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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 72

Senator NETTLE (5:21 PM) —The report of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs exposes the myriad problems and shortcomings with the Howard government’s approach to the administration of Indigenous affairs. I participated in the inquiry and travelled around the country listening to Indigenous communities, and it has become clear to me that the government’s approach lacks any legitimacy. The government has failed to consult the very people affected by its decisions—that is, Indigenous Australians. The government has forged ahead with its plans to abolish the national representative Indigenous body, ATSIC, without regard to the views of Indigenous communities and before parliament has even begun to consider the matter. The government has failed to propose a suitable alternative to ATSIC, giving the communities instead a hand-picked council of advisers who, whilst they are all decent and concerned people, have no legitimacy to speak on behalf of Indigenous people.

There are varying views about ATSIC and some legitimate criticisms of its structure, the functions it was tasked with and the tensions of a body designed along Western guidelines working in a different cultural context. But the committee did not hear from any Indigenous representative that appeared before the committee that they wanted to have their national voice abolished. The government has been gunning for ATSIC since it came to office in 1996. It has forced upon it audits at the same time as cutting ATSIC’s budget for training courses to improve the management skills of Indigenous administrators.

ATSIC has never had full responsibility for delivering services to Indigenous people and communities but it has always been blamed for the failure of other agencies and of government. The deeply entrenched disadvantage that Indigenous people endure that manifests itself in poverty, discrimination, overcrowded housing, poor health and low participation in education and training all point to systemic, long-term failures. To imagine that a body such as ATSIC could redress all of these failures was always plainly ridiculous.

The government has failed to explain in its new model involving consultation at local and regional levels who it will consult with once ATSIC regional councils are abolished, as proposed in the bill. It has not committed to fund new representative bodies at a national, regional or community level and it plans to deny Indigenous input to important forums and processes dealing with the protection of Indigenous heritage, health and medical issues, and human rights. For these reasons, the Greens do not support the government’s proposed abolition of ATSIC. We will continue to call, as we do in our additional comments to the report, for a new national representative Indigenous body—one supported by communities and funded by the government. Such a body is critical to self-determination, to redress Indigenous disadvantage in Australia and to advocate for Indigenous people in international forums.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, in November 2004 raised concerns that others have also raised about shared responsibility agreements. He said that the proposed introduction of coercive measures to achieve improvements in the circumstances of Indigenous peoples will not work and may, in fact, exacerbate the extent of poverty, marginalisation and powerlessness. We have already witnessed a shared responsibility agreement which linked two essential requirements that have nothing to do with each other. The much-publicised Mulan agreement ties essential health services and parental behaviour to fuel for transportation, which is not a luxury in a remote area. These agreements have about them a tenor of paternalism which has no place in the management of Indigenous affairs in this nation.

The Greens are also concerned about the government’s proposals for mainstreaming. The 2003 review of ATSIC rejected mainstreaming as an option, and international experience shows us that the best outcomes for Indigenous people occur when they exercise control over their own decisions in their own lives through culturally appropriate institutions. The government’s model of mainstreaming would create more difficulties of coordination. The committee heard evidence about the difficulties for the proposed Indigenous coordination centres in creating a cohesive and common vision, because each lead agency involved in the centres had a different purpose and function. The government needs to acknowledge the failure of mainstreaming in Australia and overseas, and commit to a genuine process of self-determination whereby Indigenous Australians are the primary decision makers in the decisions that affect their lives, particularly the delivery of services.

I want to add to the comments that others have made in thanking the people who supported the committee. I particularly want to thank Hansard, who had difficult jobs in places and unusual circumstances that they dealt with, and also the person who began chairing the committee, Senator Crossin.