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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 69

Senator JOHNSTON (5:07 PM) —Briefly, in the five minutes that I have been allotted, I want to address some of the misconceptions that are bound up in the majority report. I found it very much a disturbing event to some extent to be swept up in the political charade of the clayton’s report that has been put before the Senate on this occasion. Indeed, the minority report sets out all of the shortcomings. Before I get into the report, may I congratulate the chair on a very fine job. I believe it is the first select committee Senator Moore has chaired, and I thought she did a magnificent job. It is a pity that those around her and supporting her have taken the report and used it for crass political purposes, because I believe that the matter of Indigenous affairs should always be above politics. We should strive as hard and as long as is necessary to have a bipartisan approach to what are some of the most crucially difficult issues confronting public policy and governance in Australia today.

This report contains a broad number of complete misconceptions. What we found when we went out to Alice Springs, Queensland and New South Wales—in all of the places that I attended—was a lethargy, a complete lack of upset and lack of passion with respect to the decline and the abolition of ATSIC as is proposed by the government’s legislation. I was expecting that there would be outrage or some degree of aggression towards the legislation, but, no, the opposite was the case. The constituency of ATSIC has been let down and indeed it has lain dormant for much longer than I now understand it should have.

This Labor framework of 1989 has, in fact, been one of the most monumental public policy failures this country has ever seen. It has delivered a system of representation to Aboriginal people on a maximum of 20 per cent of the vote. That is how representative ATSIC was at the end. When I found out the salaries and wages of ATSIC commissioners, I thought to myself, gee, I know a lot of people out in the bush in Western Australia who could really use some good water, a bit of good medicine, some transportation and some telecommunications on the sort of money that those people are receiving. At the end of the day, when we went to Alice Springs, there was simply a sense of relief that ATSIC had gone. I was in fact surprised and, I must say, the sense I came away with after listening to these people was that the government should have done this a lot sooner than it did.

ATSIC was dilatory, unrepresentative, unsuccessful and, in short, a failure. There were very few apologists for ATSIC. Indeed, when Chairman Clark came before us I put to him this question: how is it, if things are so outrageously bad and you have been so badly treated and your natural justice has been so abused, that you do not have a friend in the world? The fact is this: the Labor Party support the abolition of ATSIC. That is the crucial thing that every Aboriginal person in Australia needs to understand. The Labor Party support the fundamental tenet of the great, bold initiative of this legislation. To some great extent that is why it is there.

The other great mystical hypocrisy in all of this is that they have gone through this charade pretending to pander to those people who have some sense of outrage whilst all the time saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to abolish it,’ and not having a policy on the table. There is no policy on the table. What is the Labor Party proposing in terms of representation for Aboriginal people to replace ATSIC? It is a round number before one: a great big zero. Of course, they will say, ‘This is terrible. The minister is doing the wrong thing. The minister hasn’t listened and hasn’t taken advice broadly from Aboriginal people and from people who are interested and from stakeholders.’ Of course that is utterly incorrect. Indeed the committee heard from people who had had long suffering and had periods of time when ATSIC simply gave them nothing.

Let us turn to this report and to the political nature of it. At one stage it talks about the shame of this legislation. The real shame is that all the while for the last six months while this has been proposed the ALP have stood on the hose and these changes could not be undertaken because they sought to indicate to their so-called constituents that they have concern. But, at the end of the day, the fact is the legislation is going to be passed and, in whatever form, the legislation will deliver the abolition of ATSIC. This is a classic example of crocodile tears.

I turn to the inquiry. What sort of credibility can the inquiry have? The most amazing fact about this inquiry—and this certainly does not reflect on the chair because I think she was most earnest in everything she did in this inquiry—is that it never went to Western Australia. How can you have a representative committee report on the abolition of ATSIC when it never went to Western Australia? The fact is, senators from the eastern states never want to go across the country to Western Australia. They never want to go across the country to Western Australia. So how much credibility can a report have when about 60 per cent of the population of Indigenous people is in Western Australia and the committee does not go there?

Let us talk about ATSIC and the budget. The annual budget for ATSIC in 2002-03 was $1.1 billion. That was only half of what the government pays in terms of managing Aboriginal affairs and Indigenous matters in Australia. (Time expired)