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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 34

Senator NETTLE (11:57 AM) —The government’s proposal to abolish the national Indigenous representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission or ATSIC, is unsupportable. The government has failed to genuinely consult those people affected by the proposal—that is, Indigenous Australians. The government has failed to propose a suitable alternative to ATSIC. We acknowledge that there are varying views within the Indigenous community about ATSIC, but there is widespread support throughout Indigenous Australia for a national representative body chosen by Indigenous communities. Yet the government has failed to hear this call. The government has failed to adequately explain how its new model will operate, nor has it committed the funds to new representative bodies at a national, regional or community level.

There can be no genuine participation for Indigenous Australians without government commitment to representation. Given the relative disadvantage of Indigenous communities, a commitment to fund such bodies is required. The government will take the assets of ATSIC and regional councils but has pledged nothing for the new representative bodies. Government-selected advisory panels are no substitute for the representative voice of Indigenous people and their direct participation in the affairs of government that affect them. Effectively muted, particularly at a national level, Indigenous Australians will be relegated to the sidelines of decision making about their lives and future. The deeply-rooted disadvantage that Indigenous Australians endure and the rightness, both morally and in international law, of redressing this disadvantage and ensuring the survival and flourishing of Indigenous culture demand genuine commitment to self-determination.

The government’s proposals on representation and the mainstreaming of service delivery fall a long way short. They ignore the lessons from nations that have had more success with self-determination. For all of these reasons, the Australian Greens reject the unilateral abolition of Indigenous Australia’s national representative body and we will be opposing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005]. The government announced its decision to abolish ATSIC in April of last year. It then pre-empted parliamentary debate and scrutiny by implementing all of the changes that it possibly could via regulation, presenting this parliament with a fait accompli.

The government ignored the ATSIC review that was commissioned in 2002 and reported in 2003. This review, as others have mentioned, involved extensive consultation. It put forward four possible options for restructuring ATSIC, and none of them included abolition. Little wonder that Indigenous people are highly critical of the lack of consultation about the abolition of ATSIC. The very first witnesses who appeared before the select committee that inquired into this bill—a group of women from the Yuendumu Women’s Centre at the Alice Springs hearing—had not heard before they came before the committee about the government’s proposals to abolish ATSIC and its regional council. So much for consultation.

The ATSIC bill not only abolishes the national Indigenous representative body and the regional councils, and all the work they do with communities and advancing the interests of Indigenous people; it also removes requirements for Indigenous input in important forums and processes. It removes the requirement to consult Indigenous organisations on proposals that could harm Indigenous heritage through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It also removes the requirement for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner from HREOC to consult Indigenous bodies about the human rights of Indigenous Australians. It also removes Indigenous representation from the board of the National Health and Medical Research Council. The government says that it will negotiate with Indigenous communities directly, but it has not yet explained exactly who it will negotiate with and nor has it made any commitment to fund any new bodies or to guarantee that they will be representative.

Part of the government’s plan for delivering services and improving coordination across government agencies is to co-locate staff from different agencies in Indigenous coordination centres, ICCs. The government regards them as pivotal, but there is massive confusion about what their role and function is and how much authority they will have to make decisions. The committee heard evidence about the difficulties for ICCs in creating a cohesive and common vision, because each of the lead agencies represented within the ICC has a different purpose, a different function, different reporting outcomes and different performance targets. These difficulties are exacerbated because staff from different departments are being paid different wages, working under different conditions, and answering to different ministers and performance requirements. Witnesses spoke about the difficulties that the new managers of ICCs were having both in learning about the communities they were going to be advocates for and work with as well as in learning to find their way through the maze of government departments and Indigenous-specific or other relevant programs.

Another difficulty for the operation of ICCs is the level of delegated authority that ICC managers are given. It seems they may not have the authority to deliver the programs in a way that the local community best needs. The manager of the CDEP program in Moree commented to the committee about the way in which the ICC is not able or empowered to make the local decisions that former ATSIC officers were able to make. The government contends that ICCs are not to be direct service delivery shopfronts, but certainly a different impression was given to the select committee. It concerns me, in looking through the evidence of the public hearings, that on nine separate occasions senators—and predominately government senators—referred to the ICCs, and explained them to the witnesses who appeared before the committees, as ‘one-stop shops’. Yet, in its reporting, the government says, ‘This is not the intention.’ If government senators on a committee looking into the administration of Indigenous affairs get an entirely different view than that of the government about the way the government is proposing that this central body will implement its new changes, how does one expect Indigenous communities to be able to understand what is being proposed by the government?

At the heart of the ICCs is a policy to mainstream the delivery of services to Indigenous communities. It is worth remembering and consistently restating that ATSIC never had full responsibility for delivering services to Indigenous people and communities, but it has always been blamed for the failures of other agencies and government departments. 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 a systemic, long-term failure on the part of government and the implementation of government programs. To imagine that a body such as ATSIC could or should ever be responsible for redressing these historic failures on the part of the government was always plainly ridiculous.

The 2003 review of ATSIC rejected mainstreaming as an option, and international experience shows us time and time again that the best outcomes for Indigenous people occur when they exercise control over the decisions that affect their lives and when they do so through culturally appropriate institutions. Australia’s Indigenous population lags well behind on key indicators of social and economic wellbeing when compared with the indigenous populations of comparable countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States, which have more of a commitment to self-determination than we see from this government. The government needs to acknowledge the failure of mainstreaming and commit to the genuine process that here and overseas is allowing Indigenous people, as the primary decision makers for decisions that affect their lives, to have service delivery occur in a way which is delivering far better outcomes.

The concept of shared responsibility agreements as a way of delivering better results is also flawed. Yet these agreements, like the ICCs, are central to the government’s new policy of delivering services to Indigenous people. The Australian Greens are deeply concerned about the concept of these agreements, what they might entail and the consequences for communities and individuals of entering into them. We note the statement by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, which he made in November 2004. He said:

It would be unacceptable for Indigenous peoples to be denied basic citizenship services that all other Australians take for granted.

He added that the proposed introduction of coercive measures to achieve improvements in the circumstances of Indigenous people will not work and may in fact exacerbate the extent of poverty, marginalisation and powerlessness that Indigenous communities already experience. Given the entrenched disadvantage of Indigenous people, and the poverty they experience compared with other non-Indigenous Australians, it is impossible to argue that agreements of this nature can be negotiated by two equal parties.

We have already witnessed an 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—fuel is not a luxury in remote areas; it is essential. Let us go back to the comment that Tom Calma made. He said:

It would be unacceptable for Indigenous peoples to be denied basic citizenship services that other Australians—

including those living in rural communities—

take for granted—

and expect from their governments. These agreements have about them a tenor of paternalism, which has no place in the administration of Indigenous affairs in this nation or anywhere else.

The government’s record on Indigenous affairs gives us no grounds for optimism. The government has failed on the essential issue of reconciliation—abandoning any idea of the genuine process of healing to smooth the path ahead for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The government has failed to show the compassion or the action needed to the sorry legacy of the stolen generations. The government has never been comfortable with a representative national Indigenous body that is prepared to be outspoken, to stand up for its constituents and to take the government head on, both at home and in the international community.

The government has been gunning for ATSIC since it took office. The government sent the auditors through time and time again at the same time it was cutting ATSIC’s budget by around 11 per cent. Soon after coming into office, the government reduced the amount of money that was available for training courses to improve management skills for Indigenous administrators at the same time as these audits were being carried out.

The government imposed restrictions on how ATSIC could spend much of its funding, causing the closure of important programs. Funding for women’s resource centres, like the one run by the women of Yuendumu in Central Australia, was cut back. They were our first witnesses and they did not even know that ATSIC or regional councils were being abolished. The women from Yuendumu who gave evidence to the select committee in Alice Springs last year told of the work they were trying to do to keep children and young people out of harm. They were mediating family disputes, helping women keep in contact with their families, assisting people with Centrelink matters and running programs to promote better health for families, babies and their mothers. These are the sorts of practical social programs that suffered and had their funding removed when the budget of ATSIC was cut by 11 per cent soon after the government came into effect.

The statistics for Aboriginal disadvantage are appalling every time we hear them, but even put together they do not tell the full story of the disadvantage that Indigenous Australians face in this country. It is worth reminding ourselves of them. Twice as many Indigenous babies are born with lower weight than non-Indigenous babies. There are 2.5 times as many deaths among Indigenous infants than non-Indigenous infants in Australia. In 2001 the mean or average gross household income for Indigenous people was $364 per week, compared with $585 a week for non-Indigenous Australians. This puts almost one in three, or 72 per cent, of Indigenous people in the lowest or second lowest income quintiles—that is, the poorest Australians. Life expectancy for Indigenous people is almost 20 years lower than for non-Indigenous people and it is lower than life expectancy in some of the poorest nations on earth—places like India, sub-Saharan Africa, Burma, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia.

High school retention rates are lower for Indigenous Australians than for non-Indigenous Australians. Whilst almost one in four non-Indigenous people aged between 18 and 24 years are attending university, just one in 20 Indigenous people in this age group are studying at university. Just over half of Indigenous people of work force age are employed, 54 per cent, compared with almost three-quarters, 73 per cent, of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous Australians are often unable to access education and training. They face discrimination and they face difficulties, particularly if they are required to move from their communities and land in order to take up paid work. Some of the more pressing cultural priorities keep them tied to their country. Many Indigenous Australians work in the Community Development Employment Projects, the CDEP, scheme, which, while it has provided benefits to communities and been administered by ATSIC, is not the equivalent of doing general paid work in the community.

More than a decade after the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Indigenous people continue to be incarcerated at high rates—16 times the rate of non-Indigenous people—at rates higher than when the commission reported in 1991. Young Indigenous people constitute around 42 per cent of all juveniles incarcerated, although they account for just four per cent of the total juvenile population. Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr Bill Jonas said the census figures showed that progress was minimal and it was difficult to see any progressive trend towards reducing the extent of inequality that Indigenous Australians experienced compared with non-Indigenous Australians. He went on to say in his 2003 report:

... there is not sufficient commitment by governments at any level to do whatever it takes to progressively improve the life chances and opportunities for Indigenous people ... we are not progressing as well as we can or as well as we need to. This needs to change …

The Greens agree wholeheartedly. Though governments are doing too little, many Indigenous communities and their leaders are driving change, and ATSIC has been involved in some of these most important developments. Where Indigenous people are given the support they need and the time, space and capacity to do it in their own way and make decisions for their own lives they are achieving tremendous feats.

The needs of Indigenous Australians are different from those of non-Indigenous Australians. There are different needs for Indigenous Australians living in the city, regions and rural areas and for those who live a largely traditional lifestyle in remote parts of this country. Non-Indigenous Australians need to recognise this and support Indigenous communities to establish their own organisations, to advocate on their own behalf, to speak, to be listened to and to have their recommendations acted upon. Hundreds of thousands of non-Indigenous Australians across the country are doing just that. They reject this government’s neglect of Indigenous affairs and its attacks on Indigenous Australia’s representative bodies. They are working in local communities to forge constructive relationships. If only the Howard government could muster the same understanding and the same genuine commitment to self-determination, we would set ourselves on a path on which we could turn around and address the tremendous statistics of disadvantage that Indigenous Australians currently face.

I indicate that I will not be moving the previously circulated second reading amendment from the Greens, because we are supporting the amendment that Senator Carr has moved. We are doing this with Senator Ridgeway.