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Wednesday, 9 October 1996
Page: 3752


Senator MARGETTS(9.50 a.m.) —I move:

That the Senate censures the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron) for his incompetent and insensitive handling of his portfolio in the following areas:

(a)   failure to seek advice or consult before illegally imposing an independent auditor on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and leaving ATSIC responsible for any costs incurred;

(b)   seeking to make changes to eligibility criteria for an ATSIC election which would come into effect after nominations had closed for that election, potentially threatening the validity of that election, thus incurring millions of dollars of additional costs for ATSIC;

(c)   the inability to comprehend the outcomes of his own decisions which impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, education, employment, social cohesion and self-determination;

(d)   the promotion of inappropriate and outdated policies of assimilation; and

(e)   the willingness to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be made scapegoats to deflect attention from issues of unemployment and growing inequalities in Australia.

While I was reading out those issues I heard people from the other side of the chamber saying that this is old. What we have today so far is an accumulation of points which lead up to this censure. I do not take such an issue lightly. This is the first time in three years in this place that I have moved a censure motion and it should be made very clear at the outset that my decision has not been taken lightly.

I have become increasingly concerned in recent times about the incompetence and insensitivity of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron). My motion refers to five key issues, and I will address my comments in relation to those matters.

The first issue is the actions of the minister in relation to the appointment of a special auditor to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. This decision was made early in the minister's time in his new portfolio and it has subsequently been found by the Federal Court that the minister had no power to set up the audit process. This flawed decision is indicative of an appalling lack of due care on its own, but it escalates to outrageous proportions when the financial implications of the decision are taken into account. There are huge hurts being felt by many people in terms of self-determination, but it is a slap in the face for people to find out that steps to move away from self-determination will actually be charged to those people who are most affected.

ATSIC was forced at the time of the appointment to set aside $750,000 to fund this special auditor, but this budget blew out to more than $830,000 within the first few weeks. The result of this bungle by the minister and his advisers is ATSIC is being forced to pay nearly $1 million. Will this have to be paid for by a reduction in services to Aboriginal communities?

Throughout this Senate there have been many occasions in industry or otherwise when the issue of some people not using funds as they were intended has been brought up. It has never been argued by the coalition in relation to industry that something like a 10 per cent figure in relation to funding for a program or a subsidy would mean that the program suddenly was frozen, the program suddenly was stopped or an independent auditor was immediately introduced. It certainly would not happen to business.

The second issue referred to in my motion is the debacle that occurred during the debate on the ATSIC Amendment Bill 1996 (No. 2). This bill dealt with structural changes to ATSIC and had some very important implications for the 1996 ATSIC elections. One of the changes was in relation to the eligibility criteria for ATSIC councillors, which my office determined immediately prior to the debate on this bill would take effect after nominations had closed for the 1996 election. This could have led to a situation in which the entire ATSIC elections, which cost millions of dollars to conduct, could have been deemed invalid.

It was only after this matter was raised with the minister and he at last realised the extraordinary implications of proceeding with those sections of the bill that amended eligibility criteria that the government decided to withdraw the offending section from this bill. I am pleased to say there was support from others in this chamber to do so. I am happy to provide advice to the minister, but perhaps I should be claiming higher duties allowance.

The third issue referred to in the censure motion is the inability of the minister to comprehend the outcomes of his own decisions which impact on the quality of life and the push for self-determination by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There appears to be a denial of the fact that the funding that is currently provided to state, territory and local governments to provide such services as health or education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may simply be absorbed into those bodies' general revenue, leaving communities totally dependent either on ATSIC funding or on the royalties of mining, as is the case in the Northern Territory.

Where is the accountability in that? When people have talked about accountability, has anybody not mentioned to the minister that the accountability should be to the people to whom those services should be provided? If ATSIC is considered to be necessary for intervention by the government, how much more should state, territory and local governments be given when they are provided taxpayers' money at much greater levels to provide health, education and community services? How many of those dollars have been followed through to their final point? How many? How many areas only get access to royalties? How many areas virtually only get access to ATSIC funding?

We know that some health dollars are spent, but there is no tracing through, as far as I can see, to make sure that those dollars that are provided to those bodies get to where they are supposed to go. It is inevitable that, if you leave all other services to ATSIC, you will find they will be unable to provide all of those services to all of those communities. The funding is not accountable in that sense. We seem to have a very skewed opinion in relation to who should be targeted in this area.

Instead of providing greater self-determination, the minister is removing the decision making power from those bodies. The minister's response in not realising that ATSIC had been left with an impossible task is to cut funding for ATSIC programs. It should be said that this policy is largely poll driven, given the minister's preference for quoting polls, which he claims indicate that most Australians are not happy to see Aboriginal people receive more than their fair share of the taxpayers' dollars.

The minister's statements and actions reflect the mind-set. This ignores the very real discrimination which has existed for Aboriginal people since the arrival of Europeans on this continent and whether or not those dollars which are down as being available to Aboriginal people which are going through state, territory and local governments are going to the point to which they are meant to be going. If that is indeed the case, the minister should tell us that it is so.

The fourth element of the censure motion refers to the promotion of inappropriate and outdated policies of assimilation. Many Aboriginal people bear the psychological scars which result from the paternalistic and assimilationist policies that dominated thinking on Aboriginal issues in this country until very recently. The minister's attitude to `the stolen generation' inquiry is reflective of this position. I have spoken to Aboriginal people in Western Australia who are friends of mine who have suffered greatly as a result of the policies that took them away from their parents. Those scars are not going to disappear quickly as a result of their speaking to the inquiry and, as the minister says, `getting it out of your system'. That was a recent statement by the minister.


Senator Campbell —Why don't you quote his whole statement? Just for once be honest.


Senator MARGETTS —I would be very happy if the entire interview was tabled in the Senate. I am happy for that to happen. If the minister has a copy of the entire interview, I would be happy to see it in the Senate as well.

As I said, I have spoken to Aboriginal people who are friends of mine who were taken away from their parents. Those scars are not going to disappear quickly. We only need to consider the impact of this forced separation on the former head of the Aboriginal Legal Service in Western Australia to realise the enormity of the task that we as a nation must confront.

The minister's statements on this and other matters has not helped in the process of reconciliation that must happen before we can move on, if there is a duty of care for ministers. If this involved a teacher, we would say that the teacher has breached their duty of care. It is quite clear that the minister considers that benefits have accrued to those who were forcibly separated from their parents. Perhaps he believes that these benefits are so great that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do not feel real agony in telling strangers about their experiences.


Senator Campbell —Why don't you quote the whole quote? Be honest for once. You charlatan.


Senator MARGETTS —The minister says that he understands, we can be regretful, we can be sorry, we can be all those things, but we cannot change the past.


Senator Campbell —You charlatan. You fraud. You are worse than the ABC.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson) —Order! Senator Campbell!


Senator MARGETTS —If there was real understanding that we are dealing with real people going through real agony, surely there would be the understanding that there needs to be funding to provide counselling for those people.


Senator Campbell —The main agony is listening to your verbal diarrhoea, my dear.


Senator Brown —I rise on a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President. I object to the sexist comment coming from the senator opposite, but I guess it is part of his make-up. However, I ask you to be firmer in having him restrict his interjections, which are disorderly. He will be given the opportunity to speak later, and should hear Senator Margetts in silence.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT — Order! Senator Campbell, I think that perhaps some of the remarks that have been made could have been more carefully chosen. I would ask you to allow Senator Margetts to continue with her speech.


Senator MARGETTS —There was acceptance by the minister that he regrets that the stolen generation was horrific, but at the moment we still do not have a report from the government. We still have a reluctance to admit that there was any liability from any government in the past. We have a situation which puts the entire process in limbo at this stage, when the federal government is the only government which has not provided a response.

If there was some true understanding and sensitivity, there would be the understanding that what is required is recognition—recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are human beings and that whatever changes to their lifestyle there may have been as a result of being taken away from their parents, there is no substitution for that sense of identity that has been lost, that sense of loss of culture and that sense of loss of language. Only now are we seeing communities who are trying desperately to regain that sense of culture and that social cohesion to be able to teach language and culture to their children. At this point communities are realising that they need to regain some of what they have lost several generations on. That hurt and damage has lasted for several generations. As communities are trying to regain that sense of community, now is the vital time when that support should be given.

Whilst the minister may originally have made some unplanned gaffes due to inexperience, the poll-driven response from the government has been to turn mistake into policy direction. If there is any real duty of care for ministers, this would have to be about as low as a government can stoop. It is convenient for the Howard government to use Aboriginal people as scapegoats to divert attention from both the decisions they made in concert with the previous government—which have severely affected the Australian community—and to justify their current slash and burn budget.

Yes, people were hurting going into the last election. There were many reasons why that was the case. They were promised that things would be as good as they could get. They were told to shut up because they had never had it so good. We had a growing gap between the rich and the poor; we had a growing working poor. We had people on part-time and casual jobs who found that that was the direction their jobs were going.

That disillusioned group of people did not have it explained to them why they were feeling the way they were, why the whole nature of their position in life—the future for their children in education and the nature of the workplace—was changing so rapidly. They did not have it explained to them how the changes of internationalisation were affecting them, how competition policy was suddenly making them pay for services that they had not paid for before, how outsourcing was affecting them when even their schools were not being cleaned and how they could not find basic goods and services on their own shelves that were produced in their own country. There was a lot of disillusion. People did not know who to blame, but there were people who came and told them who they could blame.

This may not be from a current coalition member, but it was a very convenient time, wasn't it? The fact that the minister has seen fit to surf in on a wave of scapegoatism deserves censure. Many people in this community have not understood the basis of the change. It is very convenient to point to Aboriginal people. It is very convenient to point to migrants. It is very convenient to point to those young people in our community who have no chance of getting a job under this system. Let us point to them and blame them.

The fact that a minister for Aboriginal affairs has been creating this level of confusion in the public arena and using it as a means of gaining some electoral benefit deserves censure. I believe that there should be a duty of care placed on a minister. If you are the minister for Aboriginal affairs, you should not be the minister for scapegoating. Not listening; presenting positions without adequate consultation; showing no understanding of the need for self-determination; making decisions without adequate consultation, even with advisers, which ends up eating further into programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—all these make the minister for Aboriginal affairs deserving of censure.

We currently have a slash and burn budget which is being neatly deflected by the use of scapegoating, using Aboriginal people, amongst others. Let us blame somebody else; let us blame anybody else except the decisions that we are making in this place. It is for these and many other reasons that the minister deserves our censure.

I am sure that Labor Party senators and other senators in this chamber have other examples. I have given just some examples today. Yes, some of these issues go back some months now. Yes, that means that, cumulatively, the very strong message needs to be given that this is not good enough. It is not what we would expect of a minister of the federal government. I commend this motion to the Senate.