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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 86

Senator KNOWLES (2:49 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Amanda Vanstone. Will the minister inform the Senate of the government's actions to deliver better futures for, and better outcomes to, Indigenous Australians? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I thank Senator Knowles for her question. Coming from the state of Western Australia she obviously has a strong interest in matters pertaining to Indigenous Australians. It is very clear—we have said it in this place before and we repeated it after the election—that this government is committed to ensuring a much better deal for first Australians. We want to give them much better value for the money that we are spending. We believe the states and territories want to do the same, and I would hope that everyone in this chamber endorses the view that what we are doing now is not the best we can do. We can do better. Once we answer the question, `Is what we're doing now the best we can do?' by saying, `No, we can do better,' we accept that there has to be change. And we are committed to implementing that change. We spelt out our plans prior to, and during, the election.

I was pleased to hear Mr Latham on radio recently confirming that his job in this parliament will be to ensure that all the election promises made to the Australian people are kept. We have an election promise that we will introduce a bill to get rid of ATSIC, which is incidentally also Labor Party policy, and I look forward to that bill being passed. I understand notice has been given of a motion before the Senate to continue the work of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. My guess is that the Senate will vote for that to continue, but that is no reason for the ATSIC abolition bill not to proceed. There are other matters that that committee can look at.

In the time between the election and now, I announced the membership of the new National Indigenous Council and I am very pleased with the general reception members of that council have received. It is an advisory body; it is not a replacement for ATSIC. ATSIC purported to be representative of Indigenous Australia by geographic region. In fact, only about 20 per cent of Indigenous Australians who were entitled to vote voted. To put it another way, about 80 per cent did not. With that indication of support from Indigenous Australians, we can see why Labor came to the policy and we came to the same view that ATSIC has to go.

This body is not there to represent one region over another. These people have been picked, firstly, because they are Indigenous Australians and, secondly, because they are achievers in their own right. Given there are hurdles that Indigenous Australians must jump to get the same outcomes that all of us enjoy, these people have jumped them. If there are mountains Indigenous Australians have to climb, these people have climbed them. They are successful in their own right in the fields of education, law, business and sport—a wide range of areas where the government will welcome their advice. It will not be the sole source of advice; we will be listening to views put forward by our colleagues, by members opposite, by lobby groups and by the general community. But they will be a key advisory body to the government.

I am particularly pleased that magistrate Sue Gordon from Western Australia has agreed to chair the committee. She has a long and distinguished career and a very clear understanding of the safety risks that children in some Indigenous communities face. I am equally pleased that the Vice-President of the Labor Party, Warren Mundine, is also happy to join. Our invitation to him to join is an indication of our determination to approach each of these issues as it relates to Indigenous Australians on its merits. We do not want this to be a Liberal-Labor fight. It is not an indication that we will take Labor into our confidence on a day-to-day basis but it is a clear indication that we recognise this must be a high priority and that day-to-day politics should not interfere with it. We are absolutely committed to working with the council. The first meetings will be on 8 and 9 December. (Time expired)

Senator KNOWLES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask the minister if she would care to expand further on the role of this new body.

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Yes, I would care to expand, Senator Knowles, and I thank you for the supplementary question. The first meetings will be on 8 and 9 December. They will include discussions—and this will happen regularly—with the ministerial task force. That task force is made up of ministers who have money that will be spent on Indigenous matters. We will coordinate that money in a way that Commonwealth governments have never done before. The task force will primarily be discussing with the council, and vice versa, what our priority areas should be. We believe they are safer communities, early intervention for children and ending passive welfare. You could put that another way and talk about childhood intervention, primary health, community safety and economic development. That is the first issue we want to raise with them to see if they agree with those points. Indigenous leaders and commentators like Noel Pearson and former senator Bob Collins have called for an end to passive welfare. Indigenous families and communities want the opportunity to be responsible, and we will give it to them. (Time expired)