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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 1

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (12:31 PM) —I join my colleague Senator Ridgeway in indicating the Democrats’ very strong opposition to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004 [2005]. We oppose it because it goes against the fundamental objectives of self-determination. ATSIC was elected by Indigenous people and, imperfect an organisation as it might or might not be, in our view it is not for government—this government or the next—to dismantle it. Self-determination means exactly what it says. The problem is that the government does not mean what it says when it talks about practical reconciliation for Indigenous Australians. There can be no greater expression of practical reconciliation than to allow people to make their own decisions, such as who represents them. In fact, this country went to war in Iraq for that very reason—in order to give the Iraqi people the right to be represented democratically. Apparently, it is okay for Iraqis but not for Aboriginal people.

I was surprised, listening to Senator Carr last week, to know that the ALP will support this bill. I think that is a great disappointment. The Democrats hold the view that ATSIC was capable of being reformed. In fact, we think that going along the lines recommended by the ATSIC review report would have been a good start. But for the ALP to join the Howard government in collapsing ATSIC, wiping it out altogether, is going entirely in the wrong direction. Senator Carr said that the Howard government had failed Indigenous Australians. He talked about Prime Minister Paul Keating, who said that if you can imagine injustice then we can have justice. He said that in 1993. Twelve years later, it is disappointing to see that the ALP has not followed that claim.

We think a structure that reflects the interests of Indigenous people is important. We think it is also important that people get what is rightfully theirs as part of a democratic country. So it is hard to understand how it is that the ALP—condemning the government, as we do, throughout this second reading debate for its lack of will in addressing injustice for Indigenous people—has so readily joined the government in axing the structure set up by the ALP when it was in government. As the one Indigenous parliamentarian in this place, Senator Aden Ridgeway, said earlier, the government has been deceitful, paternalistic and, in the case of ATSIC, grossly overreactive. It is quite obvious that the government and the ALP are not listening to Aboriginal people. Apparently, they do not want to see an elected body in place.

I think it is pretty obvious that the attack on Indigenous Australians came very early on in this government’s first term. Native title came under attack and was watered down so greatly that it means very little now. ATSIC funds have been cut. ATSIC board members were demonised and blamed for failures in the government’s own departments. The government spread the message that Indigenous people could not be relied upon to handle financial matters and that they could not be trusted to manage their own affairs. The catchcry now is that we must have shared responsibility and mutual obligation, as if there is none at present. I think Aboriginal people are being treated like children: ‘We’ll give you petrol bowsers if you’ll wash your children’s faces.’ In other words, it is a handout mentality in return for good behaviour.

But we never hear about the decisions that have been made on behalf of Indigenous people that have been disastrous and have led to so much disadvantage in Indigenous communities. The stolen generation saw decisions made by non-Indigenous people that still affect lives today. Past deeds moved people off traditional lands. The sale of grog right now in many places cynically exploits addiction and dependence. There is also the lack of services, the discrimination that says that Indigenous people are overlooked for opportunities that we take for granted and the lack of understanding about language and culture. I have spoken in the past in this place about the fact that, as a child, I knew much more about New Zealand Maoris than I did about Indigenous Australians. That continues. Today it may be slightly better, but, as I move around, I do not see any evidence that there is a great deal of understanding or knowledge of the language or culture of our Indigenous Australians. I think we lack pride in this ancient heritage in this country.

There are different rules for Indigenous people. In the Northern Territory, for instance, the way schools are funded is different for Indigenous community schools. The result is that they are disgracefully underfunded. The education committee is midway through an inquiry into the changes that the government has made to Indigenous education funding. We were astounded, both this time and the previous time that we looked into Indigenous education, to see schools where, quite frankly, Third World conditions apply, where very little funding has been injected into those schools and where different rules apply to the way the funds flow. For instance, in the Northern Territory, schools are funded for average attendance, which means that they are often grossly overcrowded, which is a disincentive for children to go to school.

The raiding of an Aboriginal radio station in more recent times, the decision to seize artworks, the tying up of ATSI Cultural Education and Advancement Trust funds to keep them out of the hands of ATSIC trustees are examples of government interference and unreasonable attacks on Indigenous structures. There are countless cases of government decisions adversely affecting Indigenous Australians. That is apparently the black armband view of history, which has to be forgotten in this new era of what is called ‘shared responsibility’. We never hear about where Indigenous decision making is working very well and where Indigenous people who are allowed to make decisions for themselves are doing so with great success—the regional councils, for instance.

In our inquiry, we saw very good examples of groups of parents and Indigenous counsellors in largely Aboriginal schools getting together and determining their priorities for things like getting their children to school and providing nutrition so that they are able to better concentrate on their work. We found plenty of examples where this structure works extremely well, and yet this is another example of the government taking away that empowerment and that decision making. The decisions that were made on funding will be the subject of a report from our inquiry. I do not want to pre-empt that report but it was pretty obvious that those schools that had good decision making had better attendance, better school environments and far better levels of learning than those schools that had none. There is enormous disadvantage in those communities. One way of overcoming that disadvantage is to let people be part of the decision-making process. It is fundamental in everything we do. It is the same in an ordinary classroom. The more you involve people in the decisions which affect them, the greater their empowerment to make good decisions and improve their circumstances.

The Democrats are very disappointed to have to be debating this bill. We think that there are much more sensible ways of improving the governance of Indigenous affairs than to completely remove an elected body from its role. It is not as if we can say that Indigenous people have the same opportunities as the rest of us. They do not. It is not that we can say that they have got the same education levels or the same level of health. They still die 20 years younger than the general population. Drastic measures need to be taken, but not drastic measures to remove the only structure which is in place to give Aboriginal people a say and a chance to be represented democratically. This is a step entirely in the wrong direction and one which I think the two major parties in this place should be ashamed of.