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Institute of Public Administration Seminar, Canberra, August 10, 1999: speech.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)



Speech by Mr Gatjil Djerrkura, OAM Chairman, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission at the Institute of Public Administration Seminar - Canberra, August 10, 1999


10 August 1999


In keeping with my usual custom I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this region, the Ngungawal people. 


I thank them for permission to speak on their land. 


I’d also like to congratulate the sponsors for their political courage in setting today’s agenda. 


The use of the words self determination in your publicity material demonstrates that courage. 


We at ATSIC are all about self determination. 


That is, people taking responsibility for their own lives. 


It means making our own decisions, in our own time, in our own way. 


Self determination is a core Commission principle. 


Sadly, its pursuit has been declared politically incorrect in the current political environment. 


Our people, however, overwhelmingly support the underlying principles of self determination upon which the Commission is based. 


This was the finding of a recent major review of the Commission. 


The bold new world envisaged by Gerry Hand when he moved to establish ATSIC nine short years ago was firmly based on self-determination. 


It replaced the bureaucracy of a department of state.  


I think it is fair to say though that most Australians would know very little about ATSIC, and what it does. 


I have brought with me a number of fact sheets which I hoped might help delegates sort the facts from the myths. 


There are many myths surrounding ATSIC, particularly in the mainstream media. 


One of the latest is that ATSIC is all about sustaining welfare dependency. 


This is a nonsense. 


Let me illustrate the point. 


In a recent article on this topic in The Australian the Commission’s Community Development Employment Scheme was identified as a welfare scheme and described as “lacklustre.”  


The author had clearly accepted and duly reported a common misconception that CDEP was welfare----a voluntary Aboriginal work for the dole scheme. 


In other words our equivalent to the Howard Government’s compulsory work for the dole scheme. 


It is not. 


In fact it is a more superior scheme in a number of important respects, particularly in the training area. 


This was borne out by a recent independent review of CDEP conducted by Mr Ian Spicer. 


Mr Spicer is a past Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Confederation of Australian Industry. 


He found CDEP was critical to developing an improved sense of pride in community and culture. 


Outcomes were overwhelmingly positive. 


He found the scheme had provided the basis for acquiring greater skills, employment and enterprise development resulting in ongoing social and economic growth. 


In essence it allows indigenous communities to decide what is best for them. 


Mr Spicer concluded it was important that ATSIC and the Government promote CDEP as a separate and unique programme. 


This is the successful face of self determination. 


I want to stress this point. 


The Community Development Employment Scheme was introduced by the Fraser Liberal Government in 1977.  


Few Australians are aware that under this scheme 32,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders voluntarily forgo their entitlement to social security benefits to work for the benefit of their communities. 


It is a scheme that: 


* was initiated by indigenous communities in the NT; 

* is administered locally by indigenous community organisations and regionally by elected indigenous representatives; and 

* addresses indigenous problems such as unemployment and the lack of essential services taken for granted by other Australians. 


CDEP is a highly successful program run by and for Indigenous communities. 


It is ATSIC’s largest programme. 


We administer it effectively and efficiently: 


* decision-making is decentralised to the Regional Councils 


* service delivery is highly decentralised to over 270 community organisations.  


The Minister for Employment Peter Reith has recognised the success of CDEP. 


He has consulted closely with ATSIC and the scheme forms an integral part of his recently launched Indigenous Employment Initiative. 


This is hardly lacklustre. 


CDEP should be supported by all Australians  


ATSIC has the unique ability to integrate the management of CDEP with that of its second largest program, the Community Housing and Infrastructure programme.  


This provides the basis for sustainable, healthy communities controlled and managed by Indigenous organisations. 


Since its establishment ATSIC has spent more than a billion dollars towards the cost of providing essential services, such as water, sewerage, power, roads, airstrips and building, buying and renovating houses. 


It is estimated more than 5,000 houses have been constructed under our program and a similar number of dwellings have been renovated. 


This has reduced the level of homelessness and overcrowding for about 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders.  


ATSIC funds supplement those of State and Territory Governments. 


They have primary responsibility for such services but in many rural and remote localities State and Territory Governments simply fail to deliver. 


ATSIC is the sole funder in many remote communities. 


National resources for housing and infrastructure are distributed on the basis of assessed need to focus on communities with the highest priority. 


The money was better targeted after ATSIC commissioned the first ever national survey of housing and infrastructure need in all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in 1992. 


The next survey has just begun. 


Both were launched after intense consultation with affected communities. 


ATSIC has negotiated bilateral housing agreements with Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory.  


We have shown Indigenous self management is compatible with best practice. 


The National Auditor General recently reported that the National Aboriginal Health Strategy, an important component of CHIP, had been both effective and innovative in delivering major housing and public works to remote communities. 


ATSIC’s home ownership program is also filling a genuine need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 


ATSIC has approved more than 3,500 loans. 


This has enabled more than 12,500 people to be housed who would not normally be able to qualify for housing loans from mainstream financial institutions. 


The scheme is now entirely self funded. 


Again, self determination in action. 


The elected arm has been extremely important in driving many of the reforms to these programs in consultation with their constituents.  


I hope I have been able to demonstrate that ATSIC is all about the capacity for Indigenous peoples to take control of their own lives. 


This involves everyday decisions about the provision of services and the preservation of their culture and languages. 


We accept that this creates responsibilities and objectives. 


I see ATSIC as a unifying force. 


It brings together the diverse Indigenous communities through their elected representatives. 


It is a mechanism for change at all levels of society and government by harvesting community views and actions and directing it to where priorities are greatest. 


It is all about promoting the indigenous perspective’s, particularly at the national level in key policy debates.  


We are also evolving. 


ATSIC is an organisation constantly under internal review. 


We are always looking for fresh ways to promote decision making by Indigenous people at the regional and local level. 


I’m sure you would agree community is a difficult enough word for non-Indigenous people. 


All the more so for my people. 


We do not think in terms of community. 


We think in terms of land. 


Where you belong, your Mother Country, your family relationships and obligations.  


There is no neat view of our communities that would help the white administrator put us neatly into boxes.  


This seminar invites me to respond to two questions. 




What has ATSIC achieved in ensuring participation at the regional and local level? 




What are the positive strategies to promote self-determination at that level within or without the ATSIC structure? 


We have achieved a lot for such a young and unique organisation. 


We have 35 regional councils.  


The boundaries of those councils have been drawn in a way, in so far as is possible, which has some coherence with tribes and connection to land.  


Councillors are elected by democratic vote.  


It is a voluntary vote. 


Overall we achieve a voter turnout of about 30% which compares favourable with voluntary elections. 


The ATSIC vote is free from compulsion and therefore informed. 


This demonstrates the commitment of our people to the political principles that ATSIC represents.  


They elect their representatives to negotiate, discuss and advocate indigenous interests at local, state and national level.  


Regional Councils are becoming a major instrument of planning for Indigenous communities in partnership with other levels of government.  


This process is ongoing. 


They are empowered through our bilateral housing agreements. 


We also have essential services agreements with some States. 


Some Regional Councils had been very active with Commonwealth and State agencies in negotiating their own partnership arrangements in key areas such as employment. 


But planning is not enough.  


Money is also required. 


In the Australian political and administrative environment money is power. 


It is the means through which both to deliver services and to negotiate partnerships with others.  


Regional Councils have three main means of influencing service provisions; 


* Through their housing and essential services programs worth $100 million. 

* Through determining priorities in the use of scarce CDEP resources for administration and work activities.  

* Through very limited discretionary funding of on average $ 1.5 million per Councils. 


However, the 1996-97 budget dramatically cut our discretionary funding by $470m over four years. 


Despite our successes the housing program is under threat of removal from ATSIC.  


The central question you get back to is a simple one. 


Is their any commitment in the national government to Indigenous people having anything to do with the control of their own lives?  


I believe I have demonstrated today that self determination can deliver the right outcomes. 


But it must be matched by a strong and clear political commitment from national and State Governments 


On the national level we have a number of constructive relationships with Federal Ministers. 


For instance we have clearly shown we can work in partnership with Minister Reith and he with us. 


We are both driven by the need for better outcomes in employment.  


We have shown we can also work with State Governments. 


We have also negotiated a number of MOU’s with other Government agencies and private companies such as diverse as the Body Shop and Rio Tinto. 


As you would be aware the health function was removed from ATSIC.  


In my view the positive outcome that has been achieved in that area is much more due to the commitment of Michael Woodridge than to the transfer of the function.  


I doubt in all seriousness whether Aboriginal Medical Services are any better administered through the main stream department than housing programmes are through ATSIC.  


Let me turn to the second question. Where do we go from here? 


To enable people to have control over their own lives you have to reduce the number agencies running around trying to do good work for them.  


White and black administrators have to find new ways of channelling funding to Indigenous organisations. 


They must ensure greater coherence at the local level in the way services are delivered and integrated. 


There are two obstacles.  


First, the level of resources which government is prepared to provide for service provision to Indigenous communities.  


There can be no commitment to self-determination at the regional and local level without one essential ingredient. 


Government must be prepared to allow our organisations, whether ATSIC or others, to administer specific programs and to have responsibility for the allocation of discretionary funding.  


Second, administrators need to be more inventive in their approaches to accountability.  


A focus on outcomes rather than financial inputs might enable administrators to allow people at the regional and local level to have greater discretion in how funds are used and for what purpose. 


ATSIC is committed to considering a range of different structures which ensure our people exercise more control at the local and regional level. 


Regional Councils are an obvious vehicle for achieving that in their evolution to regional authority or some other form of administration. 


However it may equally be the case that some Indigenous people at the regional or local level would want to choose other structures.  


If so there is a clear range of possibilities. 


These include incorporation under State Law or the Councils and Associations Act or through local government.  


The appropriate structure may well vary according to the objective set by Indigenous peoples themselves.  


Those objectives are likely to differ between rural, remote and urban areas. 


What would make the difference is a real political commitment to the principle of self-determination through regional autonomy.  


It is that which is so much in question.  


ATSIC will be releasing a discussion paper jointly with the Minister in the near future on Regional Autonomy.  


I hope that the paper together with the outcome of this seminar and other events over the next few months will provide a basis for breathing new life into a debate about how Indigenous people can regain control of their own lives.  


Let me conclude on this point. 


Whatever regional structures are put in place it is imperative our people have a strong national voice.


I believe ATSIC is one of the key organisations providing that voice at the national level. 


It should be supported in its efforts to continue to do so.




jy  1999-08-31  14:29