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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2209

Senator ELLISON(11.45 a.m.) —This bill is just one of numerous amendments that have been made to ATSIC since its inception in 1989. Some of the amendments contained in the bill are reflections on proposals put forward by the previous government, recommendations from the panel of review—which followed ATSIC elections during the last parliament—community feedback and the policies of the present government as expressed in the lead-up to the federal election this year. ATSIC, as we know, virtually replaced the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and is perhaps the chief administrator of indigenous affairs in this country—although state governments also play a significant role in that as do other Commonwealth agencies.

This bill basically seeks to make changes in five main areas. The first change provides for the appointment of two commissioners and the selection of the chairman of ATSIC by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. The second provides for the reduction in the size of ATSIC regional councils. The third provides for improved accountability arrangements for regional councils—which includes access to docu ments, openness of meetings and the disclosure of pecuniary interests of regional councillors. The fourth provides for the appointment of an administrator to manage the operation of ATSIC in certain circumstances.

Finally, there is a miscellaneous group of amendments which touch on such things as the eligibility to stand at regional council elections; technical amendments relating to electoral boundaries; the removal of regional councillors convicted of offences; the election of the deputy chairperson of the commission and, when required, an alternative deputy regional chairman; the appointment of acting commissioners; and a requirement that regional councillors who accept consultancies with the commission will have to stand down. That section extends to corporations which are controlled by regional councillors.

I understand that a good many of these amendments are non-contentious, and so they should be. On the face of it, these amendments go a long way towards improving the performance of ATSIC and improving the efficacy and accountability of the delivery of services to indigenous Australia.

The more contentious parts of the bill have perhaps been the amendments which deal with the appointment of the chairman of ATSIC. In this regard, the bill returns to the 1993 position where the chairman was appointed, before the Keating government saw fit to amend that so the chairman was elected. At the time, we opposed that move by the Keating government, and we are showing consistency with that approach now that we are in government. ATSIC has a large budget—just under a billion dollars—and there is a very good reason for the government to have the ability to select the chairman of the commission. Some form of accountability is provided through that move.

The second amendment deals with the reduction in the size of regional councils. ATSIC, when it was first set up, had some 60 regional councils. That number was reduced in the life of the former parliament to 36 in an endeavour to improve the operation of ATSIC. This amendment, I believe, operates on the same theme. The number of councillors on the regional councils would be re duced, which not only saves on administrative costs but also enhances the level of performance of those councils. Someone approaching this matter for the first time would think this is a step towards limiting democracy but, when one looks at the fact that a council with no more than 1,000 people is represented by some eight councillors, one can see that the ratio of representation is very good indeed.

The third amendment also provides for the improved accountability of regional councils, which I mentioned earlier. This relates to opening up meetings of regional councils to the public generally—and particularly to indigenous Australians—and providing access to documentation. This, I believe, speaks for itself.

The appointment of an administrator to ATSIC has been criticised by the opposition and by minor parties. I would put to them that you do need a fail-safe mechanism. ATSIC enjoys a position where it has a large degree of autonomy—autonomy in dealing with a budget, as I said earlier, which is just under a billion dollars per annum.

We have seen today the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron) tabling reports dealing with the Aboriginal legal services. Those reports show some areas of gross negligence and misconduct in the delivery of services to indigenous Australia. This is something which should cut across the board of government expenditure generally. We have a duty to the taxpayer and to the community to make sure that Commonwealth services are delivered in an efficient and economic manner.

The fourth amendment would allow, in extreme circumstances, an administrator to be appointed to deal with ATSIC when there is gross misconduct or fraud. That does not mean to say that commissioners would be stood aside or sacked. I know Senator Bob Collins raised that during the committee hearing—he said that power was open to the minister. That, I would submit, is a draconian power which would not be as effective as the appointment of an administrator.

The administrator could be appointed while the commissioners were still in office, and the administrator could provide a review to the government of the day. It would be like using a block axe if you just walked in and sacked commissioners willy-nilly. I would support the use of an auditor, whilst retaining the commissioners. That is a far more preferable approach than the one advocated by Senator Collins, when he said that the minister has the power to remove them.

The government made a decision early in its term to improve accountability in this area, and that is what it is doing. It is carrying out its election promises and its policy which it put to the people of Australia in February and March this year. It is a policy upon which this government was elected. Any fraud or misconduct in this area can be visited upon only indigenous Australia. Any loss of funding by way of maladministration can harm only indigenous Australia. Not only is it an abuse of taxpayers' money, but it is more importantly a detriment to the delivery of services to indigenous people, be they in the cities or in the more remote areas.

I commend these amendments to the Senate and to the people of Australia at large. I think they go towards improving accountability and efficacy in the delivery of services to the areas for which the expenditure was intended. I believe these amendments have widespread support. The attack on the minister has been entirely unfair. I compliment Senator Herron in the way that he has approached this with such urgency. It is now June, the government was elected in early March and we have already before the Senate legislation dealing with these matters. For that aspect and for the urgency and diligence the minister has applied to the matter he is to be commended.

I have read the dissenting report of the committee which looked at these matters. I can find no convincing argument in the dissenting report as to why these amendments are inappropriate. As I said, a good many of these amendments came about as a result of recommendations made to the previous government, and the only one which would be more innovative is perhaps the appointment of an administrator.

As I have already said, I would prefer the appointment of an administrator to the willy-nilly sacking of commissioners or their sus pension. I believe one commissioner has been suspended already. The appointment of an administrator would provide a system where the commission can still be kept in operation whilst a review is conducted. But, as the minister has said, that would take place in only the most exceptional circumstances—where there was gross misconduct or widespread fraud.