Government attempts coup d'etat at ATSIC
ATSIC hits back
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is under the most concerted attack in its history with the Howard Government setting up an agency with a brief to strip ATSIC of its funding. This agency has been put in place ahead of the conclusion of a Government-commissioned review of ATSIC and will essentially make any findings of that review redundant. ATSIC's staff is to be cut from 1300 to 20, with those remaining to be moved on to a new board run by the agency, to be known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services. The new board and all monies will be under the control of Government appointee Wayne Gibbons as chief executive officer. Gibbons is to replace the 18 elected board members and 400 elected regional councillors as the organisation's ultimate authority. In the lead up to the coup, which has bee n brewing since the Howard Government first took office, ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark and ATSIC Deputy Chairman Ray Robinson released the following statement: It's time the mainstream media and the Federal Government stopped using the (ATSIC) as the 'whipping post' for every problem in Aboriginal Australia. It's time they got their collective foot off our neck and came clean on who is responsible for the Third World conditions in our communities. ATSIC is not responsible for the provision of essential services in health, housing, education and employment. The media know this but do not report it. Why? Minister Ruddock knows but rarely says a word in defence of this organisation. All Indigenous people ought to ask themselves why the mainstream media and mainstream politicians want to white-ant ATSIC? We have issued this statement because it is time our people stood up and got some real facts on the table. We need to let it be known that mainstream State and Territory governments are happy to sit back and let us take all the public blame for their failures but privately let us shoulder more and more of their responsibility in delivering essential services to our people. We ought to be asking why it is that the minister for ATSIC is happy to move, as he has done so often in recent months, against this organisation ands its leaders, based entirely on "perceptions". What about facts, Minister? We wonder why he had never moved to close down a detention centre, given the widespread perception among large sections of the Australian community that asylum seekers are treated inhumanly in those centres? Despite 12 short years of existence, ATSIC has delivered more to the Indigenous people than any government, Federal, State or Territory, in 200 years of colonial rule. The current ATSIC model is the best we have. We need to unite to protect and build on it. Has one ATSIC critic ever put up a better model, which delivers more power to our people? We urge all members of the ATSIC elected arm to categorically reject any move by Minister Ruddock or those working for him, to take any powers off the duly elected ATSIC Board ahead of his own review into the organisation. We are happy to work with that review. We have stated so publicly. For the Minister to now suggest he will move on separation of powers on the basis of "perceptions" before the review has even had time to canvass such a threshold issue is an insult to both the consultation process now under way with our people and to the review team itself. We are heartily sick and tired of media reports suggesting a bitter feud between us is making ATSIC dysfunctional. This is rubbish. ATSIC is not dysfunctional. We have a number of political differences, as do most mainstream political leaders. We are able to put them aside and work together to deliver better outcomes for our people. Anyone with more than a passing interest in ATSIC knows that the first fully-elected Board of ATSIC got more work done at the coalface than any other before it. We are honoured to have been elected as chairman and deputy chairman to that board and to have been re-elected to the current Board of Commissioners. The first elected board recognised that we needed to make the States and Territories accountable for their failure in delivering basic services to our people. The Commonwealth cannot. We can. That's why we put aside our political differences with them and signed essential-service agreements with every State and Territory government during the last term of the board. We will focus during this term on their implementation. Aboriginal people are not concerned about what they read in The Australian or the Brisbane Courier Mail. Both newspapers sell few copies in our communities. Our constituents are more interested in the fact that ATSIC has, time and again, been forced to step in and provide the services to their constituents because the Commonwealth, States and Territories have not accepted their responsibilities. This is the real debate in Indigenous affairs. The fact is the Commonwealth cannot make the funders of first resort — the States and Territories — accountable for their expenditure in providing basic services to their Indigenous citizens. No one has to take our word for it. They need look no further than the latest report from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) on ATSIC's management of the $860 million in grants it provides to Indigenous organisations around Australia to provide such services. These funds are contained within the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP) and CDEP, the two programs the mainstream media repeatedly suggest should be taken from ATSIC. The report blows a huge hole in the central core of their logic. The ANAO said ATSIC's financial management of more than $860 million in grants was sound. It clearly stated the real problem for ATSIC was the fact that it was being forced into providing supplementary funding because the State and Territories would not accept their responsibilities in this regard. The recent Commonwealth Grants Commission report into Indigenous funding made it clear that ATSIC's major program — CHIP — was the best-targeted Indigenous assistance program in Australia. That program is now delivering housing and essential services to more than 40,000 people in 600 communities around the country. The Grants Commission also reinforced the fact that it was mainstream government programs that failed to meet the needs of Indigenous Australians. The Australian National Audit Office has recently given ATSIC its ninth unqualified audit, yet our critics say millions of dollars are being squandered. "Misinformed bile" Why, then, are they not calling for the abolition of the Australian National Audit Office, or the abolition of the Commonwealth Grants Commission? From our viewpoint all of their misinformed bile is reserved for ATSIC. One only has to take a moment to realise those who lobby for ATSIC to lose its programs want less accountability, not more. They want those programs taken from the most scrutinised agency in the country and handed over to the States and Territories, the least scrutinised in the country in terms of delivering outcomes for our people. ATSIC is not perfect. Show us a Commonwealth, State or Territory agency that is. But we are not dysfunctional. There are due processes in place for dealing with the personal problems we both face. Those processes should be allowed to run their course, or are we also to accept that the presumption of innocence is not something blackfellas can expect from the white justice system? The media is free to attack ATSIC. But freedom of the press is a two-edged sward. The media have a responsibility to report the facts, not lies and prejudices. They can continue to white-ant ATSIC as much as they like but we call on all our fellow members of the elected arm to fight for more power for our people against those who wish to take it away. The best way to start is to bring the real accountability debate in Indigenous affairs out into the open and to call on the Commonwealth Government to let the review and legal processes run their proper course. ATSIC's programs provide it with the leverage it requires to get the Commonwealth, State and Territories to the negotiating table. We repeat that leverage has, and is being, well used by ATSIC to forge agreements with State and Territory governments across the country. Take those away and ATSIC loses its power as the only Commonwealth agency able to hold the States and Territories to account. Now that would be a tragedy. No one should ever forget that despite what the politicians and the mainstream media say, the recent ATSIC election resulted in a record turnout of more than 50,000 voters, record nominations and a substantial increase in new voters (7600 enrolled in 10 weeks). ATSIC is clearly increasing its relevance to Aboriginal Australia. Those are 50,000 solid reasons why we need to defend our record against those who, for their own reasons, continually seek to diminish a proud record of achievement on the ground for our people.