This was published this month on ABC Unleashed
'If we are truly committed to the notion of self-determination, we cannot begin to pursue it without instruments of governance'.
These were the words of Jackie Huggins, who led the Review into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's (ATSIC) in 2003. Shortly after, ATSIC was disbanded. Although in 1996 Pauline Hanson had called for the abolition of ATSIC in her parliamentary maiden speech, it was the Labor party's opposition to ATSIC that catalysed the Coalition Government's legislation to remove the peak Indigenous body in 2004. The legislation was swiftly passed without consultation with Indigenous peoples.
Since then, the absence of a national Indigenous representative body has meant the bi-partisan approach to Indigenous affairs, including towards the controversial Northern Territory Intervention, has avoided parliamentary scrutiny and rigorous debate. National Indigenous input would enhance the debate and improve policy outcomes, but only if lessons are learnt from the experience of the former ATSIC (1990-2004) and the National Indigenous Council (2004-2007).
Late last year the Australian Government signalled its commitment to forming a national Indigenous representative body. Its success will hinge on its representative nature, its independence, its capacity to guide service provision to Indigenous communities, and most importantly its ability to direct Indigenous policy setting. Essentially, if the national Indigenous body has no effective legislative function then its significance will be greatly diminished.
So, what was the nature of ATSIC and did it provide an effective channel for Indigenous representation? The Australian Government, led by Bob Hawke, formed ATSIC in 1990 after it abolished its predecessor, the National Aboriginal Conference, due to its antagonistic relations with the Government. At the time, the Government viewed ATSIC as an effective mechanism for self-determination as it combined representative and executive roles. Its governance structure was made up of thirty five regional councils (with over 400 councillors), the ATSIC Board (comprising 18 zone commissioners), and the Chair who was elected after 1999. It was backed by an administrative machine of several hundred public servants who were involved in research and service delivery. ATSIC's functions were to advise Governments at all levels; provide peak national and international advocacy for Australian Indigenous affairs, and deliver and monitor Indigenous programs and services.
From the outset, ATSIC and its relationship with the Australian Government was criticised from a range of standpoints. Supporters of Indigenous self-determination criticised ATSIC for its lack of autonomy from government and its failure to shape Indigenous affairs. They claimed that ATSIC's ministerial advice fell on deaf ears; that ATSIC's service delivery programs operated at the margins with the major portfolios of health and education run by mainstream agencies, that ATSIC produced a White bureaucracy because it was unable to employ its own staff, and that it was subject to extensive external reviews and onerous administrative compliance.
Others claimed that ATSIC was not properly representative, pointing to its lack of engagement with Indigenous communities. The final review of ATSIC in 2003 proposed the strengthening of regional councils to reduce the detachment of the national board from communities. Concerns were also raised about the under-representation of women in ATSIC, with fewer than 30 per cent women in ATSIC representative roles. Gary Foley argued that ATSIC was limited because it was modelled on White governance and only allowed the relatively few Indigenous people on the electoral roll to vote. Consequently, the voter turn-out for ATSIC was around 30 per cent. Ultimately, the Coalition dissolved ATSIC because it viewed mainstream service delivery to be more effective, and consistent with its ideological view of integration.
The Coalition Government replaced ATSIC with the National Indigenous Council (NIC) - a group of 12 Indigenous advisers who it hand-picked. The NIC was publicly denounced for its non-representative nature; minimal impact on Indigenous policy, and little engagement with Indigenous communities. Aden Ridgeway suggested the body was 'just another example of Howard Government window dressing to hide its lack of action and achievement in Indigenous Affairs'. Consequently, the Labor Government did not extend the contracts of the NIC advisers when they came to an end in late 2007.
Since then, lobbyists for Indigenous representation at a national level have been drawing up blue prints for a national Indigenous body. At the fore has been the proposal by the Australian Human Rights Commission for a National Congress of Australia's First Peoples in Our future in our hands. It appears as though the Australian Government will support its formation over the coming year. The Commission's proposal consists of a National Congress, which constitutes 128 delegates from across Australia. Some delegates will be appointed based on merit and other will be elected from Indigenous organisations. The Congress will then elect a National Executive of six part-time members and two full-time Chairs, with a requirement of 50 per cent female representation. In addition, an Ethics Council of senior Indigenous peoples to oversee the work of the National Congress.
On the face of it, the representative reach of this body appears more limited than that of ATSIC. Not only are there fewer 'representatives' and a much smaller Board, but it also does not have the same administrative capacity. Its proposed administrative team do not manage services, but consist of a CEO, finance staff, researchers, media staff and a secretariat. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, is nonetheless confident that the new body will work with Government to make sure services are properly tailored for Indigenous Australians. He also points to one relative strength of the Board - its budgetary independence from government. The National Congress will be established as a corporation and, like the hundreds of Indigenous associations across Australia, subject to the Australian Corporations Act. Commissioner Calma stresses that the body will strive for a truly independent character through self-funding based on investment income. Accordingly, the Commission is recommending that the Australian Government provide recurrent funding for the body over the initial five years from 2011 until it can rely on a stream of income from a $200 million Investment Fund for the National Indigenous Representative Body.
Proof of the effectiveness of this body will be in the parliamentary pudding. It will depend on its capacity to influence government decision making on Indigenous matters. When the Commission commented on the role of ATSIC in 2003 it stressed the need for it to create legally binding directions, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The Commission's current model encapsulates a watered down version of this proposal, with no such binding of the Government. It proposes:
• Systemic contact at Ministerial level and through the Council of Australian Governments
• Defined 'rules of engagement' managed by the National Representative Body and central agencies to ensure engagement across the full suite of policies of mutual interest.
The National Congress is likely to be criticised for being a lesser version of ATSIC. Its limited representation and capacity to deliver Indigenous services and programs will be seen as compromising self-governance. On the other side of politics, the National Congress' role in filling the void on national Indigenous representation will be rebuked for offering special rights to Indigenous peoples.
In the end, its success will be measured by its capacity to develop independent and critical positions and the willingness of Governments to engage with these positions. Without a responsive Government, the body will provide neither rights nor effective governance for Indigenous peoples.