.

We have seen over the past few weeks the lengths to which the government will go in order to satisfy the craving for so-called accountability. How else can we explain the powers which exist in the Health Insurance Commission Act or some of the draconian powers available to the Department of Social Security to stop people's payments?

The other significant change contained in the bill is the government's proposal to give the minister the power to appoint an administrator to manage the operations of ATSIC under certain circumstances. This is not an administrator to assist the commission or an external auditor to assess the commission's functions; it is an administrator to take over the whole operation. The nearest equivalent in the business sector is a receiver manager. As the chairperson of ATSIC pointed out during last Friday's hearing, ATSIC is neither near bankruptcy nor near death so a receiver manager is not needed.

The appointment of an administrator means that the commission would not meet, that the commissioners would not be paid whether or not they are in any way involved in the matters which led to the appointment of the administrator, that any delegated powers of the commission may be revoked thus possibly leading to downstream functions being stopped and so on. This smacks of the most blatant paternalism imaginable. Where else would we find such a power? Would the government think of providing such a power to the Minister for Health and Family Services (Dr Wooldridge) in relation to the Health Insurance Commission? I think not. Therefore, it is certainly not okay to put such powers in the ATSIC Act, because you can easily sell the idea in the community under the accountability mantra.

I must acknowledge that the minister has said that he does not envisage these powers being used. But I think the whole principle of inserting them in the act is coercive, threatening and an insult to the organisation. Therefore, we do not support it.

In relation to these proposed changes, I received a communication, among many others, from New South Wales ATSIC Commissioner, Steve Gordon, in his capacity as chair of a meeting of the New South Wales zone commissioners and regional councillors. He said, amongst other things:

We see the proposal for the appointment of an administrator overriding democratically elected representatives as retrograde.

He also said:

ATSIC is not opposed to reform, but reform should be robust—the middle way between draconian and feeble-minded. We seek to save the government from errors that it could avoid.

We maintain that those errors could best be avoided by further consultation.

We do not support the measures that are introduced by this bill. The Greens (WA) cannot support this bill is its present form. We will be putting various amendments to the Senate in the committee stage and supporting other amendments from the opposition in order to improve the bill. We will consider whether the bill is supportable at the end of the debate.