Koori History Newspaper Archive

Clark's mob rule

Courier Mail - Monday, December 27, 1999
Author: Mark Ludlow

The tough new head of ATSIC, Geoff Clark, will take plenty of heat, not least from the Federal Government, writes Mark Ludlow

`WHERE'S our honeymoon?'' the spokesman from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission asked.

But as the newly appointed ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark has discovered in the past week, there is no time for honeymoons in the highly scrutinised arena of Aboriginal politics.

ATSIC has been in the bunkers in the past week following the controversial election of Clark, the self-labelled radical activist.

There has been a flurry of interest in the man who holds the highest indigenous position in the land. Not least because the big, burly Clark, with his pale complexion and rough-hewn features, is in stark contrast to the dark and dignified former ATSIC chairman Gatjil Djerrkura.

And, there's the erratic and chequered past of Clark -- the former heavyweight boxer and Australian Rules footballer and land rights activist.

In the past week, there have been several newspaper articles questioning the ability of Clark -- who has been involved in his fair share of controversy -- to lead constructive dialogue with the Federal Government.

The speculation has taken its toll on the big man, who will be under the spotlight for the next three years as the first fully elected ATSIC chairman.

Refusing to grant any more media interviews, Clark was holed up at his home in the Framlingham Aboriginal Community in western Victoria, near Warrnambool, for most of this week.

Clark did find the time to meet secretly with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron at Framlingham on Tuesday.

In his preliminary discussions with Herron, Clark may have also tried to quell some of the Government's unease over dealing with the man who called for the minister's sacking in October 1998, claiming he ``simply won't listen to us''.

Herron is giving Clark the benefit of the doubt as the new chairman begins his daunting task, declaring he was ``looking forward to continuing a good working relationship'' with him.

But things are expected to heat up over the negotiating table next year.

The election of Clark to ATSIC chairman -- leapfrogging the two favourites, outgoing chairman Djerrkura, and perennial activist Charles Perkins -- surprised many.

Clark, who helped form the Aboriginal Provisional Government with Tasmanian activist Michael Mansell, had put his hand up for the position, but no one seriously thought he'd win.

His unlikely victory came about after a last-minute deal between Djerrkura and Clark, which gave Clark the former chairman's preferences -- effectively ruling Perkins out of the race.

The knives were out pretty much straight away. ``Too radical, too hard and non-conciliatory.''

Clark suffers from people's first impressions of him. The former boxer and footballer is, without a doubt, intimidating, an attribute he has used to his advantage to get his message across.

The son of a white wharfie and an Aboriginal mother, Clark was raised by his grandmother at Framlingham. His fair skin has made him an easy target for critics who question his Aboriginality.

He has copped it all his life and it is something which he deflects with ease.

Asked a carefully worded question at a press conference in Canberra after his election, Clark replied matter-of-factly: ``Let me just make it very clear to people here, there shouldn't be any illusions about the darkness of the person, as opposed to the indigenousness of the person. The fact is we are one people, we are one mob in this country.''

As a member of the Tjapwuurrong tribe of western Victoria, he still lives at Framlingham where he was administrator of the Framlingham Aboriginal Trust for 17 years before his election as ATSIC commissioner in 1996.

But it is his involvement in land rights and native title where he has made his name and enemies. He has been involved in numerous delegations to the United Nations to try to enforce Australia's obligations to international treaties.

He was deputy chairman of the Aboriginal Provisional Government, a group which has rejected so-called white sovereignty over Australian land.

He was a member of the ``B-team'' with Aden Ridgeway and lawyer and Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell, along with the ``A'-team'' (Aboriginal lawyer and leader Noel Pearson ), who he helped strike a deal with the Keating government over the Mabo legislation.

For the past three years, he has been the ATSIC commissioner responsible for native title and land rights.

Clark also doesn't shy away from saying what he believes or attacking governments.

In October, 1998, he asked Prime Minister John Howard to sack Herron. He also accused Howard of pandering to One Nation during the 1998 election campaign over the Government's plans to restructure ATSIC.

Clark has been a passionate supporter of the Stolen Generation cause and was the first ATSIC commissioner to visit and show his support to the Tent Embassy in Canberra after protests earlier this year.

CLARK was also part of an Aboriginal delegation that was stopped from leaving Australia in October 1997 because they insisted on using their Aboriginal passports.

Clark has never shied away from the radical label. In fact, he embraces it.

``I've made no secret about my quest for indigenous rights of my people. That's fundamental for us to overcome disadvantage,'' he says.

Clark cites the return of land to Aboriginal people as his priority as chairman.

``Land is fundamental to indigenous people and I believe there is unfinished business there in relation to the state regime (on native title ),'' he says.

But the new chairman has been criticised for having a blinkered view, focusing on land rights, rather than providing social services for Aborigines.

``Land rights is yesterday's business. It has been fought and mostly won,'' says one ATSIC commissioner.

Many see the issue of handing back land or even granting mining royalties as doing nothing to solve Aboriginal social problems. It is a criticism which Clark and ATSIC deny, saying the new chairman can focus on the dual issues of rights and indigenous disadvantage.

ATSIC vehemently defends its land rights role, saying it has always been involved through its own land rights branch and with the implementation of the Northern Territory Land Act.

ATSIC is not the principal body for services, such as housing -- that is the state's role, it says. It argues ATSIC has only stepped in because the states have failed in that role.

Clark's support for Murrandoo Yanner has also put some people off-side. Yanner won the right to serve on the ATSIC board as a commissioner but was rejected by Herron because of a conviction over a violent pub brawl in north-western Queensland in 1997.

Yanner, who recently received an 18-month suspended sentence for four ``vicious'' assaults, is appealing to the Federal Court over his disqualification. Under the ATSIC Act, a person is ineligible to run for either commissioner or regional councillor if he or she was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for an offence.

The person becomes eligible after two years following their release from jail or, if the sentence was suspended, two years after their conviction.

Clark told reporters in Canberra that Yanner has the support of his constituents and the other members of the ATSIC board. They were contemplating changing the rules to allow him to serve his term as commissioner.

Aboriginal Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway says Clark's ``straight shooting'' nature is both his strength and weaknesses.

``What you see is what you get. And it has to be that type of dialogue with government,'' Ridgeway says.

But he warns that Clark is going to have to adapt to the different skills and styles that are required of a chairman.

``He just has to work out when to be radical and forthright and when to be reserved and diplomatic.''

Close friend and former ATSIC commissioner Terry O'Shane believes Clark has matured from when he was essentially a ``loose cannon'' where he could say ``outrageous things and never be accountable''.

O'Shane describes Clark as a ``good, easy bloke'' who will be a good chairman because he has a good ear and a strong hand.

Clark the man who comes across as the hard street-fighter, does have a softer side, according to his friends, to whom he is affectionately known as ``The Bear''.

Ridgeway says: ``He walks into the room with the grizzly exterior, but soon the warm interior comes out.''

But Clark's enemies have only seen the ugly side of the man, with some describing him as a ``bit of a cowboy'' while one prominent leader said he was a ``lunatic''.

Opposition Aboriginal Affairs spokesman Daryl Melham says Clark is respected but ``he has to mature, he can't go back to the old rhetoric''.

You make no friends being the head of ATSIC -- an organisation which is distrusted by Aborigines and government.

He may be the new face of Aboriginal leadership which is sadly needed and it may just be a case of sour grapes from his critics.

But it will be an endless tug-of-war between those who see ATSIC as a demoralised, gutted organisation that needs a sharp-shooter to take on the Federal Government and those who think ATSIC needs a reconciler who understands that the only way to move forward is to strike deals with the government that funds you.