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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Last Defiant Act From Australia's Sacked Indigenous Leaders

A battle has erupted between Australia's indigenous leaders and the federal government over what to do with the assets of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which is in the last throes of its existence following Canberra's decision late last year to abolish the organisation.

An elected body of indigenous representatives from throughout Australia, ATSIC was a limited form of indigenous self-governance charged with the provision of many and varied essential services to indigenous communities such as health, housing, recreational projects, media and some aspects of community education.

The escalating dispute is over what to do with around 40 million Australian dollars (31.5 million U.S. dollars) worth of ATSIC-owned property, including art and artifact collections, accumulated over 30 years and spread throughout 35 regional councils.

All this property will cease to exist as soon as the government formally disbands the organisation through an act of parliament, likely to pass when the new government-controlled Senate sits in July.

After the October elections, last year, the Howard government wrested control of both the lower and upper houses of parliament.

Prime Minister John Howard is abolishing ATSIC, which was established in the late 1980s, because he said it has ''become too preoccupied with symbolic issues''.

While many see symbolic issues, such as land rights and reconciliation with the white community, as fundamental to reversing the social disadvantage faced by indigenous Australians, others see them as less important than the practical and urgent need to tackle the day-to-day destruction of lives.

Life expectancy for the average indigenous male is 21 years less than it is for the total Australian male population. The community suffers disproportionately high rates of ill-health, imprisonment, unemployment, substance abuse and violence.

The government has indicated that will replace ATSIC with an advisory group of distinguished indigenous Australians who will help shape official policy. One controversial proposal will impose financial sanctions on parents who do not look after their children adequately, in an effort to end what the government calls 'passive welfare'.

This week, ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark, announced that the organisation's board had decided that assets would be transferred to remaining indigenous bodies and institutions. Soon after his announcement, federal government staff began arriving in removal trucks to seize the assets from office walls around the country, hiding works of art in secret locations ahead of a legal determination on their future.

A spokesperson for the immigration, multicultural and indigenous affairs minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, said the government was taking legal advice to ensure some 1.5 million Australian dollars (1.2 million U.S. dollars) worth of ATSIC's artworks were available for the ''ongoing benefit of indigenous communities''.

Other ATSIC assets include around 180 staff houses and several office buildings in major centres around the country. The government is awaiting legal advice over whether they can be sold. ATSIC, in a board decision this week, had decided that these properties should be used by remaining indigenous organisations for - in Clark's words -- ''whatever purposes our people decide''.

The intention of the ATSIC Board is that its resources should be divested into community organisations, all of which are under-funded - and which will need to take up the slack when the indigenous body no longer exists.

''Who's going to be arguing now for the rights of our people? I've never known, nor heard of, an Aboriginal organisation that was over-funded. Our organisations can't even make five-year plans. They're struggling day-to-day just to continue to exist,'' Kimberley Hunter, chairperson of ATSIC's Yili Reung Regional Council, which covers the Darwin region of the Northern Territory, told IPS.

''The community organisations need to be able to be resilient, to stand strong in the face of lean times ahead,'' added Hunter.

But critics of ATSIC say that it has been corrupt, inefficient and unaccountable and had lost the confidence of many indigenous people.

There is some justification for the criticism.

Elections of ATSIC representatives have not always been democratic and transparent and, according to Senator Vanstone, ''80 percent of those entitled to vote didn't think it was worth it''.

Conducted as a voluntary, optional preferential system of multi-member wards, the voting system was similar to the Australian Senate voting system, the difference being that there were no penalties for not voting - unlike the national electoral system where voting is compulsory.

Given that small numbers of voters decided the outcome of representation, all it took to pervert the system is for a candidate to have access to transport so that they can take large numbers of family members to polling stations to vote.

The vast majority of indigenous people, especially in remote areas, do not have access to vehicular transport. Then, if one family group is well represented in the ATSIC process, non- represented community members can be further marginalised, reducing the likelihood of their involvement in the electoral system.

Consequently, funding priorities were able to be decided in favour of those with adequate representation. In a very real sense, ATSIC could be described as being set up to fail, particularly when the enormity of the problems confronting indigenous Australia could never be adequately addressed by one organisation not completely representative of all indigenous nations.

The demise of ATSIC, while it is well underway, is also the subject of a Senate inquiry that is due to report its findings on Mar. 8.

The terms of the inquiry are to report on the provisions of the ATSIC bill and the proposed administration of indigenous programmes and services by mainstream departments and agencies. So far, the major theme amongst evidence given to the inquiry by hundreds of indigenous people and organisations from across Australia is that ATSIC regional councils should continue to exist until communities can decide themselves what kind of structure should replace the body.

''There needs to be a national indigenous voice. The abolition of ATSIC is just one more step in this government's dismissal of indigenous issues. They knocked reconciliation off the agenda. They knocked treaty off the agenda and now they've knocked ATSIC off the agenda,'' Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, a member of the Senate inquiry into ATSIC, told IPS.

Abolishing ATSIC will result in a significant increase in funding to states and territories as services are mainstreamed into existing non-indigenous departments, and through activities described as ''shared responsibility agreements''.

The first example of this was an agreement reached between the federal government and the community of Mulan, a small, indigenous community in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia. In exchange for the Mulan community's commitment to ensure children had daily showers and washed their faces and hands before eating, the government provided a petrol bowser so that community members could access fuel.

But as Hunter said: ''The government's lost sight of the fact that we don't all start from the same place. Mainstreaming indigenous services forgets the reality that, generally, indigenous people start from an underprivileged position far behind their non-indigenous counterparts.''

This article was published by the Inter Press Service

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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