16 April 2004

Statement on ATSIC: Dr William Jonas AM, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, HREOC

The announcement by the federal Government that it intends to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) scapegoats it for the failures of successive Australian governments. The government’s announcement reveal no plans for addressing the crisis in Indigenous communities and will further disempower Indigenous peoples, while further reducing the level of scrutiny of the government’s performance on Indigenous issues from the eyes of the nation.

The government’s announcement amounts to a further entrenchment of its failing ‘practical reconciliation’ approach. It seeks to ensure that the government will only have to deal with Indigenous peoples on its own terms and without any reference to the aspirations and goals of Indigenous peoples.

The government has stated that its goal is ‘to improve the outcomes and opportunities and hopes of Indigenous peoples in areas of health, education and employment’ and that ‘the experiment in separate representation… for indigenous people has been a failure’.

It is disingenuous to draw a connection between these issues. There are two critical problems with the government’s reasoning.

First, as the ATSIC Review Team state in their final report, ‘ATSIC was intended to be a supplementary funding body and was never intended, or funded, to be the provider of all programs and services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people… The hopes pinned on the organisation - that it could and would effect instant change were not realistic’.

The vast majority of ATSIC’s funding has been quarantined for particular programme responsibilities, with limited ability to address a range of key issues facing Indigenous peoples. ATSIC is now being blamed for lack of progress by government in addressing issues for which it has no programme responsibility.

Health, for example, has been a mainstream government responsibility since 1995. During that time we have seen chronic under-funding of Indigenous health services, estimated to total approximately $350 million per year, and a worsening in key indicators of health status and only marginal improvements in others. Mainstream approaches to health service delivery have not been working for the last decade.

The story is the same with education and employment programmes – both are mainstream government responsibilities (with the exception of the CDEP scheme which ATSIC and now ATSIS runs). There has been very little progress in reducing the inequality gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in these areas over the past five years.

The critical problem facing Indigenous people is the lack of a rigorous monitoring framework to hold the government accountable for its commitments and for mainstream service delivery. It is the failure of government accountability that ATSIC is being made a scapegoat for.

The second critical problem is that the government has shown an intolerance to advice or analysis that is critical of their own approach. The government has progressively distanced itself from the policy advice provided by ATSIC and acted contrary to their proposals for addressing Indigenous issues. This failure dates back to the rejection by the government in 1996 of the Social Justice Package proposal by ATSIC.

They have similarly failed to act in accordance with the advice of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and have failed to respond, yet alone implement, the findings and recommendations of the annual Social Justice Reports to Parliament by the Social Justice Commissioner.

This does not reveal a failure of representative Indigenous structures. It reveals a deep antipathy on the part of the government towards engaging with Indigenous peoples and acknowledging the legitimacy of the aspirations and goals expressed by Indigenous peoples.

Replacing ATSIC with an appointed board of advisors will entrench this problem further, by ensuring that the government only has to talk to select Indigenous people when it chooses to and only on issues that it wishes to engage.

The latest Social Justice Report to the federal Parliament identifies the current situation faced by Indigenous peoples as a crisis one. It reveals a government approach that is failing. And it identifies an agenda for change to turn this situation around.

This agenda identifies increased Indigenous participation and control as a central feature of improved government service delivery and to move Indigenous people from dependency on government services. It also identifies the need to reform ATSIC to ensure that it is capable of interacting with governments while also being representative of and accountable back to Indigenous communities and people.

Abolishing ATSIC and ensuring that Indigenous people have no place at the negotiating table is not the answer. It will simply silence Indigenous people at the national level while the deeply entrenched crisis in Indigenous communities continues unabated.

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Last updated 2 December 2001.