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Issue #1454      12 May 2010

The new Aboriginal Congress

A light on the hill, or a just another talk shop?

Last week the Rudd government launched the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (NCAFP). That organisation will be very different indeed from its predecessor, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which was directly elected by Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, had its own budget for works, social services and employment programs, and at one stage had 35,000 participants in 270 Community Development Employment Projects.

Indigenous children play in a flooded billabong –
Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land.

ATSIC authorised construction of 500 new houses and provided accommodation for 6,800 people in new or upgraded dwellings, established 25 legal services with 95 offices, supported 22 radio stations and established 195 art, craft and language centres in remote locations.

The Commission also sought to reconnect family members torn apart by “stolen generation” policies, and took the issue of discrimination against Aboriginal people to the United Nations, earning it the Howard government’s undying hatred.

In 1996 that government slashed the ATSIC budget by $470 million, causing the collapse of community service programs dealing with family violence and substance abuse. In 2003 the government accused members of the Commission of bureaucracy and corruption. Rather than dealing with those issues with a view to strengthening ATSIC’s role and performance, Howard transferred most of the Commission’s funding and staff to a new department, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS). ATSIC itself shrank to an administrative shell, with its 18-member board forced to assume a humiliating and impotent advisory role.

In 2004 the then government abolished ATSIC and its 35 regional councils, replacing it with the government-appointed and largely ineffectual National Indigenous Council.

The Howard government made no attempt to establish another authority to provide ATSIC’s range of services. But then, neither has the Rudd government.

A curious “curate’s egg”

The NCAFP will, according to the Australian newspaper’s Patricia Karvelas, “… aim to become a think tank, creating visionary leadership on issues affecting aboriginal people”. According to the Koori Mail, Sam Jeffries, the NCAFP co-chair, described it grandly as “an historic movement’ that would lead, influence and monitor the development of indigenous public policy”.

However, as the Koori Mail noted rather crisply, NCAFP will be “a new representative body, albeit with no service delivery role”, i.e. with no legal counselling, housing, media, cultural or social service services.

Mind you, Dr Kerry Arabena, the other co-chairperson, doesn’t see any problem. “It’s not a service delivery body; it’s a representative body chosen by the people,” she commented cheerfully, implying that the two concepts are mutually exclusive.

Selected individuals, and nominated delegates from peak organisations and sectoral interests advocating particular issues, will elect the NCAFP national executive. All decisions of the congress will be vetted by an ethics council.

An interim ethics council and eight-member board nominated by the government is currently hand-picking 120 delegates for the first congress in November.

The government has contributed $29 million to establish the NCAFP. However, it has refused to commit to funding its long-term operations. Moreover, one of the most astonishing and disturbing aspects of the new organisation is that it has been established as an officially incorporated private company!

Dr Arabena certainly approves of that decision. “I’m very interested that we are using private company law to fulfil our public citizenship potential – that’s really important; we’re using private law to fulfil a public outcome,” she exclaimed in a gush of bourgeois excitement.

The government could have established the NCAFP as a public body like the ABC, but instead chose the business world (which brought us the global financial crisis) for its organisation, and presumably for its ethical standards.

An unpromising future

The NCAFP may well fulfil the crucial role of providing a loud and clear voice for Aboriginal people, and its advent has been widely welcomed among them. However, that’s the limit of its activities.

The elimination of any service provision in its operations implies that Aboriginal people are incapable of running their own affairs. The requirement for a special ethics committee, which can override the decisions of the congress delegates and which is not required for other bodies established by government, may be seen as implying that Aboriginal people are less trustworthy than other Australians.

The decision to register the NCAFP as a private business reveals the Rudd government’s adoration for, and subservience to the corporate world. The government’s failure to commit to long term funding for the NCAFP also indicates that it intends to absolve itself from long-term involvement in the organisation’s future operations.

That would not be possible if the NCAFP was a public body, so rather than trying to privatise it later, which would probably involve a major political battle, the government has simply established the organisation as a private company in the first place. That leaves the government with no particular responsibility to the NACFP in its formulation of policy affecting Indigenous Australians.

ATSIC was abolished because of its political successes, not because of its failures. Will its successor, the National Council of Australia’s First Peoples become “the light on the hill” for Aboriginal people, or just a palliative, an interesting but ineffectual talk shop? No prizes for guessing the correct answer. 

Next article – Burqa ban would breach religious rights

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