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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2206

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats)(11.26 a.m.) —Our historical relationship with indigenous people in this country has been very complex. Since settlement we have seen many different ways that governments have attempted to deal with the historical fact that Europeans took the land from the original indigenous inhabitants. Policy responses have ranged from forced resettlement and stealing generations of children from their families to assimilation, the recognition of native title and the establishment of a land fund.

In structural terms, we have seen many models as well. In 1989 we replaced the National Aboriginal Conference with another model—ATSIC. I thought at the time, despite the lengthy debate, that it did show that we recognised that we needed to move forward in our pursuit of self-determination for indigenous people. As a result of the ATSIC bill, we continuing to debate that process today. Our government proposes four changes to that process.

We have democratic elections for regional councils across the country. We have the election of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commissioners and we have a proportion of policies and programs that affect indigenous people being administered by this commission. That goes some way to alleviate the significant problems that have been caused historically in this country by the abrogation of responsibility, particularly at the state and local government levels, and to provide citizenship rights in the form of services to both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

The establishment of ATSIC meant that indigenous people would have a significant say in decisions for funding projects for indigenous communities. However, the intro duction of some of these amendments at this time threatens the fragile steps that we have been taking towards reconciliation. Some of the key amendments are unwise. They work against the objectives of the act, as was pointed out by Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson.

We have to ask why we are doing this, why we are debating these amendments and why the government has chosen to introduce them. In the Senate committee hearing last Friday a couple of things were given as rationale. In the minister's submission we see the words `community demands for strengthened accountability provisions'. There was reference to the statement by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) of `mounting community concern' and there is a reference by the chair of ATSIC in an article she wrote in the Weekend Australian of 15 June to the words `an apparent haemorrhaging of public funds'.

In the committee hearing last Friday we asked where the evidence is of this haemorrhaging of public funds, community demands and mounting community concern. We also asked how this is measured.

The minister told us five things. He said there is a perception of this in the community. I think he is right. Then he said there was the federal election and the publicity surrounding certain comments made by various candidates at that time. Then he said that after that there were the election results. When pressed, the minister said that they quantified this mounting community concern by the media reports at the time in taking account of the way in which they attributed the success of some candidates to this perception. The last example he cited was that there are many complaints from Aboriginal communities on his desk. Those regarded as significant have been passed on to the Office of Evaluation and Audit for investigation. I think the pertinent fact is that those investigations have not yet concluded.

We see, when looking for the rationale surrounding why it is appropriate to introduce these amendments at this time, that within two weeks of taking office, without quantified evidence—acting on perception, acting on election results which saw a disendorsed Liberal candidate go to the election with the description `Liberal' on the ballot paper and win the seat of Oxley from the Labor Party and acting on media analysis of that win and other results such as in Kennedy and Kalgoorlie—and without consultation with the chair and board of ATSIC, the minister emerged from cabinet with significant amendments to the ATSIC Act.

This is despite the coalition's election policy, which was that there would be a commitment to retain ATSIC and to seek the views of indigenous people on how they would like to see it evolve. I do not think that happened before we moved down this track. The policy also included a commitment not to seek to redesign the system yet again, because the coalition had identified that as one of the repeated failings of indigenous affairs policy in Australia. I agree with them on that. They are not seeking to redesign the system, but they are seeking to make some pretty substantial changes to it.

This is all based on the premise that ATSIC has been found to lack accountability. It was interesting and instructive to read what the chair of ATSIC, Lois O'Donoghue, said about the notion of accountability in an article `Who's accountable to whom?' in the Weekend Australian of 15 June 1996. She is reported as saying:

I cannot take exception to the Government's concern for accountability—how could I? How could anyone?

However, I can take exception to the assumptions that seem to underlie the Government's actions. I can wonder whether or not they are knowingly drawing strength and support from prejudiced and ignorant opinions and ask why indigenous Australians need to be more accountable than anyone else, for comparatively small amounts of money.

She lists three examples of media treatment of so-called ATSIC rorts. She makes this valid point:

These organisations have either had their funding withdrawn by ATSIC over the past two or three financial years or, if they are delivering a crucial service, grant controllers have been put in to manage the funds they receive. The media have been highlighting the working of ATSIC's internal accountability measures. The commission's audit reports have been used to attack its own accountability.

I think that is what has happened. It is wrong to say that the highlighting of this means that ATSIC has been proven to be unaccountable.

I have gone back and looked at the debate that surrounded the establishment of ATSIC. We have seen the preoccupation, and rightly so in some respects, with what forms of accountability we are building into the creation of another statutory body. The commission has within its own structure an Office of Evaluation and Audit. The director is appointed by the minister and that person reports directly to the minister and the board. The government has decided to appoint a special auditor. Obviously, it thought that what was there was not working sufficiently well. It knew all of this within two weeks of taking office.

In this article, Ms O'Donoghue gives an illuminating example of the selectivity embodied in the attitude of many in this place and in the wider community to the issue of accountability. She uses the example of the diesel fuel rebate scheme, which, at $1.2 billion last year, costs taxpayers more than ATSIC. She draws attention to the fact that there was a damning Australian National Audit Office report on the administration of this scheme. It suggests that the rorting of this scheme amounts to at least $32 million, and possibly much more, a year. Is that a haemorrhaging of public funds? Where is the outrage? Where are all the people out there saying, `This is a disgraceful lack of accountability.'?

Senator Bob Collins —Not a word.

Senator KERNOT —There has been not a word from the beneficiaries—

Senator Bob Collins —Except that they want to hang on to the scheme.

Senator KERNOT —Yes, Senator Collins. Not a word from the beneficiaries. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We have seen those farmers and miners, in particular, outraged that there have been suggestions that the scheme might be wound back. We have seen the Prime Minister go to the National Farmers Federation meeting and utter all kinds of soothing noises. All I say about that is that that is a comparison well made, and it is about accountability.

Based on a chronology of events, I suspect that Senator Herron went to cabinet with some amendments arising out of an independent review of regional council electoral systems and ATSIC's own operational experience review. That is a normal thing that would happen—taking some amendments arising from that to cabinet for discussion.

Senator Herron —How would you know?

Senator KERNOT —How do you think we know anything about the way government works, Senator Herron? You do not have to be in government to know—and you who have been there a few months are not showing that you know very much in that time either. I believe you came out of cabinet with extra things: with instructions to issue a general direction to appoint a special auditor—and you had to get legal advice on the drafting of that overnight—and, secondly, a proposal for reserve power to appoint a special administrator.

While we are focusing on the issue of accountability, I do think we need to look at the consequences of these two particular actions because, as a result of the appointment of a special auditor to vet every single one of the 2,000 organisations and 6,000 grants funded by ATSIC, we are told that most ATSIC regional offices have frozen much of the funding available to communities and that we are now facing the likelihood that 30,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who currently work for the dole will be forced to apply for normal unemployment benefits. Of course the obvious question is: at what cost? And at what cost to ATSIC is the appointment of the special auditor?

Senator Herron told the committee on Friday that the cost was $750,000. As Senator Chamarette and others have said, it is coming from ATSIC's budget. That is the point. Just imagine what use that $750,000 could be put to in service delivery at the local level. No-one is saying that ATSIC is perfect. I think we all would realistically expect that audits will uncover some irregularities. Then the question is: are those irregularities based on inexperience or are they based on some form of deliberate fraud? Again, I ask: what has the cost of this exercise been?

Senator Herron refers to perception. I think the costs of the last four months have been to confirm many prejudiced, stereotypical views about indigenous people—at the worst, that most blacks are crooks; using a slightly better construction—only very slightly better because it is quite paternalistic—that ATSIC has not been in existence for enough time for it to have had the experience in administration.

Added to that, there is that ongoing ignorant perception that you cannot trust indigenous people with public moneys of any kind. It is a 1996 version of the mission manager. I think the last four months have done a great deal of damage to the process of reconciliation that most of us here think is important. It does not exist in a vacuum. It does not exist in isolation from the other decisions we are making in this place and the discussions we are having.

Having made those general comments in the context of this bill, there are more than 40 technical and smaller amendments that we can support to facilitate the election process in October. But the Democrats will not be supporting the three key amendments—on the appointment of the chair of ATSIC, on the reduction in the number of regional councillors and on the reserve power to appoint an administrator—not just because they go to the heart of self-determination, but because, I believe, the government has failed to make a strong case, either in public when these were announced or, more particularly, at the Senate committee hearing on Friday, where not one witness—except the minister—spoke positively about any of the amendments.

I think that there is room for a review in the matter of a reduction in the number of regional counsellors. I think it is a positive thing for us to suggest that we go away with the minister and with ATSIC and we look at finding a better way to balance the notion of efficiency in the workings of the regional councils with proper representativeness in terms of numbers—the ratio of councillors to constituents. I hope, when we get to the committee stage, we will be able to talk a little bit more about that.

Let me conclude by again referring to the article I mentioned, because I think it was an excellent article. I think it brought together some important threads about things which needed to be said on behalf of indigenous people. I do think that these amendments arise from stored up misconceptions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, perceptions that are not true about accountability and perceptions which build on populist politics.

I do not think it is a satisfactory rationale to point to the election of a couple of people who were linked with racist remarks in the election campaign and who were either elected or re-elected, and to say, `There you go, there is the proof. There is mounting community concern over accountability.' I could never accept that as a quantified rationale for why we should move to undo some of the things that we have done in the name of self-determination of indigenous people in this parliament.