Go beyond ATSIC to core issues

Herald Sun, 3rd May 2004

(quotations deleted from published version but restored here)

An examination of Mark Latham’s proposal to abolish ATSIC reveals stark underlying differences on Aboriginal policy between the Coalition and Labor says Peter Howson

The Coalition is returning ATSIC’s programs back to departments and will have no elected bodies representing Aborigines.

By contrast, Labor would establish a new and elected ATSIC that would "release pooled funding from government" to new elected regional bodies to "make key decisions with support from their communities".

Labor’s new ATSIC would also "provide policy research and advocacy" and "monitor policy outcomes", while "responsibility for program development and delivery would be transferred to the regions".

The Council of Australian Governments would coordinate indigenous services at the national level.

This outdated, complex and convoluted approach suggests Labor is out of touch with most Australians, who are fed up with failed self-determination experiments.

It is absurd to think, in modern Australia, of Aborigines having their own elected representative bodies, let alone (as the ALP’s January conference endorsed) negotiating formal agreements or treaties.

The majority of Aborigines are now part of the wider community. Their extensive integration is reflected in the 70 per cent now married to non-indigenous spouses and professing Christianity, in the majority being of mixed descent, and in almost all speaking a non-indigenous language at home.

Moreover, over 70 per cent now live in urban areas and Aboriginal employment rates there are not markedly lower than for others.

Importantly also, the vast majority of Aborigines have effectively rejected political self-determination by consistently not voting in ATSIC elections.

Labor’s policies could become a key election issue.

In New Zealand the National Party’s announcement that it proposes various measures to put Pakeha (whites) on a more equal footing with Maori caused its polling to jump from a distant second to level pegging with Labour’s.

Prime Minister Helen Clark then quickly announced reviews to examine the extensive special treatment of Maori in legislation (including special seats in Parliament) and better explain why Maori claims over the country’s foreshores cannot be met.

While New Zealand and Australian situations differ, this suggests a commonality on cultural policy running in the opposite direction to Labor’s approach to Aboriginal policy here.

But abolishing ATSIC should not be the end of the Coalition’s reform program.

It must encourage further integration to alleviate the very serious life-style situations in the 1200 remote communities.

There, around 100,000 Aborigines who are not integrated live in small communities and experience poor life-styles despite being provided with extensive infrastructure and other help.

In reality, these policies have encouraged separatist living that has, tragically, created welfare dependent communities.

The Reverend Steve Etherington’s published review of 25 years of experience in such communities concluded "tribal aborigines are a kept people…The vast majority are never required to learn anything or do anything. Erosion of the capacity for initiative and self-help are virtually complete".

Unless existing policies are changed these remote communities will become even more ghetto-like. Facing similar circumstances, Canada has made some communities ineligible for infrastructure and service assistance.

Such action here would encourage small community residents to move and that could be helped with generous subsidies for renting houses outside those communities.

Aboriginal employment would be also helped if their employers were exempt from restrictive regulations, including the minimum wage, in areas where there are labour markets.

Most importantly, the failure to ensure a proper education of Aboriginal children in remote communities must be remedied. If funding was provided to house them in hostels away from home where education could be assured, starting at as early an age as possible, that would be a big advance.

Vocational training of secondary students also needs to be enhanced.

If the Coalition takes radical measures to encourage further integration, that would help alleviate the appalling remote community situation and challenge Labor’s backward-looking approach.

Peter Howson was federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-2 and is Vice-President, Bennelong Society.