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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 50

Senator CARR (12:59 PM) —Today I would like to take this opportunity to discuss matters that we did not have time to discuss yesterday in regard to the tabling of the report by the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. I also seek to raise matters in the context of the chamber tomorrow discussing a bill, I understand, concerning the abolition of ATSIC. Let me begin by highlighting the simple proposition that a discussion of this type at this time occurs within the context of the government embarking upon radical new measures for Indigenous affairs. It is embarking upon a program which it sees and presents as a ‘quiet revolution’.

Closer examination of that program, in my judgment, highlights that, rather than a revolution, we are dealing with a counter-revolution. This government is seeking to take this country backwards, back to the 1960s—a period when Indigenous people had no effective voice in this country and liberal-minded persons were anxious about the deterioration in the social conditions of Indigenous people but did not have the political clout to actually change anything. Now I think there are still progressive-minded people, even within this government, that take the view that the social and economic conditions of the Indigenous citizens of this country are totally intolerable, yet they still do not have the political clout to actually change those circumstances.

In my judgment, the government of this country is seeking to fundamentally change the balance of power between the Commonwealth of Australia—and I mean that in terms of not just the government but also the people of this country—and its Indigenous citizens and to do so in a manner which will fundamentally disadvantage the Indigenous citizens of this country. The Prime Minister has of course waxed and waned on this matter. I can recall times, for instance just after the 1998 election, when he indicated that he was actually interested in the genuine cause of true reconciliation. He said:

... I ... want to commit myself very genuinely to the cause of true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia by the centenary of Federation. We may differ and debate about the best way of achieving reconciliation, but I think all Australians are united in a determination to achieve it.

Unfortunately, that sentiment did not last very long and, belated as it was, the commitment was short-lived. I recall that only a little over three years ago one million Australians walked across the bridges of this nation, determined to show their commitment to the ongoing process of reconciliation. What was the government’s response? They did everything within their power so that that voice would not be heard within the corridors of power in this country.

If the government were genuine in their belief about the need for reconciliation with Indigenous people, they would have by now announced a policy which allowed Indigenous people to have a real say in the affairs that so directly concern them. If they felt that ATSIC had to go, as they clearly did, they would have announced a commitment to the replacement of ATSIC with a new representative national body chosen by Indigenous people. But what have we heard? We have heard from this government that their real interest is what they call a commitment to practical reconciliation. That is a concept that the Prime Minister floated way back in 1997, although the term has only become a catchcry within the government since 2000. This is a policy that essentially means a limited approach to reconciliation.

If one examines the basic economic and social statistics in just about every field, one will be able to see that that policy has failed. The equity gap between Indigenous people in this country and the rest of the community has in fact grown; it has widened. If you look at it objectively, you will see that not only has the gap widened in this country but the rate of performance has declined in terms of the effective improvements that have occurred in this country by comparison with similar societies such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States. The level of inequality has actually become more severe.

If you examine, for instance, the average household incomes of Indigenous people, it is apparent that Indigenous people enjoy incomes of only 62 per cent of those of non-Indigenous people. In remote areas, the incomes of Indigenous people are only 43 per cent of those of the rest of the country. The unemployment rate for Indigenous people is 23 per cent. If we regard the CDEP as a form of unemployment, as this government do—they think it is sort of ‘make work’ and it has no value—then the figure is 43 per cent for remote communities.

It is now becoming increasingly understood that the average life expectancy of Indigenous people is 20 years less than the Australian average. Indigenous males born in 1999-2001 can expect to live to the age of 56, compared to the rest of the males in the country, who can expect to live to the age of 77 years. For Indigenous females, the figure is 63 years compared with 82 years for the rest of the females in the community. I was recently in a school in the Northern Territory, and it was quite a shock to see so many young black students in a class and understand that very few of them will live beyond the age of 65. In fact, I was in a community of 1,000 people just last week. Only four of those 1,000 people were over the age of 65. I would have thought that this government would understand the importance of statistics such as that.

If they do not understand the importance of life expectancy, perhaps they understand the importance of home ownership. They seem very concerned about questions of home ownership in the broader community. Only a third of Indigenous households own their own homes, compared with nearly 70 per cent of the rest of the country. In terms of homelessness, the figure for Indigenous persons is considerably greater than that for the rest of the community, and on it goes. In terms of overcrowding and the cost of trying to rebuild the housing stock in this country, reliable estimates suggest that the cost would probably be as much as $2.5 billion. I was in a community at Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land last week. It is a community of 160 houses, housing 2,000 people. I was told by the town clerk that the town actually needs another 160 houses to meet the housing needs of that community. We hear no talk of that from this government.

Looking at education levels, once again the figures are startling. The equality gap, the equity gap, is profound, and we have seen changes to education programs which have made that situation worse. The commencement rates for Indigenous students at universities have fallen some 19 per cent. In fact, since the changes to Abstudy in the year 2000 the rates have not recovered, particularly when you compare them with the growth for the rest of the community. The same sort of pattern emerges within the school systems, where it is quite apparent that the participation and retention rates for Indigenous people are drastically beneath those for the rest of the country.

Life expectancy for Indigenous males in this country is about 56 years, compared with a Third World average of 59 years. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, the figure is 57 years. You have a better chance of living a longer life in New Guinea than in Australia if you are an Indigenous person. Indigenous Australians have a poorer performance with regard to birth weight than countries such as Mongolia, Rwanda, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Ghana and Kenya. This is an extraordinary situation where we have First World conditions for most of the country and Third World conditions for three per cent or thereabouts of our population.

What do we see in the government’s response? The government’s response is so-called practical reconciliation, which is a glorified new form of assimilationist policies that were discredited in the 1960s. Rather than learning the lessons of other nations, we are forgetting them. We are forgetting the lessons of our own nation. The government appears committed to withdrawing support from Indigenous people and withdrawing support for the capacity for Indigenous people to engage with the rest of the country. You can see that, for instance, with the program the government has introduced for parenting support for schoolchildren. It has recently proposed changes which have undermined the capacity for Indigenous parents to participate in local schools through the ASSPA program. The government says it wants to engage with Indigenous people, but it withdraws the necessary enabling measures.

The Senate committee found, throughout its deliberations, that in education, health and so many other areas the mainstreaming approach has failed but that the government is likely to extend that program, despite the lessons of that failure. It also found that there was a failure to appreciate the need for effective regional structures to allow people to participate and that the government was doing nothing to facilitate those structures. It certainly was not providing support for people to participate in the discussions about how there could be improvements in regional decision making, yet at the same time it says, ‘We’re going to keep the Torres Strait Regional Authority,’ which was part of ATSIC. It does not explain why ATSIC had to go but the Torres Strait Regional Authority will remain.

In the current environment the government has encouraged levels of uncertainty and chaos in the administration of programs. It has failed to appreciate the strength of anger and frustration that is developing throughout this country in response to its programs. Events at Palm Island in recent times and other places highlight to me how dangerous the policy we are being presented with is. Indigenous staff and corporate knowledge are being lost from the Australian Public Service. The government has adopted an approach which presumes that we should start with a clean slate when it comes to learning best practice about Indigenous affairs with regard to public administration. It has not understood the fundamental need for genuine community participation and involvement.

The government has tried to sell Indigenous Australians a policy pup. It has failed in its so-called partnership approach because it has presented them with a bureaucratic nightmare where Indigenous people are told that, despite all the actions to disempower them, the government is now going to provide some sort of new shared responsibility, some mutual obligation. I am yet to be persuaded that there are mutual obligations and a genuine sharing of responsibilities. On top of all of that, we are seeing a dramatic assault on the land rights regime in this country. The evidence is mounting that the government has no real appreciation of or commitment to the basic rights of Indigenous people when it comes to self-determination, and that is why in this environment the committee’s recommendations are quite important. (Time expired)