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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 108

Senator RIDGEWAY (8:41 PM) —I want to respond to some of Senator Vanstone’s comments and I appreciate her response about taking offence. I would put on the record that this is not the first time I have raised this particular issue. If you want to you could see the amount of correspondence I have written to other government ministers. You may not be aware of the initiatives that have been taken on behalf of various groups and individuals. It is not a case of my coming in here and taking one approach to dealing with a particular issue. It needs to be made quite clear that efforts were made to talk to public servants, to raise these issues through the inquiry process and to write to the minister on a number of occasions, well before it ever got to this stage. I think it is unfortunate that your minders have not seen fit to provide you with a briefing on the full extent of how these issues have been dealt with. It is not just a case of saying that in the case of one, two or three stories they are being thrown on the table in the chamber to create some offence; it has not been done for that reason at all. It has been done because there has not been a proper response given to these people.

I do not mind mentioning the example of the MiiMi Mothers. I have had correspondence with PM&C, Family and Community Services and perhaps one other government department; MiiMi Mothers have none. They have never received any official correspondence, I am told, confirming the decision that has been taken, and I think they deserve a better response than the one they have had so far. I do not suggest for a moment that the minister is acting in bad faith; I am not suggesting that. I am saying, though, that there is a failure in the current process for government officials to respond to what is a legitimate issue. Even the question I raised earlier about the minister’s liability in relation to IBA, a separate matter again, I would have thought important enough to warrant some sort of response. I am not sure whether the committee even got a response, even though the question was taken on notice. However, the point is that, unless information is given, it is hard to establish whether the government is clear about what it intends to do—whether it has its hands on the wheel in a proper way and can respond to the particular issues.

My intention is to make sure that, where there are groups out there, they get treated fairly and appropriately in the process. Again I have brought the issue up because it has been raised a number of times before and, I dare say, even after tonight’s debate is over I will raise it again. The reason for that is that the communities concerned still have not received a satisfactory response. I thank the minister for her response in relation to Cape York and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Cultural Advancement Trust funds; that was good to hear. The particular issue they were concerned about was more the time frame within which the minister is required, as I understand it, to make some decision apparently about the 30-day direction. I do not know whether that is a big issue or not or one that is being imagined by the organisation concerned, but I am glad that the minister has given the response she has here in the chamber and it is on the record and I am sure that they will be satisfied with that. However, there are other issues out there.

I must ask the minister: if you think it is a case of doing things the same way they have been done, then why are none of the programs that were delivered by ATSIC being abolished? You are doing them exactly the same way. You are just shifting them from one place to another. Why? Because they have been successful. Perhaps the representative structures have not been successful but the programs themselves have. In that respect I think they do deserve to continue to be supported as long as communities have a capacity to respond to what those arrangements are. However, I am suggesting not so much looking at the way things have been done but making sure that they are done appropriately in conjunction with Indigenous people and, as the minister says, listening deeply and following the leadership. I think we have to have some runs on the board about where that is happening—not just the ones that the government can proclaim, through shared responsibility agreements, about successful outcomes.

We know that the problems are complex, and we know that they require a very comprehensive and often complicated response. That is shown nowhere more starkly than in the Mulan example of the shared responsibility agreement. It has not been signed. I know there is a larger one to come. However, it appals me—and I am not suggesting for a moment that the minister is responsible—that in this day and age we still do not record instances of trachoma in Indigenous communities. So I ask the question: how do we expect to change things in communities if we have no idea of how many people we are talking about or the gravity of the situation itself? How do you allocate resources and establish what the programs or policies will be unless the data is there to show the enormity of the problem?

In that respect I ask the minister to look at those issues again. I am happy to talk to her separately on them if she is prepared to give an undertaking, because I would like to get a result on these things, if nothing else, before 30 June when I depart from this place. I would like to think there is an opportunity to fix these things, because they are successful programs and are working well. The women’s program in particular is one that pretty much grew out of the debate that took place over the past few years about violence in Indigenous communities. Examples such as that are worthy of support and reconsideration, and I will continue to push for that.