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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2211

Senator COONEY(11.55 a.m.) —I would like to say some words about the ATSIC legislation. It is directed at changing the way the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is run. Any organisation is properly subject to scrutiny, and it is really a matter of whether the scrutiny eventuates in proper reform, reform that is not really reform at all or a bit of both. In the present instance there is concern to be had because the proposals do make the conditions under which the commission is elected and is conducted less democratic than they were before.

ATSIC was the brainchild, in the full sense of the word, of Mr Gerry Hand when he was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The idea behind it was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as the original inhabitants of this land, would have a much more democratic say than they had before—democratic in the sense that they as the original community, the original inhabitants, of this land and the islands about it had a special attachment to it that people of other races did not. I think that is the right concept because—

Senator Herron —We are continuing Gerry Hand's process.

Senator COONEY —As Senator Herron says, he is continuing Gerry Hand's process. Senator Herron, may I say to you while I am on my feet that you have, in my view, striven mightily to make the system work. I might not go so far as to say I agree with what you are doing all the way along the line, but I pay tribute to your sincerity and your energy in going about the task.

This legislation returns the position of chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to the position it was before. I think that is an unfortunate return, because the very heart of democracy requires that the people in charge be elected by the people whom they are to represent. This point has been made time and again—and I think it has been made time and again because it should be made time and again.

It seems to me that, if you are going to have a democratic system—it was certainly Minister Hand's objective to have a democratic system, a system that reflected the views of the people that this commission was meant to represent—surely the person at the top should be elected, if not directly then in a secondary way, by the people whom he or she is going to represent—in the same way as the Prime Minister is elected. The parliament is directly elected by the people, and that part of the parliament which belongs to the successful party then votes in its ministry.

If you look at the way things are done, you will see that it seems extraordinary that an outside body—in this case, the government—should appoint the chair. If it is proper to appoint the chair, why isn't it proper to appoint everybody to the commission? We have a hybrid system.

Senator Bob Collins —Hybrid or high bred?

Senator COONEY —Senator Collins, the proper word is the word that you have no doubt suggested by the tone of your voice. It seems to me that we are getting into a situation where we do not quite know what we are doing. We are sending out very unusual messages. We are saying, `We want you, as a special group within Australia'—and I agree with this—`to have this democratic system of running yourself. But the most important officer, the person at the top of this commission, ought to be directed by government.'

It is true enough that taxpayers' funds are expended by this body; but then taxpayers' funds are expended by parliament, and so they should be. In my view parliament is a body absolutely essential to the wellbeing of this country. I saw in the newspaper this morning that people are going around saying that it costs so much to keep a parliamentarian. Of course it does; but we cannot have it both ways. There is that famous quote of Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except for every other one that has been tried. That is true.

Senator Campbell —Are you sure that was Churchill?

Senator COONEY —It was Churchill, in a parliamentary debate in 1947, I think.

Senator Campbell —I wasn't there that day.

Senator COONEY —You certainly were not there, but some of us were—not in the parliament, but on Earth.

Senator Campbell —Did you vote for the legislation to have an appointed chairman for the last seven years?

Senator COONEY —I would have voted for the legislation that was put up by the party. You are saying that there is a particular piece of legislation that has been supported in the past. But I do not think we can look at the past, except perhaps for an indication of what might be proper now. We have to look at what is proper and right now. All I am saying is that, if it is proper and right for parliament to be elected in the way it is, it is proper and right that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the chairperson should be elected democratically by the people they represent.

The point about money being expended on Torres Strait Islanders and on Aboriginals is no different from the point about money being expended on this parliament. What worries me, and this is one of the reasons I am now on my feet, is that there seems to be a mood afoot in the community that anybody who is paid as a legislator—and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders fit into this category—is somehow wrong in taking public money.

It is a very bad trend that this parliament and the people who are in this parliament are criticised, taken to task, demeaned and ridiculed, if you like, for costing a particular sum of money—and it is a large sum of money; in fact, $600,000 to keep a politician. In that statement there is the implication that that is wrong. That is just not right.

Parliament and the people who sit here do a magnificent service to the country. In the same way, by and large the people on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission do tremendous work for their constituency. So it is a false argument to say that the running of this commission costs money; of course it does.

Of course, the time comes when too much money is spent, and that is the time when we ought to step in. But we should not step in, take over and change the culture of this commission as it now is simply because it is expensive in particular people's estimates. Government is a great business, the most important business there is, and the quality of government should not be lessened simply to save costs.

If too much expense is being given to it and it is a matter that can be corrected without changing the quality of government, fair enough. But, as I say, there is a real problem afoot now that the quality of government at every level—not only in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but in terms of government for this country and in the states—will suffer severely, because people think it is more important to save some dollars, even considerable amounts of dollars, rather than to get good government.