The Guardian July 2, 2003


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.

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