Chapter Two - Evolution of ATSIC
This chapter examines the evolution of Indigenous
governance in Australia,
the role of ATSIC and its successes and failures, both real and perceived.
Overview of ATSIC
The objectives of ATSIC, in the view of the Committee
are central to the advancement and protection of the rights and interests of Australia’s
Indigenous people. As such, they must be retained. According to Section 3 of
the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission Act, these objectives are:
- to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander people in government policy formulation and
- to promote Indigenous self-management and
- to further Indigenous economic, social and
cultural development, and
- to ensure co-ordination of Commonwealth, state,
territory and local government policy affecting Indigenous people.
In order to achieve these objectives, ATSIC has three
key functions or roles:
- it advises governments at all levels on
- it advocates the recognition of Indigenous
rights on behalf of Indigenous peoples regionally, nationally and
- it delivers and monitors some of the
Commonwealth Government's Indigenous programs and services.
Structure, role and
function of ATSIC
The Commission was established as a body
corporate that must perform its functions, exercise its powers and administer
its finances in accordance with the Finance Minister's written directions. Its
structure has undergone several changes since its establishment. Prior to the
changes introduced 1 July 2004, ATSIC incorporated two
- an elected representative body of office holders
elected by ATSI people across the 35 ATSIC Regions. The function of this
elected body was to make decisions pertaining to loan and grant applications
and the direction of funding to service delivery organisations. The original
number of 60 regions was reduced to 36 in changes to the legislation in 1993;
these changes included the ability to create of wards within each region. The
following year saw the establishment of the Torres Strait Regional Authority
(TSRA), when the number of regions reduced to 35.
- the administrative arm of people employed by
ATSIC; their function was to implement decisions of the elected body and manage
ATSIC programs. In July 2003, this became a separate agency known as Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS); from 1 July 2004, the majority of
ATSIS staff were distributed among mainstream agencies.
Each of the 35 Regions had a Regional Council,
consisting of 8-12 councillors who were elected for a three year term; a Chair
and Deputy Chair would be elected from among the councillors. The 35
Regions are grouped into 16 ATSIC zones across Australia. Each
councillor within a zone could vote for a full-time zone Commissioner; an
additional Commissioner was elected from Torres
Strait. The ATSIC Chairperson was then elected by the
Commissioners, with a new Commissioner elected within the zone from where the
Chairperson came, making a total of 18 Commissioners comprising the ATSIC
Board. The position of Chairperson was initially on appointment by the
Government, until a change to the Act made it an elected position in 1999.
ATSIC has achieved much since it began operation in
1990. The body has actively promoted the interests of, and been a voice for,
Indigenous people. Successive governments have looked to ATSIC for advice and
have relied on its representative nature for consultation. ATSIC has, in
particular, had carriage of the long-standing and successful CDEP program and
has more generally concentrated and nurtured Indigenous-specific expertise and
policy development capacity. The body has supported strong, effective regional
structures and has worked well with state and territory governments. Most
importantly, it has provided a forum for political participation by Indigenous
Much of the criticism which ATSIC has faced has focused
on its expenditure of government funds. At the same time, how much funding
ATSIC receives – and what it can and cannot do with the money – is one of the
central misconceptions surrounding ATSIC. As the peak Indigenous body in the
country, ATSIC is often the prime target of jibes such as that 'there's too
much money thrown at Indigenous affairs'. As Lowitja
O'Donoghue puts it, 'out there in tabloid
land, [ATSIC] has become the icon of that mischievous construct "the
The issue of funding is also the focal point for debate
about ATSIC's effectiveness: while it is not the primary service provider in
many portfolio areas – including primary health care and education – it is
often blamed when not enough is seen to be done in these areas. An editorial in
The Australian in March 2003, for
example, which discussed the 'intensifying health crisis for remote Aboriginal
Australians', said that it was ATSIC – and not the Department of Health – that
'has failed these people'. Many of the success stories among the programs for
which ATSIC has carried responsibility have received little attention in the
mainstream media and the public mind generally. For example, neither the Community
Development Employment Projects (CDEP) nor the achievements of the economic
development and investment agency, Indigenous Business Australia (IBA), are well
known in the public arena. This part of the paper provides a brief overview of
ATSIC's funding arrangements and responsibilities as they existed until
ATSIC received about $1.1 billion in funding from the
Commonwealth Government each year. As the table below shows, the majority of
this money – usually around half of ATSIC's total budget – is spent on economic
development programs, including CDEP. This is an employment, training, and
community-development program that began in 1977, providing work and training
opportunities for unemployed Indigenous people in community-based and
community-managed activities. In June 2002, there were over 270 Indigenous
community organisations and 34 182 Indigenous people participating in CDEP nationally.
Participation in CDEP accounts for around twenty-five per cent of Indigenous
ATSIC's second-biggest area of expenditure – usually
around one-third of ATSIC's total budget – is on programs geared towards the
improvement of Indigenous peoples' social and physical wellbeing, including the
Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP). This program funds a
variety of projects, ranging from the construction and acquisition of
appropriate rental housing for Indigenous people, to providing adequate water,
power and sewerage supplies to rural and remote Indigenous communities. The
services provided with CHIP funding vary depending on the community's location
and the mainstream services already available.
ATSIC's remaining funding – around one-fifth, or twenty
per cent of its total budget – is spent on a range of programs. These include
programs geared towards the preservation and promotion of Indigenous culture
and heritage, and the advancement of Indigenous rights and equity.
Table 2.1: ATSIC
Expenditure by Program
% of total expenditure
Improvement of Social and
Physical wellbeing (including CHIP)
Advancement of Indigenous
Rights and Equity
Promotion of Cultural
Building and Quality Assurance
Includes royalties from mining and development on Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT)
administered by ATSIC.
and Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous affairs
One of the particular misconceptions about ATSIC's
funding is that it is responsible for all Commonwealth spending on Indigenous
affairs, when this is not, and never really has been, the case. ATSIC has only
ever administered around half of the Commonwealth's total identifiable
expenditure on Indigenous affairs. The other half – in the order of $1.3
billion in 2002–03 – is spent through various agencies in other areas, in
particular the employment, education and training, social security, and health
portfolios. In recent years, ATSIC's share of the total Indigenous funding pie
has slightly decreased. This has been interpreted by some commentators as a
'mainstreaming' of Indigenous-specific programs at ATSIC's expense.
When the Coalition Government came to office in 1996,
ATSIC's overall funding was reduced in the 1996 Federal Budget by around 11 per
cent. At the same time, large proportions of ATSIC's budget were quarantined by
the Government: that is, ATSIC was required to maintain certain levels of
expenditure on particular programs (including CDEP and CHIP). At the time, this
forced the closure of many of ATSIC's smaller programs, particularly those that
had been established in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission
into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Women’s resource centres were also defunded.
What this means is that the proportion of ATSIC's spending that is actually at
its own discretion, that is, not predetermined by the Commonwealth Government,
is relatively small. The size of ATSIC's 'discretionary' budget as a proportion
of total identifiable Commonwealth Indigenous affairs expenditure is smaller
still, as Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate.
Figure 2.1: Total
Figure 2.2: Total
identifiable Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous programs
ATSIC is the only Commonwealth statutory authority or
department that has its own internal audit office. Another organisation which
operates under the ATSIC Act – the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations –
monitors funds distributed by ATSIC to Aboriginal corporations. Furthermore,
ATSIC is also accountable to the Parliament by means of the tabling of a formal
Strait Islander Regional Authority
In 1994, the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA)
was formed to give Indigenous people in the region increased control of their
affairs, especially when it came to accessing and administering Indigenous
The TSRA is an independent agency within the portfolio
for Indigenous Affairs and reports directly to the Commonwealth Minister. Prior
to its establishment, Indigenous funds for the Torres Strait
were handled by ATSIC. This agency is to be retained under the legislation
before the Parliament.
Although the TSRA is a separate agency from ATSIC and
the new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS), it still
operates within the provisions of the ATSIC
TSRA aims to improve the lifestyle and well-being of
Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people of the region, empowering them to
determine their affairs based on their own culture.
The Authority consists of an elected arm and an
administrative arm. The elected arm comprises twenty elected representatives,
who then elect a Chairperson, a Deputy and an Alternate Deputy Chairperson. A
Commissioner is also elected, who becomes Chairperson of the TSRA Board and
then represents TSRA on the ATSIC Board.
The administrative arm consists of about 40
Commonwealth Public Service staff. All government grants and business loans are
also managed by the administrative arm.
ATSIC history and development
After the 1967 referendum, the Commonwealth Government
took over from the states some responsibility for policy-making in Aboriginal
affairs. There were some developments in Aboriginal affairs under the Coalition
Government – including the establishment of an advisory Council for Aboriginal
Affairs (CAA), headed by Dr H.
C. 'Nugget' Coombs, and the creation of a
small Office of Aboriginal Affairs (OAA) within the Department of the Prime
Minister. However, it was the election of the Whitlam Labor Government in
December 1972 that heralded a more significant level of Commonwealth activity
in the portfolio.
Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the policy of 'self-determination'
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) was
established by the Whitlam Government in 1973 to exercise a coordinating role
in the development of national policies for Aboriginal people. The DAA remained
the central Commonwealth agency with responsibility for the Aboriginal affairs
administration and programs until ATSIC commenced operations in March 1990.
The establishment of the DAA in 1973 was accompanied by
the introduction of the policy of 'self-determination' as the underlying
principle guiding the Government's approach to policy-making in Aboriginal
affairs policy. This was the idea that Aboriginal people should be involved in
the management of their own affairs. This concept has been pursued by
Commonwealth Governments ever since, albeit that different governments have had
different ideas about what 'Indigenous involvement in the management of their
own affairs' meant in practice.
NAC and the ADC
While the DAA was the central agency in Aboriginal
affairs at the Commonwealth level, the policies of self-determination and
self-management led to what academic Dr Will Sanders describes as two 'early
experiments in the creation of government-sponsored Aboriginal representative
structures'. These were the National
Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), and its successor, the National
Aboriginal Conference (NAC).
Established early in 1973, the NACC remained primarily
an advisory body to the Minister, despite some pressure to give it some degree
of executive power. The NACC was an elected assembly of 40 Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people, representing some 800 Aboriginal communities
from 41 electorates.
Following a review of the NACC after the Fraser
Government was elected in 1975, it was replaced by the NAC in 1977. The review
had found that the NACC had not been an effective mechanism for providing
advice to the Minister, or for consulting with Aboriginal people. The main difference between the two
organisations was in their structure; the new NAC representatives were elected
to state branches, from which a ten-member national executive was subsequently elected.
The NAC took on a high profile role as advocate of Indigenous political rights.
In 1980, the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC)
was formed, a statutory authority run by a board of ten part-time Aboriginal
commissioners, who were appointed by the Government, with Charles
Perkins as its first Chairperson. The ADC's
role was to manage a limited range of development-oriented Aboriginal affairs
programs, including the administration of loans and grants for Indigenous
housing and business enterprises.
Concerns arose within Aboriginal communities that
members of the NAC were not always seen as being well-connected to their
constituent communities. In response
to these concerns, the Labor platform in the 1983 election included a
commitment to restructuring the NAC 'in order to increase its effectiveness'. The subsequent report, tabled in the
Parliament in February 1985 by former CAA Chair H. C. Dr Coombs,
was highly critical of the NAC's structure and recommended radical changes.
Coombs had found that the NAC was 'not a significant instrument of Aboriginal
political influence and power', and
recommended a major restructure of the body.
Shortly after the review's publication, an audit of NAC's
operations revealed serious deficiencies in its financial administration. As a
result, Mr Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, announced in April
1985 that the NAC would be terminated and, following consultations with
Aboriginal community groups and organisations, a new organisation would be
established that would be 'more closely based on Aboriginal community
In 1987, the Hawke Government announced its intention
to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, preceded by
an extensive consultation process. The creation of ATSIC would combine the
regional and national councils of elected Aboriginal people, with the program
administration roles of the DAA and ADC.
As such it would 'allay the criticism that decision-making power over
Aboriginal affairs had never been fully given to Aborigines' – a bold reform in Aboriginal affairs.
By incorporating the consultation process, it was hoped that the new commission
would receive 'positive endorsement from the Aboriginal and Islander people of Australia'.
It is important to note that during the period
1972-1990, there was almost always an elected
national Indigenous body providing advice to government, with the exception of
the period between the NAC's disbandment and the creation of ATSIC.
to ATSIC's establishment
The Hawke Government's intention to establish ATSIC was
formally announced in December 1987 in a speech to the Parliament entitled
'Foundations for the Future', by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gerry
In the first half of 1988, Gerry Hand and Charles
Perkins conducted an extensive round of
consultations with Aboriginal people and organisations around the country.
According to the account of the consultations Mr
Hand gave to the Parliament:
- in January 1988, more than 21,000 copies of the
Foundations of the Future statement, and 1000 copies of a video were
distributed to more than 1000 separate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
organisations and communities throughout Australia
- over 500 preliminary meetings involving some 14
500 people were held
- Gerry Hand himself visited and spoke with around
6 000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives
- an options paper was prepared which identified a
range of alternative proposals based on suggestions and recommendations
received as a consequence of Mr Hand's consultations
- the options paper was widely circulated and was
discussed at another round of meetings with several thousand Indigenous people.
Following the consultations, Gerry Hand drafted
legislation, which he introduced into the Parliament on 24 August 1988. He would later describe the ATSIC
consultations as the most extensive ever undertaken on a single piece of
legislation in the Australian Parliament's history.
During the consultation process, the ADC's Aboriginal
commissioners strongly stated their opposition to the ATSIC proposal; shortly
afterwards, eight of the ten ADC Commissioners were dismissed, presumably due
to their opposition.
The Coalition and the Democrats combined in the Senate
to establish a Select Committee inquiry into the ATSIC proposal and the ADC
dismissals. Subsequently, the passage of the ATSIC legislation was delayed
until after the Committee was due to report in early 1989.
Around the same time, the existing administration of
Aboriginal affairs came under close scrutiny, both in the Parliament and from
several external reviews and inquiries, which all focussed on public
accountability and financial transparency. The Government accepted the
overwhelming majority of more than 40 recommendations made by the Select
Committee Report. When the revised legislation was introduced into the
Parliament in May 1989, it contained a series of measures aimed at ensuring
that there would be rigorous processes of public accountability in the new
of the ATSIC legislation – November 1989
In addition to the enhanced accountability measures
included when the revised ATSIC legislation was introduced into the Parliament
in May 1989, over 90 amendments were made in the following six months. At that
time the ATSIC Bill was the second-most amended piece of legislation to have
passed through the Parliament since Federation.
and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 was eventually passed by the
Parliament on 2 November 1989, almost two years after Minister Hand had first
outlined Labor's ATSIC proposal in December 1987.
changes to ATSIC
As a result of persistent criticism, ATSIC underwent
several major changes during its life. When she was ATSIC Chairperson, Lowitja
O'Donoghue, argued that since its
establishment, the Commission had been forced to operate within a 'climate of
criticism'. However, she also recognised that ATSIC should not be immune from
scrutiny – 'it is after all a government-funded organisation and therefore
publicly accountable' – but she did suggest that 'ignorance, resentment and
impatience' were often factors in the attacks to which ATSIC was routinely subjected.
of Aboriginal and Torres
To address these issues, on 17 April 2003, the then Minister
for Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Philip Ruddock, announced the establishment of
a new executive agency, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS),
to administer ATSIC's programs and make individual decisions about grants and
other funding to Indigenous organisations from 1 July 2003.
Minister Ruddock emphasised at the time of the
announcement that the establishment of ATSIS did not represent a move towards
'mainstreaming' of ATSIC programs; he stated that the aim of the creation of
ATSIS was merely to formally separate the role of policy development and
decision-making from the task of implementation. With hindsight, these assurances on
the part of Minister Ruddock can only be regarded with scepticism: it is clear
that the Government already had access to external advice, if not internal
advice, to the effect that 'separatism' in Indigenous policy implementation
should be replaced by a new 'assimilationist' agenda. Mr
Ruddock, in providing the assurances that he
gave voice to on the creation of ATSIS, was at best being disingenuous.
Effectively, the changes were more than merely
administrative: they meant that ATSIC's elected arm no longer had direct
control over the Commission's budget. The removal of the control of funding
from ATSIC's elected arm, and the 'separation of powers' justification for it, was
welcomed in some quarters. Other people, however, have interpreted them as a
move backwards. Democrat Senator Aden Ridgeway, for example, described the
changes as a 'retrograde step' which disenfranchises the ATSIC Board, and which
'takes Indigenous affairs back to a model similar to the old National Aboriginal
Conference model from the 1970s'.
It is a matter of concern, too, that the separation of
powers occurred prior to the outcome of the ATSIC Review being known. This occurred despite Minister Ruddock’s being
in possession of advice that the manner in which he had acted might be subject
to questions as to its legality. Further, the existing CEO of ATSIC became also
the CEO of the new agency – thus placing that individual in the invidious
position of a structural conflict of interest, when it was the very matter of
potential conflict of interest on the part of ATSIC Board members that was used
by the Minister to justify the separation.
Reviews of Indigenous affairs
In examining the role of ATSIC as well as making
judgements on the administration of Indigenous affairs more generally, the
Committee is strongly aware that this is a subject that has long been the focus
of public concern and debate, and associated government scrutiny.
This section summarises the findings and methodology of
a number of the key reviews of Aboriginal affairs occurring in both the lead
to, and after, the establishment of ATSIC.
Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs
A Senate Committee was formed on 1 June 1988 to
inquire into the proposal to establish ATSIC, as well as the process of
consultation which led to the drafting of the Bill, the
alternative proposal from the Aboriginal Development Corporation, and the
treatment of the ADC and its Commissioners by the Government.
The Committee recommended that ATSIC be established,
but proposed substantial amendments to the enabling legislation. In all, forty
Recommendations were made by the majority of the Committee, most of which were
geared towards strengthening the commission's accountability mechanisms. In particular,
these included findings in relation to conflicts of interest, documentation and
justification of proposed expenditures, scrutiny of relevant electoral
boundaries for Commission elections, and the composition and election of
Regional Councils. The Committee also recommended enhanced consultation by
relevant Ministers in the appointment of the ATSIC CEO.
The Government accepted the overwhelming majority of
these recommendations and incorporated them into the revised legislation. It
also included in the legislation a provision for the establishment of an Office
of Evaluation and Audit within ATSIC, to conduct regular audits and evaluations
of ATSIC's operations, and to report at least quarterly to the ATSIC Board and
One of the Howard Government's first actions in
Aboriginal affairs upon coming to government was the appointment of a special
auditor to examine accountability within ATSIC (and TSRA) funded organisations
to determine whether the organisations were 'fit and proper' bodies to receive
public funds. This was ostensibly in response to community concern about an
apparent 'haemorrhaging of public funds'. The audit, conducted by accounting
firm KPMG, found that 95 per cent of the 1122 organisations reviewed were
cleared for further funding, while 60 organisations (five per cent) were not.
Lowitja O'Donoghue points out that the audit 'uncovered
no instances of fraud, but it did discover a system of grant administration
that was so detailed as to make breaches of grant conditions almost
inevitable'. The report recommended training for administrators of Aboriginal
organisations – for example, in financial management expertise – but noted that
budget cuts imposed on ATSIC in the 1996–1997 Commonwealth budget had resulted
in the termination of the Community Training Program, significantly reducing
'the capacity of ATSIC to fund management training in organisations'.
Section 26 of the ATSIC
Act 1989 enables the Commission to review areas of the operation of the Act
and report to the Minister; this report may include suggestions for amendments
to the Act.
In 1993, a review was conducted by the ATSIC Board
under Section 26 of the Act. The resultant report made several recommendations, including
that the Act be amended to remove the power of the Minister to appoint the
ATSIC Chairperson, who should instead be elected by Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people. The report stated:
The Commission recommends that the Act be amended to:
- repeal the provisions of section 27 which enable the
Minister to select and appoint the Chairperson and two non-elected
- require the Minister to appoint the Commissioner
elected by Commissioners as Chairperson; and
- provide for the election of a replacement Commissioner
for the zone which the Chairperson represents
This arrangement, it was argued, was more in line with
the principle of 'self-determination' on which ATSIC was based. This suggested
amendment did not take effect until 1999, when Geoff
Clark became the first elected Chairperson.
This change emphasised the dual system of
accountability within which ATSIC has struggled to operate effectively –
accountability to their Indigenous constituents by virtue of their election,
and accountability to the Parliament through the Minister for Aboriginal
In April 1997, the ATSIC Board commissioned another
review, published in February 1998. The review's terms of reference took into
account the major changes that had occurred since the previous review. These
included the change of government and the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions;
the terms also enabled the consideration of any aspect of the Act relating to
the Commission and the Regional Councils.
A steering committee was established to oversight the
conduct of the inquiry. The steering committee advertised the inquiry widely in
national, regional and Indigenous media, while also writing to Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities, state and territory governments
and relevant Commonwealth agencies; this was to ensure there was ample
opportunity for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous input. A discussion paper
was prepared and its availability advertised nationally; it was circulated to
all those originally contacted, in addition to all Senators and Members of the
Federal Parliament, and any interested persons.
A 'Consultation Kit' was developed to assist Indigenous
communities to prepare for and arrange meetings for discussing the review. A
program of consultations with the Indigenous community was organised with
steering committee members attending such meetings in each state and in the Northern
Territory, culminating in a focus group of Indigenous
leaders in January 1998.
The final report contained 38 recommendations. These
included a number of substantive changes to the Act to improve its operation
and better address the needs of Indigenous people; it also proposed technical
changes to address legal and administrative problems
There was note of the high levels of concern in the
Indigenous community following the cuts to funding; recommendations also called
for the need for high standards of accountability and transparency to underpin
the directing of funding for programs benefiting Indigenous people. Recommendation
11 stated that the '...Board and the Regional Councils should continue to be
involved in decision-making for the funding of individual projects.'; while Recommendation
26 asked for a review of the financial provisions of the Act ... to identify how
to streamline and simplify the budget process to provide for greater
flexibility without detriment to desirable standards of accountability.'
Other recommendations referred to the need for
flexibility to accommodate the diversity of Indigenous communities and that
urgent consideration be given to simplifying the Act.
ATSIC Review – 2003
A broader review into ATSIC's roles and functions was
commissioned by Minister Ruddock in November 2002 and reported in November
2003. The review panel – John Hannaford,
and Bob Collins
– was asked to 'examine and make recommendations to government on how
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can in the future be best
represented in the process of the development of Commonwealth policies and
programmes to assist them'. In doing so, the panel was asked to look at the
current roles and functions of ATSIC, including its roles in providing:
- advocacy and representation of the views of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
- programmes and services to Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people, and
- advice on implementation of legislation
In particular, the Minister asked the review panel to
consider the 'appropriate role for Regional Councils in ensuring the delivery
of appropriate government programmes and services to Indigenous people'.
The ATSIC Board stated that it saw this review as an
opportunity to improve service delivery to Indigenous people, balancing this
role with the Commission's fundamental responsibility to progress the
recognition of inherent Indigenous rights.
The panel undertook two major rounds of public
consultation; the first was to assist in the development of a Public Discussion
Paper in June 2003 and the second dealt with issues and options identified in
that paper. Advertisements calling for submissions and participation were
placed in national, Indigenous and regional newspapers. In addition, a
'consultation hotline' was created and about 8000 copies of the Discussion
Paper were mailed out. A website carried the Discussion Paper, submissions
received and a feedback mechanism. The panel met with all 35 Regional Councils,
the ATSIC Board, the Women's Advisory Committee, the Torres Strait Islander
Authority and the Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board. More than 100
submissions were received during Stage 2 of the consultation process, during
which 44 meetings were held across the nation, the majority of them in regional
and rural areas.
The discussion paper outlined four possible models for
the reform of ATSIC:
- The status quo or 'parliamentary' model
makes permanent the separation of policy development from budget control
introduced by the establishment of ATSIS. ATSIC's roles and responsibilities
would be more clearly defined;
- The Regional Authority model replaces the
existing ATSIC Regional Councils with a smaller number of Regional Authorities,
which would be responsible for preparing regional plans, determining criteria
for funding decisions, and reporting on outcomes;
- The Regional Council model retains the
existing Regional Council structure, incorporating the same roles and
responsibilities for the elected arm as the Regional Authority model;
- The devolution model would devolve
responsibility for Indigenous-specific programs to Commonwealth and state/territory
departments and agencies. ATSIC would become primarily focused on policy
In the final report, two over-arching recommendations
- that the existing objects of the Act be
- that ATSIC remain the primary vehicle to
represent the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ... and be an agent
for positive change in the development of policies and programs to advance the
interests of Indigenous Australians.
These were among sixty-seven recommendations throughout
The report examined these four options for a new ATSIC
and reiterated that there was no perfect model. However, it recommended that
the preferred future for ATSIC was as a 'single organisation with a legislated
delineation of roles between the elected arm and the administrative arm.' While
the panel considered the abolition of ATSIC with its activities being devolved
to mainstream agencies, it did not support this option. This is discussed in depth
in Chapter 5.
Comment was made on the need to accommodate in future
for the establishment of autonomous regional governance structures that would
allow communities more direct dealing with governments and relevant agencies.
The Committee emphasises that it is imperative that
effective regional representative structures be retained. A recommendation for
the extension of the proposed life of the ATSIC regional structures is made
later in this report. This extension would facilitate the establishment of
sound regional structures that are supported by Indigenous people.
Report on capacity building in
On 19 July
2002, the (then) Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and
Indigenous Affairs referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee
on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs terms of reference for an
inquiry into capacity building in Indigenous communities. Eighty written
submissions were received, and public hearings were held in each state and
territory except Tasmania. The
Committee reported in June 2004.
Key themes which dominated the report included:
- The need
for greater coordination and integration of service provision;
- The need for improved governance
within Indigenous communities and organisations;
- The need for greater individual
empowerment in order that Indigenous people may play a key role in achieving a
better outcome for themselves;
underlying problem of geographical isolation.
Key recommendations of the Committee included:
- The need for uniform data collection
arrangements between Commonwealth and state/territory jurisdictions;
entrenchment of, and regular reporting on, COAG Trials;
clarification of service delivery roles and responsibilities;
- Investigation of the extent to which
new and existing community development courses could prove useful;
- Shifting the emphasis in service
provision to regional and location-specific areas;
- Integrating capacity-building into
the design of services provided to Indigenous people;
- The investigation of pooled funding
models for community development and service provision;
- Appropriate consideration for
locally-based contractors in the provision of services;
cross-cultural skills development within agency staff ranks;
design and utilisation of benchmarking for services;
- Investigating the development of a governance
training and mentoring component into the provision of Indigenous services
funding, with a view to establishing a register of suitable workers for
- That the Partnerships Against
Domestic Violence Program be tasked to produce a report into Indigenous
Social Justice Commissioner Social Justice Report
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Justice Commissioner published the fifth Social
Justice Report 2003, (Report No. 2/2004) which contained recommendations in
four relevant areas.
The 2000 Social Justice Report again identified
limitations in data collection as a critical problem, which reflects the
findings of the Productivity Commission's Overcoming
Indigenous Disadvantage Report 2003, (see discussions chapter 5) which also
noted the availability of adequate and regular data as a critical issue for the
reporting framework. The first recommendation requests that the ABS provide
COAG with actions necessary to improve Indigenous data collection.
Ministerial Council Action Plans
Recommendations two to
five concern the Commonwealth/State Ministerial Council Action
Plans to address Indigenous disadvantage. The recommendations include that the
plans contain benchmarks and timeframes to ensure they are able to meet short,
medium and long term objectives. It was recommended that, through the Regional
Councils, ATSIC examine the plans and advise the Federal Government of whether
they endorse the plans. The plans should also be made publicly available and
COAG should annually report on progress made to meting the benchmarks.
Recommendations six to
nine looked at the COAG whole of government community trials. It
was recommended that the Government commit to the existence of the Indigenous
Communities Coordination Taskforce for the duration of the trials, increasing
its funding for the taskforce staffing commitments. COAG was requested to fund
an independent monitoring and evaluation process for the trials, and request the
Productivity Commission to provide advice on the alignment of local-level
benchmarks and outcomes with COAG's national framework.
Building and Governance Reform
Recommendations ten to
twelve dealt with these issues. They recommended that, as a central
component of its Reconciliation Framework, COAG adopt ATSIC's integrated
framework on capacity building and sustainable development. It was suggested
that COAG provide funding for research into best-practice models for capacity
building and governance reform, based on overseas models and building on
existing Australian research in this area. It was also recommended that the
Government treat as high priority the reform of the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976, ensuring there is
extensive consultation with Indigenous people. Any proposed changes to the
legislation should be in accordance with the recommendations of the 2002 review
of that Act, recognising the need for special regulatory assistance for
The abolition of ATSIC, together with the consequential
changes, are predicated on the assertion that ATSIC has been 'a failed
experiment'. This assertion,
contained in the Minister’s second reading speech to the Parliament on the
introduction of the legislation to abolish ATSIC, is nowhere explained or
supported by evidence. Clearly, a realistic assessment of ATSIC requires a more
complicated approach, with a range of positive, and possibly negative,
considerations contributing to a final judgement. This report has already
expressly noted major achievements and strengths of ATSIC over the last 15
Many of the achievements and perceived weaknesses of
ATSIC were discussed in considerable detail by the ATSIC Review team in their
report In the hands of the regions – a
new ATSIC, summarised above, and will not be repeated in detail here.
However some general examination of these problems is necessary.
Weaknesses of ATSIC
Arguably, ATSIC's weaknesses can be grouped into two
central issues associated with structural problems, and failure to deliver
First, there is a view that ATSIC was hamstrung from
the beginning by an unworkable legislation that created ultimately destructive
structural conflicts. As the submission from UTS argues: 'The flaws are
directly linked to the legislative framework in which it was structured ...'. The submission explained that in
order to fulfil its legislated responsibility and to monitor the effectiveness
of agencies, ATSIC 'required the active cooperation and involvement of
Commonwealth agencies and state and territory governments', supported by
'executive authority from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet', adding that:
This executive authority was never given to ATSIC and the
activities of Prime Minister and Cabinet were often contrary to ATSIC's stated
policies and intensions. ... A pertinent point that needs to be made is that the
executive authority needed in the Indigenous area has only just been granted
now that ATSIC has been effectively removed.
UTS explained that although the State Advisory Committees
(SACs) were established in response
to this problem, these bodies were also not legislated within the Act.
Therefore, individual State and Territory Governments do not
treat each State Advisory Committee with the requisite legitimacy and respect.
... The failure to impose a structure that can act as the state representatives
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has broken a critical link in
ATSIC's advocacy role.
This comment is extremely pertinent to the chapter four
discussions on how representative structures under the new arrangements would
be legally recognised. Given that the Government failed to provide the Committee with
any assurance that there was a mechanism in place to do so once the current
Regional Councils are abolished, the Committee is concerned that without this
mechanism, the problem outlined by UTS will be perpetuated.
UTS reiterated that the above issues were purely legislative
These could have been fixed to strengthen the governance
structure enshrined within the ATSIC legislation rather than simply abolishing
A central problem is the inherent tension between on
the one hand, ATSIC's role as a representative organisation, lobbying
government on behalf of its Indigenous electorate, and on the other, it's role
as a public service agency responsible for the delivery of programs. This
problem was identified by the Government as a key justification for the
abolition of ATSIC.
At the time of its establishment, this characteristic
was considered by many to be one of ATSIC's main strengths. It was anticipated
that this combination would enable true Indigenous power and participation in
Indigenous affairs decision-making. However, the problems inherent in this
approach were recognised in the report of the Senate Select Committee on the
Administration of Aboriginal Affairs in 1989. The majority reported that it:
Considers that the Commissioners of ATSIC will have a difficult
and at times ambiguous role in seeking to reconcile their representative and
executive responsibilities. It is not difficult to envisage circumstances in
which the Commissioners, as representatives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander communities, might find themselves in conflict with Minister or in
disagreement with government policy.
As predicted, this structure led to the persistent
potential for tension between the amalgamated roles of advocacy and service
delivery. As the UTS submission notes, ATSIC's advocacy in favour of native
title reform and its pursuit of a national treaty are examples of this.
Similarly, ATSIC found itself in conflict with the Government through its
funding role for the Native Title Representative Bodies to litigate native title
claims in matters where the Federal Government is a party.
These conflicts were probably the major reason for the
establishment of the Office of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
(OATSIA) in the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous
Affairs, in order to provide the Minister with a separate source of advice.
and her colleagues at UTS also point to the failure of the ATSIC Act to define
the relationship between the ATSIC Board, the Minister and the CEO:
Before the split in the agency resulting in the creation of
ATSIS and the appointment of a separate CEO, the CEO of ATSIC was answerable to
and directed by the Board of Commissioners. However, the CEO of ATSIC is also
responsible to the Minister ... The agenda of [the] Board and the Minister could
be very different creating difficulties in governance.
as Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a former
CEO of ATSIC for three and a half years, acknowledged these problems. Dr
Shergold told the Committee that 'it was
very difficult to hold together in the long term', but that the turning point
...the point at which the chair was no longer appointed to ATSIC
when it became almost impossible to hold the organisation together. As long as
you had an appointed chair and an appointed CEO through the Government, I think
that provided a framework for how the organisation could function. But once you
had a fully elected board and chair I think it made it very difficult to deal with
the issue where you have a CEO and public servants—because people in ATSIC
remained public servants in the administrative arm—serving two masters.
and Ken McPhail
discussed the issues raised by the unique structure of ATSIC, commenting that
it had been the 'basis of some fundamental problems for ATSIC ...':
While this structure may be innovative in that it attempts to
combine both representative and executive responsibilities and functions,
ATSIC's role is problematic as principles of representative democracy, group
autonomy and ministerial responsibility conflict. The representative arm is
accountable to the Minister and the Aboriginal communities, however, the
administrative arm is accountable to the Government. We contend that the structure
of ATSIC with its conflicting systems of accountability, not only means that it
will struggle to achieve its stated aims of Aboriginal empowerment but may
actually be pushing it perilously close to a crisis of legitimacy.
A second structural problem derives from the inevitable
difficulties inherent in trying to create an organisation that has to straddle
two radically different cultures. ATSIC was attempting to impose a western
style governance structure within Indigenous cultural boundaries; as such it
'cannot achieve complete representation of all cultural groups.' Consequently, ATSIC has not lived up
to even the expectations of the Indigenous peoples it represents:
A fundamental dilemma inherent in ATSIC is that is a western
political and administrative model alien to Indigenous family/clan/community
structures. National, State and Territory and even some regional structures cut
across a cultural view that 'you can only talk for your own country.
One Review submission with this viewpoint was from the South
West Aboriginal Land
and Sea Council, WA, who stated:
The selection process itself is modelled on the Westminster
system and does not take into account traditional methods of selecting
leadership or spokespeople from within the community. In addition, the people
elected through the ATSIC system are not necessarily the same people from
within a community who have the traditional authority to represent the area.
This imposed and artificial structuring of a leadership model creates a
conflict with the traditional authority mechanisms within a geographic region.
In this way, the authority of the ATSIC representative arm is often questioned.
This factor may go some way towards explaining the low
voter turnout for ATSIC elections – a factor noted by the Government in their
rationale for abolishing ATSIC. Thus, while the elections cost between $7 – $9
million to run, 'the proportion of eligible voters participating in the 2002
election dropped to a record low (1 in 5).'
However, the significance of these statistics needs to
be tempered by recognition that voting is not compulsory. Further, as Professor
Behrendt and colleagues point out, voter
participation rates vary enormously across the different ATSIC regions:
[V]oter turnout was highest in the areas of Western
Australia, Northern Territory
and Queensland. These are the
areas where there are higher proportions of communities who would see the
difference ATSIC makes at the ground level.
Finally, ATSIC's effectiveness was hampered by the fact
that while it was intended to act as a national body to 'ensure co-ordination
of policies affecting Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders', it has no structural connection into
the state, territory and local governments that are responsible for delivering
many of the services that are most crucial to Indigenous communities.
In the Second Reading speech to the ATSIC Amendment
Bill, the Minister stated:
The ATSIC experiment failed on a number of fronts. Its focus was
almost exclusively on Australian Government programmes and services. The
fundamentally important role of state and territory governments was neglected.
The South West
and Sea Council, WA, believed that any failure was due in part to the lack of
formalised interaction with the state government:
For ATSIC the failure to have a formal state government
interface has been an impediment to ensuring a whole-of-government approach on
issues such as Indigenous health and education.
The failure to create a formal interface between
ATSIC and these governments has resulted in an inability by ATSIC to either
impact effectively on state and territory governments' programs, or monitor how
they spend money. As the UTS submission notes, in failing to coordinate the
efforts of all three levels of Australian Government, ATSIC has been condemned for being unable to achieve an aspiration which to date
has eluded everyone.
In this respect, perhaps the greatest underlying
impediment to Indigenous policy-making is the very nature of Australia's
federal system of government. The Australian Constitution sets out the areas of
policy-making responsibility for the Commonwealth and state/territory governments.
In addition, within major service delivery areas, such as education and health,
there are overlaps of responsibility. In these common areas, the Commonwealth
will see policy-making from a 'national' perspective, while the State/Territory
will have more of a local view-point.
Responsibility sharing is a crucial element of Australia's
concurrent style of federalism. While the notion has great collaborative
potential, it also has the potential to fall far short of cooperative ideals
amidst inter-governmental and inter-organisational conflict.
There is inherent in Australia’s
federal system of government a set of potential policy tensions between the two
levels of government. As was intended by its authors, the Australian
Constitution has limited reach, with states and territories retaining power in
important areas such as health, education, water services and social services.
The Commonwealth Grants Commission noted that this was a particular problem of
earlier mainstreaming attempts by the government. In chapter four of this report, they
federal system of government blurs service delivery responsibility between
governments and has complex funding arrangements. ... It also results in some
responsibility and cost shifting between governments. The overall result, for
Indigenous people, is that they generally distrust government agencies and do not
believe all the funding reaches the intended goals.
The report continued that:
From an Indigenous perspective, the detrimental aspects of cost
shifting arise when:
services are not provided because one party has
‘vacated the field’, assuming another will provide the service — for example,
we were told of cases where States were said to ignore the requirements of some,
predominantly small, Indigenous communities in the knowledge that ATSIC would
provide the services;
(ii) funds provided from one tier of government to another
for an Indigenous-specific service are diverted to other purposes; or
services are used as a ‘catch all’ for deficiencies in mainstream services — for example, we were told of cases where officers in mainstream health, housing
or training services routinely refer Indigenous people to the
Indigenous-specific service units.
The ATSIC Review noted that most state and territory
governments supported the devolution of power over Indigenous issues back to
Flowing from this difficulty in policy-making is the
administrative uncertainty when trying to implement policy and service
delivery. This also makes it difficult to know who to turn to when policy
fails. Concurring with the Productivity Commission report on funding, Professor
has commented on the 'merry dance of cost-shifting between federal and state
governments on responsibility for service delivery', resulting in a 'lack of
clarity and vagary of responsibility'.
This ultimately leads to a failure to deliver the basic facilities needed by
Indigenous Australians at a standard that the rest of the community regards as
Indigenous policy makers will have to address the
confusion created by our Federal system, while also ensuring that the needs of
local communities are taken into consideration. The COAG Trials have
demonstrated that in certain circumstances, a 'whole of government' approach
can produce improvements in outcomes. These trials are discussed further in Chapter
One of the main criticisms ATSIC had to contend with
centred around general misconceptions about how much funding ATSIC received,
what it could actually do with its funding and its overall effectiveness in
addressing Indigenous disadvantage.
This perception has been fuelled by continuing poor
results in such key areas as literacy, school retention, life expectancy, and
As the key national Indigenous agency, ATSIC is
inevitably a high profile target when it comes to allocating blame for the
failure to solve the problems in Indigenous communities. Much of this
criticism, however, has been misdirected and/or misinformed.
It is true that some failures in policy can certainly
be attributed to ATSIC. For example, the ATSIC Review concluded that the
regional planning network was not achieving results, while some evidence provided to the Committee
suggests that certain aspects of the CDEP program are poorly administered and
not delivering the intended outcomes.
However, in several important respects ATSIC cannot be
held responsible for the failing of Indigenous programs. According to ATSIC:
ATSIC was given the responsibility to improve the economic,
social and cultural development Indigenous peoples, but was severely restricted
by the quarantining of its budget for particular government programs and the
lack of capacity to direct other spheres of government (federal, state, local)
to improve service delivery outcomes...
ATSIC does not have program responsibility for many
areas of key program delivery. Even before the new policy of mainstreaming was
instituted, State, Territory and Commonwealth agencies retained responsibility
for most service delivery with respect to education, housing, and community
During this inquiry, submissions and witnesses alike
stated that ATSIC was never intended to be the main delivery agent for programs
addressing Indigenous needs. The Northern Land Council (NLC) submission argued:
Many people wrongly believe that ATSIC is to blame for the
failure to achieve better outcomes ... Few recall that Parliament never
anticipated that ATSIC programs alone could address Indigenous disadvantage. ...
Nor does ATSIC have full control over its budget. ... The services provided by
ATSIC have only ever been intended to supplement the mainstream programs
provided by the States.
Similarly, the Cairns
and Regional District Council stress that:
... responsibilities for the portfolios of Health, Education and
Employment reside with the Ministers ...
As the discussion earlier in this chapter illustrates,
ATSIC's share of the overall identifiable Commonwealth expenditure on
indigenous affairs is less than fifty percent, of which only about 15% is
discretionary. This becomes even less when also taking into consideration state
and territory funding. As the ATSIC Chairman, Mr
told the Committee:
When you talk about ATSIC, I think you are forgetting that we
are the supplementary organisation. We come and plug the gaps.
One example of this is health. ATSIC took over
responsibility for Indigenous health from DAA when the body began operations in
1990. The Keating Government, however, transferred responsibility for
Indigenous health back to the then Department of Human Services and Health in
1995. Nevertheless the perception that ATSIC was totally responsible for
Indigenous health has remained. If Indigenous people had been failed with
regard to health, it was actually the Department of Health and Ageing that was
According to Professor
Altman, the Commonwealth Grants Commission Indigenous Funding Inquiry of 2001,
[T]he major problem is
under-resourcing of Indigenous need on an equitable basis by mainstream
Commonwealth and State/Territory service delivery agencies.
Some of the best outcomes in closing the gaps have come from
ATSIC programs such as the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP)
scheme and the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP) that
accounted for 80% of ATSIC's program allocations.
However, the common perception that ATSIC is
responsible provides a convenient scapegoat for other agencies' failings. The
ATSIC Review stated that:
...mainstream Commonwealth and State agencies ... have used ... ATSIC
to avoid or minimise their responsibilities to overcome the significant
disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Because public
blame for perceived failures has largely focussed, fairly or unfairly, on the
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, those mainstream agencies,
their ministers and governments have avoided responsibility for their own
The Government itself admits this, stating that, 'All
too often the specialist Indigenous agency, ATSIC, provided an excuse for
mainstream departments to avoid their responsibilities to Indigenous
Clarke, in the ATSIC submission, lamented
the Government's handling of the perceived 'failures':
I find it the height of hypocrisy when parliamentarians and
media commentators can falsely blame ATSIC for the horrendous failures in
health, education and other areas not its responsibility, then actively
campaign to have ATSIC destroyed on these false perceptions.
There is no acknowledgement of the excellent programs ATSIC has
developed and funds community organisations to deliver.
Submissions to the ATSIC Review gave various other reasons
for the perceived failure of ATSIC. The Murdi Paaki Regional Council submission
If there has been a systemic failure [of ATSIC], it is because
the commission has been required to span too wide an activity, occasioned by
the failure of mainstream services to adequately meet the needs of Indigenous
Fry from the NLC, a witness at the Darwin
public hearing, had an interesting view point on the failures that ATSIC
experienced, referring back to a report on the NAC by Dr
Coombs in the mid-seventies.
talked of real self-determination and self-management and the inherent need for
all of us, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to experience
failure and success. He talked about how governments needed to stand back and
allow people to go through this curve. 
This view reminds the Committee that the process of
failure is not to be considered purely as a negative experience; it is rather
an opportunity to harvest the lessons learned from the 'failure' so that they
can be utilised in future endeavours as part of continual improvement. Another
witness had a similar viewpoint, suggesting that perhaps the changes by the
Government have been a little too hasty:
If we are moving - ... - from a dependency model towards giving
Indigenous independence, before we can go to the next stage of interdependence
we need to be rather patient in that period of time. ...there needs to be a fair
bit if shared understanding as to exactly where we all are and the mutual
outcomes we are trying to achieve.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, ATSIC is able to
point to many successes, as were highlighted by witnesses and within
submissions. A recent media release from the ATSIC News Room also focussed on
ATSIC's achievements. The release states:
... ATSIC's record of representation and innovation on behalf of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is unmatched by any mainstream
government agency. Most importantly, it is a record of achievement by
Indigenous people for indigenous people.
ATSIC's assertions are not without external support. Professor
Altman, for one, considers that:
First, it is important to recognise ATSIC's achievements ...
including its distinctive and appropriate programs that have made a difference.
The flexibility inherent in some of these programs, like the CDEP scheme, has
been fundamental to their success, especially in non-mainstream situations.
reinforced these sentiments.
The first and most important [of ATSIC's achievements] was the
degree of political participation that ATSIC had encouraged among Indigenous
The ATSIC submission argues that despite the
limitations imposed on it:
Its advocacy for Indigenous interests over the past fourteen
years has been extremely important and has influenced public policy in all
spheres of government.
At the national level, ATSIC achieved increased
participation of Indigenous leaders in national policy bodies such as the National
Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Indigenous Technical Advisory
Council, Great Artesian Basin Committee, and the Australian Seafood Council.
The UTS submission claims that ATSIC was able to have a
positive influence on issues such as the response to the Royal Commission into
Aboriginal deaths in custody, the National Aboriginal Health Strategy, the
Bringing them home report, as well as actively pushing Indigenous issues onto
the COAG agenda.
Similarly, ATSIC successfully negotiated Memoranda of
Understanding with each of the state and territory governments as well as
sector specific bilateral agreements on areas such as housing and
Internationally, ATSIC participated in various UN
forums, including the UN Human Rights Committee, and contributed to
international standard setting in the development of the Draft declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples.
In terms of program delivery, as noted earlier in this
report, ATSIC was responsible for the CDEP scheme, which is the largest
Indigenous program funded by the Australian Government. The extent of this
program is often not appreciated. It provides employment and training
opportunities to Indigenous participants in a range of activities that benefit
both individuals and their communities. At 30 June 2003, ATSIC supported some 35,000 participants
employed by around 270 CDEP organisations with expenditure in 2002-03 of $484
Likewise, ATSIC's CHIP initiatives aim to improve the
living environment of Indigenous people by providing housing and associated
infrastructure and municipal services in areas where these are not provided by
the local government. In 2002-03, ATSIC funds built around 500 houses and
renovated around 760. About 6800 people were accommodated in new or upgraded
dwellings and almost 48,000 people lived in communities funded for municipal
In 2002-03, ATSIC's Home Ownership program made 537
home loans, housing more than 1600 people and managed a home loans portfolio
worth $327 million. ATSIC also supported thirteen Family Violence Prevention
Units in areas of identified high need. ATSIC programs also support networks of
Indigenous broadcasters, art and craft, and language centres, as well as a
network of Link-Up offices that help to re-unite families separated by past
policies of governments.
A witness in Cairns
told the Committee at the public hearing that:
One of the benefits of ATSIC is that it is Indigenous in its
culture and its context.
Another witness at the same hearing said of ATSIC:
... ATSIC amounted to a one-stop shop, where the Indigenous people
of this country could make various inquiries about different schemes.
The submission from the Women's International League
for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) highlighted a number of areas they considered
ATSIC had been successful.
In our view, ATSIC has been a vital contributor to the
administration of Indigenous Affairs policy since its inception in 1989. ... It
has been responsible for bold and culturally responsible programs such as the
Community Development Employment Projects Scheme [CDEP] and the Community
Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP).
The importance of the nationally elected voice of ATSIC cannot
be underestimated. ... By having a seat at the table on many Interdepartmental
Committees and Reviews ... ATSIC has been able to lead mainstream Departments and
agencies in culturally appropriate ways of doing things. ... It has brought
Indigenous approaches to decision-making into play to the main arena of policy
Sanders focussed his entire submission on
the positive outcomes ATSIC has achieved. Commenting on the 'political
participation of Indigenous people', Dr Sanders
ATSIC has also given those elected significant opportunities for
developing a public profile and participating in public debate. ... ATSIC office
holding has given many Indigenous people a status in the community ... ATSIC
office holding has certainly become important, in relation to both the
Indigenous and the larger communities.
discussed ATSIC's status as a national Indigenous voice, stating that:
ATSIC was obliged to develop its independence from government in
order to build credibility and legitimacy with its Indigenous constituency.
This was an achievement and strength for ATSIC, not a mistake or an anomaly.
He further commented on ATSIC's successes in program
delivery, echoing the comments from WILPF:
ATSIC was not just an experiment in Indigenous representation. ...
ATSIC's third achievement or strength was programs which were distinctive from
those of government agencies and were appropriate to the circumstances of
The manner in which ATSIC was able to develop
successful partnerships with state and territory governments was also
highlighted by Dr Sanders:
ATSIC has also worked usefully with States and Territories over
the years. One of the earliest examples was a housing funding agreement made
between the Northern Territory Government,
the Commonwealth and ATSIC in 1995. ... This ... arrangement was clearly a
significant improvement on what had gone before and encouraged the development
of similar innovative tripartite Indigenous housing agreements in the States
over the next few years.
The positive role that ATSIC played in developing
improved relationships was also highlighted in a combined submission from the
Yarra, Darebin and Moreland City Council Mayors. In their letter to the Prime
Minister, they claimed:
Most importantly, ATSIC has been instrumental in improving
relationships between non-indigenous and indigenous communities and service
providers. ... the Tumbukka ATSIC Council has assisted in the creation of
linkages and forged valuable partnerships that have served to identify
culturally sensitive local solutions to indigenous issues.
The Government's abolition of ATSIC is premised on its
assertion that ATSIC ‘failed’. Balancing the strengths and weaknesses discussed
above, is this conclusion justified?
ATSIC must be judged against its objectives, which are
worth repeating here:
- to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander people in government policy formulation and
- to promote Indigenous self-management and
- to further Indigenous economic, social and
cultural development, and
- to ensure co-ordination of Commonwealth, state,
territory and local government policy affecting Indigenous people.
From the evidence this Committee has seen, ATSIC did
much to increase participation of Indigenous people and their engagement in the
political process, and in so doing, helped to create a new generation of
Indigenous leaders in communities across Australia.
Equally, many of ATSIC's programs in housing, culture, employment and community
programs undoubtedly achieved a great deal. In these respects, ATSIC was
clearly not a failure.
ATSIC's success or failure in respect of the other
criteria is harder to judge. A crucial focus for ATSIC has been the formulation
of policy and the provision of policy advice to government, and its expert role
in this regard has been extremely important. The Committee, however, does not
have the resources to make a detailed examination of, and judgement on, the quality,
timeliness, and effectiveness of ATSIC's efforts in providing policy advice and
coordinating government policy.
What is clear though, is that at a national level, our
institutions, policies and programs have failed Indigenous people. While there
is evidence of slow but steady improvement across many of the key indicators, relative to the wider Australian
community Indigenous people still lag far behind.
This is clearly not solely ATSIC's fault. The overall
failure of public policy to successfully overcome the grave disadvantage
suffered by Australia’s
Indigenous people is not a sign that ATSIC itself has ‘failed’. Nor, indeed, is it a sign that the broader
policy of self-determination is a failure. The challenges faced by
public policy, and those responsible for it, in this area are significant
because the disadvantage is so severe and far-reaching, and has so many complex
causes. The fact that Indigenous disadvantage has yet to be overcome is not
proof that any agency or individual has ‘failed’. In relation to exactly who is
responsible for the failures in addressing Indigenous disadvantage, Dr
Shergold made the following comments to the
I do not think the failure of public policy can be attributed to
a single person: the CEO of ATSIC, the chair of ATSIC, the minister for
Indigenous affairs. This has been a challenge for public policy to find ways to
try and overcome the appalling, deep-seated socioeconomic disadvantage faced by
Indigenous Australians. The aim is to keep trying to find better ways of
delivering. I am not saying that ATSIC alone has been a failure. During the
time that I was there I was fortunate to see the most extraordinary leadership
provided to ATSIC, and I think that some of the things ATSIC did were of a high
order and, in an auditing sense, with a high level of accountability.
There was additional evidence that mitigates ATSIC's
responsibility for what some regard as its failure in areas of governance. As previously
discussed, the ATSIC was structured using a Western system of governance. It
was inevitable that it would take some time for many of those running ATSIC to
come to terms with this foreign and culturally quite different system of
governance. This was well illustrated in evidence given by the ATSIC Review
ATSIC was in our view, set up to fail. ... I use a comparison. If
a local tennis club, with people of limited skills and limited education, were
given millions of dollars and asked to run the Australian Open.
That is exactly what happened, in a sense, with ATSIC. A large
amount was expected of them, when they did not have the capacity and skills to
do it. Very little was put in place to ensure that they were given or could
develop the skills.
The lack of sufficient resources to facilitate capacity
building has been highlighted in several of the recommendations in previous
reviews discussed in this chapter.
The Committee also acknowledges that in many respects,
where ATSIC has been criticised, apparent weaknesses or failures have been due
to a lack of institutional 'muscle' - in a formal sense - to achieve its
objectives. ATSIC never had the power to insist that its policy advice be
accepted, nor did it have the authority to compel better coordination of
activities by other Commonwealth agencies, let alone state or territory
agencies. In this respect, it is perhaps better to conclude that ATSIC's
objectives were from the start over-optimistic and unachievable, when set
against the legal ‘muscle’ available to the body.
Nevertheless, as the central Indigenous national
organisation, with responsibility for administering up to half of the
Commonwealth Indigenous specific funds, ATSIC must clearly share part of the
blame for the poor outcomes. As the ATSIC Review found, ATSIC had a number of
significant problems and needed change.
the Committee cannot agree with the Government's assertion that ATSIC has
failed, it can agree with the wider conclusion that the national policy
settings in Indigenous affairs have failed Indigenous people.
Minister stated during his Second Reading speech: 'No one can say that the
current approach is working.' While
this is true, it is important that there is a thorough assessment of the
'current approach' before jumping to the conclusion. The Committee does not
accept that the approach of self-determination and recognition of Indigenous
rights has been responsible for the failure to address Indigenous disadvantage.
International evidence would in fact suggest that recognition and empowerment
of Indigenous people are fundamental to addressing material disadvantage.
Committee considers that national performance in Indigenous affairs should be
carefully, continuously, and transparently monitored. The Government as a whole
must be held accountable. A recommendation presented later in this report goes
to this issue.