ATSIC: Flaws in the Machine.
©15th November 1999.
The recent elections for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) have again resulted in a poor voter turnout, indeed, even worse than the previous elections in 1996. That year 49,500 out of a population of about 400,000 voted, whilst in 1999 voter turnout was 48,000. This means that in its ten years of existence ATSIC has had the active endorsement of, at most, 13% of the national indigenous populace. These figures seem to confirm the low regard in which ATSIC is held by most Aboriginal peoples, and perhaps in part explains why ATSIC is almost universally known in indigenous communities as "Aborigines Talking Shit In Canberra".
Given ongoing Koori voter resistance to participating in ATSIC elections, it seems appropriate to ask some questions about the organisation; its credibility, history, structure and whether it has a mandate to represent Aboriginal interests. Most Australians seem to have no problem comprehending that the anti-independence groups in East Timor have no credible mandate to speak on behalf of the majority of people in that land. Yet, when ATSIC is only able to attract a similar level of electoral support, the Australian government, through its Department of Foreign Affairs, boasts to the world that,
The credibility gap that stems from lack of a mandate is only one of many contradictions that raise questions about ATSIC. However, I contend that most of the problems that ATSIC has faced in its short existence derive from the history of its evolution and the nature of its creation. In this paper I propose to address some of these questions with a brief look at the evolution of ATSIC in its historical context. I will examine the general history of Commonwealth government involvement in Aboriginal affairs since the 1967 referendum, and observe how the political machinations of successive Federal administrations, of all political persuasions, functioned to deprive Aboriginal people of their right to self-determination.
Finally, I conclude that ATSIC is merely the latest policy fiasco in a long history of similar failures, and that until Aboriginal Affairs policy makers can understand the mistakes made in the conceptual evolution and creation of ATSIC, then indigenous people are faced with frequent further fiascos in he future.
The Commonwealth Government and Aboriginal Affairs
From 1937 until 1972 the policy of all governments and all main political parties in Australia was assimilation. The broad thrust of this policy was stated at a 1961 ministerial meeting,
The earliest involvement in Aboriginal affairs on the part of the Commonwealth government was on 2nd November 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the historic 1967 referendum on Aborigines, when Prime Minister Harold Holt established a Council of Aboriginal Affairs (CAA). This Council was comprised of a group of non-indigenous male 'Aboriginal experts', namely, economist Dr. H.C. ("Nugget") Coombs, ANU anthropologist Professor W.E. Stanner, and a senior Foreign Affairs diplomat with "experience in countries with indigenous and ethnic minorities", Mr. Barry Dexter. The CAA was to function as a powerful, almost clandestine, agency that exercised considerable influence over federal Aboriginal affairs for more than a decade.
The 1967 Referendum clearly showed that the Australian people sought an improvement in the socio- economic and political status of indigenous people. By voting for the Commonwealth to assume responsibility for Aboriginal affairs they expected Canberra to do something about the racist legislation of each of the States and the general deprivation that the majority of Aboriginal people endured. But the Commonwealth government did not immediately assume responsibility and as most State governments began repealing their Aboriginal Protection Acts from 1968, many Aboriginal people were left in a political vacuum that severely exacerbated their living conditions, and social/health status. This in turn led to significant political upheaval in indigenous communities, most significantly (but not exclusively) in the urban centres of southeast Australia.
1972 - 1975 Whitlam, Bryant and the NACC
After the dramatic events at the Aboriginal Embassy protest which seriously destabilised the McMahon Liberal government in January - June 1972, the incoming Whitlam Labor administration was determined to address the problem of 'Aboriginal rights'. At the ALP Federal Conference in 1971, after consultation with indigenous leaders, Whitlam had pushed through one of the most comprehensive Aboriginal Affairs policies of any political party till then. It called for the Commonwealth to assume the full responsibility for Aboriginal affairs that had been called for in the 1967 Referendum, thus enabling Commonwealth monies to be available to alleviate indigenous suffering. To administer these monies, the policy was that a 'full Aboriginal Affairs Department' would be established as part of the Commonwealth public service.
The old policy of assimilation was to be dispensed with, and a new one would embrace the notion of Self-Determination, which was, 'a policy which spoke of Aborigines eventually being able to decide the pace and nature of their own development where they would take a real and effective responsibility for their own affairs'. Indigenous people therefore had high expectations when the Whitlam government took office in 1972, and many activists felt that Koori peoples now had a chance to begin the formidable task of social, economic and political reconstruction of their communities.
The first year of the Whitlam Labor Government was a time of dramatic change,  with Cabinet making "well over a thousand decisions, at an average rate of twenty a week". In early 1973 the Whitlam Government became the first federal government to assume the responsibility for Aboriginal people it had been given in the 1967 referendum. In doing so it needed to establish a Commonwealth agency to administer the significant increase in federal monies that were about to be distributed in Aboriginal affairs. At the same time, Whitlam's first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Gordon Bryant, set out to create a national, elected Aboriginal and Islander consultative body to be a direct voice to government for Koori peoples.
Unfortunately, in those early months of the reformist Labor Government, the Prime Minister allowed his Minister Bryant to make several fundamental mistakes in the creation of the two Aboriginal administrative and representative bodies. The first was when the task of forming the body to administer and control the Federal funding was turned over to the Commonwealth public service that created the Dept of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA). The public servants created DAA in their own image; subject to the myriad of public service rules, regulations and archaic systems of job promotion. Furthermore, many senior staff of the new Department were drawn from the old State Protection Board personnel, or former colonial patrol officers from Papua-New Guinea and the Northern Territory. This resulted in the new department being almost exclusive non-Koori  and often insensitive and hostile to the needs and aspirations of a politically volatile Koori community.
The second mistake was that when Bryant decided to give Aboriginal people a formal voice through a nationally-elected 'consultative committee', he kept the development of the advisory body separate from the creation of the DAA. Thus an early opportunity to merge to the important functions together was lost. This allowed the two functions to simultaneously develop separately, and is one of the major reasons for the administrative malaise that has affected government administration of Aboriginal affairs ever since.
However, Bryant at least understood that despite Kooris winning the right to vote almost a decade before, the majority of Aboriginal and Islander people had chosen not to enrol on the Australian electoral roll. So, when Bryant wanted an elected national Aboriginal representative body, he knew the only practical way to do this to ensure every adult Koori in Australia would be able to participate, was to create a national Aboriginal electoral roll. And that is precisely what happened.
The Whitlam government's National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, was elected in 1973. The NACC was regarded by Koori people as more credible than the present day ATSIC, because the NACC elections saw more than 80% Aboriginal & Islander voter participation as a result of the specially created Koori electoral roll. (Which is not to say that the NACC system was perfect, as Michael Howard showed when he examined the 1973 election in Perth.) Today the mandatory requirement in all ATSIC elections, that only those enrolled on the Australian electoral roll may be a candidate or vote, has effectively excluded the majority of Aboriginal people from having a say. In addition, the very nature of the form of European "democracy'" being imposed on indigenous people is a major part of the problem.
Coombs felt that there were systems of representation that were much more compatible with indigenous culture that the ATSIC model, which he called 'mimicry of Australian electoral practice'. Sullivan refers also to the same problem and also points out that ATSIC does not attract 'prominent individuals with experience and knowledge' as candidates in its elections. One example of why that might be is in my own case; whereby I am unable to stand in ATSIC elections because of the requirement that I be on the Australian electoral roll, and yet, paradoxically, I was able to stand as a candidate for the Australian parliamentary seat of Jaga Jaga in the 1993 Federal election.
The problems inherent in both the concept and practice of the ATSIC electoral process are one of the primary causes of indigenous discontent with the organisation. Furthermore, it was ironic that the Hawke government, when finally establishing ATSIC with elections in 1990, chose not to utilise and upgrade the pre-existing Aboriginal electoral roll, but rather insisted that all Kooris who wanted to be involved should be on the Australian roll. Thus they placed an albatross on the neck of ATSIC that perpetuates the organisation's credibility problem to this day.
The Liberal Government 1975 - 1983
Meanwhile, in 1976 with the advent of the Fraser government, and just four years after DAA was established, indigenous disillusionment and general public concern with the Department's performance prompted then Minister, Ian Viner, to commission former diplomat David Hay to conduct a review into "The Delivery of Services Financed by the DAA". Hay's report was a damning litany of incompetence and bureaucratic bungling, and among other things he found that,
In context, this was not surprising because social expenditure in the years of the Whitlam government, as a percentage of all public expenditure, had increased from a level of 40% in 1964 to 55% by 1975. The dramatic increase in Aboriginal Affairs expenditure did not benefit the vast majority of neediest Kooris mainly because of DAA's aforementioned inability to properly administer its allocation of funds. This pattern was to continue through the Fraser Government years, with the DAA stumbling through one scandal and administrative blunder after another. In 1978 the Department was severely embarrassed by a Melbourne Koori education program receiving a grant from the Geneva-based, World Council of Churches, after DAA had arbitrarily stopped funding. Both the DAA and its succession of Ministers were the subject of relentless criticism by well-organised indigenous activists who had established an information centre in London and were orchestrating significant negative international publicity for the Australian government about issues such as Noonkanbah and Aboriginal health.
The World Council of Churches came back again to haunt the Liberal government in its dying years when, in July 1981, it sent a special team to investigate first hand the situation of indigenous Australians. The team's report, Justice for Aboriginal Australians, whilst more conservative than some activists might have liked, was nevertheless a damning indictment of Federal government policies on indigenous affairs. Further, as Collmann noted in 1981, 'Aborigines have become politically and economically subordinated to the welfare apparatus'. Thus, by the time Bob Hawke swept the Labor Party back to government, the credibility of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the eyes of indigenous people and the Australian public was very low indeed.
Under Pressure - Hawke, Keating and a Sleight of Hand
Bob Hawke came to power with grand promises to indigenous people, but rapidly there were signs of indigenous discontent as his Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding 'was soon accused of seeking to interfere in many aspects of Aboriginal matters in contradiction of his party's self determination ideal, and Aboriginal leaders began to call for his removal'. Holding was ultimately removed, but it was not until political pressure from the Koori community in the lead-up to the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations that the Hawke Labor Government sensed serious problems. By the end of 1987, Hawke was beginning to feel the heat of Aboriginal political agitation. Major political battles at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982, the World Council of Churches Report on racism in Australia, increasing public debate about indigenous deaths in custody and Aboriginal health statistics, as well as general threats of disruption to the bicentennial celebrations, had forced the Hawke Government to rush into the creation of ATSIC. On 10th December 1987, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gerry Hand, formally launched the new body with the publication of Foundations for the Future.
Such was the political expediency that drove the Government in its need to set up ATSIC, that Gerry Hand then embarked on a 'national consultation' of Aboriginal communities in a lightning trip around the country, holding '50 public meetings attended by over 6000 people'. There were numerous complaints about the manner of these 'consultations', whereby many indigenous communities told stories of the Minister 'flitting in' for 30 minutes and 'flitting out'. Concern was such that at one stage all major Victorian Aboriginal organisations united to send a telex to Hand stating that, 'It is imperative that the consultation process be a real one and that time be taken over deciding our future'.
Under pressure, Hand was forced to adjust his original concept of a limited ATSIC consisting of 28 regions to a wider version of 60 regions. Remarkably, this enabled the Minister to claim that Aboriginal people were in agreement with government proposals for the new body. Further Aboriginal dissent was all but stifled as Hawke and Hand continued to deflect public attention from Koori political groups who began to call for a boycott of the ATSIC elections.
The structure and process of ATSIC were flawed from the start because of the political opportunism and expediency involved in its creation. The need to create cosmetic change in the now notorious DAA, and the impending disastrous possibility of major indigenous demonstrations disrupting the Bicentennial Celebrations, as well as increasing international media attention on Australian race relations were all factors that pushed the Labor government into an ill-conceived ATSIC. There was also the considerable disquiet on the part of the Canberra Public Service mandarins and senior Labor officials about what Smith called the unwillingness 'to entertain such a wholesale indigenous supplanting of DAA', which is how ATSIC was regarded.
Consequently the organisation began with the same inherent fault as the old NACC, namely that it was created with an administrative wing and a separate, elected, indigenous representative wing. This set the stage for the inevitable bunfight over which wing would have the say over allocation of resources and control of the process. To preside over the arena was the non-elected, Ministerially appointed Chairperson of ATSIC, who also happened to be a product of the Canberra public service, and would be the only full-time Commissioner. This meant that the only representative of the elected body who would be in Canberra full-time to monitor their interests would be the Minister's chosen one. With a 'three-card-trick', the Labor government had effectively emasculated the representative wing of ATSIC before the elections were even held.
Finally, in 1990 the first ATSIC elections resulted in less than 30% of eligible Aboriginal and Islander people nationally participating. In Sydney, the largest Koori community in Australia, out of a community estimated at 35,000, less than 1000 voted. On one hand Koori activist groups, such as the Melbourne- based ATSIC Reform Group (ARG), that had called for a boycott of the election, hailed the 70% stay-away rate as a great success, while the Minister declared the 30% voter turnout as, 'a great success for democracy'. The eligible voter turnout rates seem to be essentially the same to this day, further highlighting the need for an alternative voting system if ATSIC is to ever gain a credible mandate.
But in 1990, before any elections were held for the Koori representatives, all existing public servants in DAA (predominantly non-Kooris) were offered more lucrative and ironclad contracts with the proposed new body. This resulted in a situation whereby, when the elected representatives got to Canberra they were presented with a fait-accompli administrative structure and system over which they had had no input to its creation. Furthermore, they were then placed in a 'seminar' environment and given instructions on how the public servants would now administer the new system. In other words they were told that the tail was to wag the dog and there was nothing they could do to change it.
In conclusion, what I have tried to analyse are the flaws in the basic concept and structure of ATSIC, both when it was formed and that persist until now. Today ATSIC's representative structure consists of the Board of Commissioners and 35 Regional Councils, and because of low voter turnout some of these representatives were declared elected with as few as 20 votes. Because these Regional Councillors today have influence over local ATSIC funding decisions, their perceived lack of a mandate will continue to create division and disharmony in both the indigenous and general communities.
Until governments begin to properly consider the inherent contradictions that persist within ATSIC, we can only expect more inept administration and conflict, which will feed the waiting sharks like One Nation, to the ongoing detriment of the Koori community. Governments should even question whether a large bureaucracy with centralised decision making and administration is really appropriate for, or consistent with, the decentralised community and family structures of Koori Australia. But, sadly, I suspect that all of these issues will remain in the too hard basket for some considerable time yet, thus condemning another generation of Kooris to the same old neglect and denial of self-determination that has formed the greater part of their peoples' history since the First Fleet.
1. HC Coombs, Remembering the Roots: Lessons for ATSIC, in Patrick Sullivan,(Ed.) Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, North Australia Research Unit, ANU, Darwin, 1996, p. 12.
2. Australian Electoral Commission, ATSIC 1996 Election Results, Electoral Newsfile No.60, AEC, Canberra, December 1996., also, Indigenous Liaison Officer, Australian Electoral Commission, Interview with author, 10 Nov 1999.
3. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), statement by Mr. Colin Milner on self-determination on behalf of Australian Government Delegation to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations 11th session, agenda item 4, standard setting activities: evolution of standards concerning the rights of indigenous populations (draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), 1993.
4. Native Welfare Conference, The Policy of Assimilation. Decisions of the Commonwealth and State Ministers at the Native Welfare Conference, Canberra., Commonwealth Government Printer, 1961.
5. H.C. Coombs and C.J. Robinson, Remembering the Roots: Lessons for ATSIC, in Patrick Sullivan, (Ed.) Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, North Australia Research Unit, ANU, Darwin, 1996, p.2.
6. As depicted in Ningla-Ana, 90min. B&W, dir. A. Cavadini, 1973.
7. Scott Bennett, Parties and Their Policies, in Aborigines and Political Power, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989, p. 24.
8. For details on how this dramatically affected the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio, see, Lorna Lippmann, The Aborigines, in Allan Patience & Brian Head (Eds), From Whitlam to Fraser: Reform and Reaction in Australian Politics, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1979, pp. 175-181.
9. Robert Manne, The Whitlam Revolution, in Robert Manne (Ed.) The Australian Century: Political Struggle in the Building of a Nation, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999, p. 188.
10. McGuinness, Bruce, Personal interview with the author, 1995
11. Lorna Lippmann, The Aborigines, in Allan Patience & Brian Head (Eds), From Whitlam to Fraser: Reform and Reaction in Australian Politics, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1979.
12. Ibid. - Only 3 Kooris were employed by DAA by mid-1973. They were Reg Saunders, Margaret Lawrie and Charles Perkins.
13. Gary Foley, A History of the Aboriginal Medical Service: A study in bureaucratic obstruction, AMS Redfern, Sydney, 1973.
14. Indigenous Liaison Officer, Australian Electoral Commission, Interview with author, 10 Nov 1999.
16. Howard, Michael, Aboriginal political change in an urban setting: the N.A.C.C. election in Perth, Berndt, R.M., (Ed) Aborigines and Change: Australia in the '70s, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1977, pp. 371 -372
17.HC Coombs, Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1994, p. 183.
18. Patrick Sullivan, All Things to All People: ATSIC and Australia's international obligation to uphold indigenous self-determination, in Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, North Australia Research Unit, ANU, Darwin, 1996, p. 125.
19. David Hay, The Delivery of Services Financed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, p. 52.
20. Robert Manne, The Whitlam Revolution, in Robert Manne (Ed.) The Australian Century: Political Struggle in the Building of a Nation, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999, p. 191.
21. Alan Rowe, Grant revives black studies, The Herald, Melbourne, 26 September 1978, also Church Cash Rescues Blacks' Course, Age, Melbourne, 27 September 1978.
22. Mark Metherell, Blacks putting case overseas, Age, Melbourne, 27 August 1980, and Paul Robinson, 'Network' directs overseas protest for blacks, Age, Melbourne, 9 September 1980.
23. Elizabeth Adler, Anwar Barkat, Bena-Silu, Quince Duncan, Pauline Webb, Justice for Aboriginal Australians: Report of the World Council of Churches team visit to the Aborigines June 15 to July 3 1981, Australian Council of Churches, Sydney, 1981. ISBN 085821 028.
24. J.Collmann, Clients, Cooptation and Bureaucratic Discipline, Social Analysis 9, 1981.
25. Scott Bennett, Parties and Their Policies, Aborigines and Political Power, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989 , p. 25.
27. Diane Smith, From Cultural Diversity to Regionalism, in Patrick Sullivan, (Ed.), Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, North Australia Research Unit, ANU, Darwin, 1996, p. 23.
28. Ibid. p. 23.
29. Personal interview by author with Robbie Thorpe, Melbourne, 1995.
30. Aborigines Advancement League, Newsletter, Melbourne, April 1988.
31. Smith, 1996, p. 25.
32. ATSIC Reform Group papers, Foley Archive, 1989
33. Australian Electoral Commission, 1999 ATSIC Regional Council Elections: Results, AEC, Melbourne, 1999.
The Auditor-General,Special Audit Report: The Aboriginal Development Commission and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, AGPS, Canberra, 1989.
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Aborigines Advancement League, Victims or Victors?: The Story of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1985.
Elizabeth Adler, Anwar Barkat, Bena-Silu, Quince Duncan, Pauline Webb, Justice for Aboriginal Australians: Report of the World Council of Churches team visit to the Aborigines June 15 to July 3 1981, Australian Council of Churches, Sydney, 1981. ISBN 085821 028.
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