Indigenous rights under attack
by Peter Mac The Howard Government has seized upon a critical review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to argue for its emasculation or even its total abolition. The Government has suggested abolishing ATSIC and handing over its entire program to regional authorities or regional councils. The move would seriously damage the ability of Indigenous Australians to control matters directly affecting them on a national level. A survey conducted by the review team revealed a high degree of dissatisfaction with the current ATSIC Board, amounting to a "crisis of confidence" in the Board's chairman Geoff Clark and its deputy chairman Ray Robinson. The review team surveyed more than 50 individuals and organisations. However, the review constitutes a survey of attitudes concerning ATSIC's performance, not an analysis of its activities. Geoff Clark and Ray Robertson are not ATSIC; they are two of its elected leaders. The Government 's and media's character assassination of them is part of the Government's aim to gut the organisation. Moreover, the Government has largely ignored the review's recommendations, which include direct election of national leaders, compulsory voting and initiatives to improve the prospects of women seeking election to the Board. Despite the review's criticisms of him, Geoff Clark has largely welcomed the review's recommendations for improving ATSIC's performance. He commented: "We need to design this so the Aboriginal people fully endorse the concept and believe the organisation has the capacity to represent their interests." Ironically, the review criticises the ATSIC Board for it's "waning influence over government decisions and cabinet submissions, its inability to secure better services and resources for indigenous people ." These are all matters for which the Government, not the ATSIC Board, bears the principal responsibility. ATSIC has ongoing problems because the Government refuses to properly fund the organisation and because both state and federal governments have dumped areas of government responsibility onto ATSIC's already huge workload. Indeed, the review admits that ATSIC is frequently blamed for the failings of other government departments and agencies. It notes: "Time and again ATSIC has been used as a scapegoat for poor indigenous affairs outcomes even when the program concerned did not belong to ATSIC." The ATSIC Board itself commented that the Review panel's discussion paper ".makes it crystal clear that governments, particularly state and territory, bear primary responsibility for the delivery of services and addressing chronic problems such as health and family violence." The Board also deplored the "shallow, biased and distorted" media coverage of the review. The ATSIC Board has now agreed to the transfer of functions to a new organisation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS). The current ATSIC administrator, Wayne Gibbons, is to continue to function as chief executive of both organisations. The ATSIC controversy does demand an inquiry. However, it is already clear that the real issue concerns the future role and activities of ATSIC, which has long been a thorn in the side of the Government because of its support for issues such as Aboriginal land rights, and its demand for an apology over the "Stolen Generations". The Government's hostility towards ATSIC, and particularly its threat to abolish the organisation altogether in the aftermath of the review, is a reflection of the Howard agenda to wipe out Indigenous rights. This is the fundamental issue at stake, not the performance of ATSIC officials.