On 30 June 2005, the life of a young visionary was snuffed out by straighteners and frowners. With the disbanding of ATSIC’s regional councils, the great dream of Indigenous Australians exercising real control over their lives was gone.
Some fifteen years earlier, Australia had stepped proudly to the front of the pack of Western nations struggling to deal fairly with their original inhabitants. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was legislated into existence on 5 March 1990. Arrangements were made to transfer executive control of a budget of over one billion dollars to the elected representatives of Indigenous Australians.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
But this was bigger than budgets. This was about leadership, and Indigenous people shaping their own destiny. Self-determination as practice, rather than mere theory. This was about respect, recognition and justice. It all came crashing down in March 2005, when parliament acted to abolish the Commission.
In the wash-up, ATSIC was a flawed organisation, of that there is no doubt. The same is true of the United Nations. The UN has truckloads of detractors lining up to point out that it hasn’t yet achieved equitable distribution of resources, eradication of disease, universal education, and world peace. These failings, they contend, make the body an expensive waste of time. Perhaps this is the lot of organisations that dare to dream great dreams.
As the government began to apply the thumbscrews to ATSIC, the stormy figure of twice-elected ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark was never far from centre stage. This seasoned campaigner had done the hard yards. He emerged as a leader at a time when Aboriginal people who were pushed needed to push back just as hard, or risk getting walked all over.
Clark was the subject of all manner of serious allegations. However, Australians accused of criminal wrongdoing are entitled to the presumption of innocence and due process. Those charged with crimes are put on trial: hopefully in a court, rather than a newspaper.
By mid-2003 the government was consumed with fear and loathing for ATSIC. It seemed that Senator Vanstone had had enough. Clark was going to go, and if ATSIC itself became collateral damage then so much the better.
Fast forward to 2004 and the ALP’s newly elected leader, Mark Latham. The man who would be prime minister was bleeding badly following ill-considered statements about his intentions for Australian troops in Iraq. ‘Bring the boys home for Christmas’ had a nice ring to it – but the idea was quickly exposed as unworkable by Howard Government strategists. The Latham bandwagon began to look rickety. A barbeque-stopper was needed to get things back on track.
So in the manner of pots abusing kettles, the ALP suddenly announced that ATSIC was a dysfunctional organisation that had to be done away with. The Prime Minister wasn’t about to conduct a dental examination of this gift horse. ATSIC was finished.
The Commission was always going to struggle in the face of the mainstream media’s insatiable appetite for ‘black corruption’ stories. Anticipating this infatuation, the ATSIC Act had created an Office of Evaluation and Audit. This independent statutory office – without parallel in public bureaucracy – signalled the government’s determination to ensure integrity and transparency. But it was never going to be enough.
In his thoughtful account Taking a Stand, former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Robert Tickner notes with incredulity that allegations of corruption in a Tenant Creek Aboriginal health service made the front page of The Australian. Tickner wonders whether similar allegations against Tenant Creek Hospital would rate even a few column inches on page nine.
Some of ATSIC’s harshest critics were themselves Indigenous. Sadly, much of the broader Australian community has only a two-dimensional understanding of Aboriginal Australia. The fact that black Australians – like white Australians – hold a diverse and shifting range of political views still surprises many of us.
When NRMA members attacked their own organisation it was called healthy debate. But when Indigenous Australians criticised their elected body, it was proof positive of terminal incompetence and corruption.
State governments around the country have made an art form of weaving away from their duty to provide health, housing and education services to all their citizens. ATSIC became a handy whipping boy for administrations who found their responsibilities to Indigenous Australians all too hard.
The Commission was only ever intended to provide supplementary funding for services. But middle Australia could never be made to understand this, because governments never tried to explain it. There are no votes in blackfellas.
In a remarkable sleight of hand, responsibility for the spectacular failure of government policy in Indigenous affairs has been laid squarely at the feet of the victims.
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