There are rumblings in the ranks of the National Indigenous Council (NIC), the Howard Government’s hand-picked advisory body on Aboriginal Affairs. In recent weeks, one councillor has resigned in protest, and another has declined to seek a further term.
In his December headland speech ‘Blueprint for Action in Indigenous Affairs’ the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, made only a single generic reference to the NIC, saying that his views were informed by their ‘vision.’ But there is mounting evidence to suggest that the councillors are not all happy campers.
Foundation NIC member, Joe Proctor, is the Chief Executive Officer of Indigenous Capital Ltd and a former board member of Indigenous Business Australia. In late November, Proctor quit the Council, telling The Australian that ‘Indigenous economic development was the number one priority identified by the NIC, yet nothing has been taken on board by the Government.’
Chairman of Indigenous Business Australia, Joseph Elu was also a member of the original Council. He has recently declined to renew his membership, but has made no statement.
Last month, NIC members reportedly considered a mass resignation over concerns that their submissions were not being seriously considered by the Howard Government. In an effort to shore up the cracks in his crumbling edifice, Brough has taken the unprecedented step of issuing an apology to the Council for his failure to work with them.
‘I feel like I’ve underutilised them absolutely, and I’m not blaming anyone else,’ said Brough, who has undertaken to use the Council ‘to the fullest extent’ in the future, and made further overtures to its members, assuring them that their voices will be heard.
But has the damage already been done?
The NIC had a troubled birth and struggled subsequently to establish its credibility. During the 2004 election campaign, Opposition leader Mark Latham announced that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) would be abolished if Labor won. Prime Minister John Howard, never a supporter of ATSIC, seized on the opportunity and ATSIC’s goose was cooked.
In August 2004, then Indigenous Affairs Minister, Amanda Vanstone, released a document called ‘New Arrangements for Indigenous Affairs‘ which announced the establishment of the NIC. Appointment onto the Council was to be based upon expertise and experience in particular policy areas. The NIC would be charged with the responsibility to advise on ‘priority areas for funding,’ alert the Government to ’emerging issues,’ and ‘promote constructive dialogue and engagement between government and Indigenous people and organisations.’
The Council was to be chaired by Sue Gordon, who in 1988 was appointed to the Perth Children’s Court and became the first Aboriginal magistrate in Western Australia. Gordon is widely respected for her expertise in matters of family violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities. The 14-member council also included Proctor, Elu and a number of other Indigenous professionals, many of whom were widely regarded as having a conservative bent. Wesley Aird, manager of the Eastern Yugambeh native title group, and a member of the board of the ultra conservative Bennelong Society, also got a guernsey.
Thanks to Bruce Petty
A surprise starter was ALP maverick Warren Mundine, who supplied much of the colour and movement in the NIC’s early days with his contentious comments about private home ownership on communally owned Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. ‘I was originally going to go on the NIC, raise a few issues, do a few things and then move off,’ Mundine told the National Indigenous Times earlier this year. ‘I probably stayed six months longer than I was planning to.’ Mundine was prevailed upon to step down from the NIC in early 2005 when he assumed the role of National President of the ALP.
But the make-up of the Council was most noticeable for the people who weren’t on it. The Government was keen to promote the new body as comprising Indigenous Australia’s ‘best and brightest’ and went out searching for talent. Former Essendon Football Club champion and Aboriginal justice campaigner, Michael Long, revealed that he had been asked to join the Council, but refused because of the perceived tokenism of the arrangements. ‘I don’t sell out,’ Long said at the time.
The father of reconciliation Pat Dodson also weighed in, suggesting that the Government had ‘copped out’ on giving Aboriginal people a ‘real say’ in their future. Dodson added that the Government had ‘taken away any real ability of Aboriginal people to influence the political direction of policies over our lives, and reduced us to being subordinates.’
Neither was Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson a likely candidate. Pearson said at the time: ‘I did not and do not support a non-elected structure.’ He elaborated on the issue for ABC TV’s 7:30 Report, telling them that NIC was a ‘step backwards’ and would be viewed as a ‘kitchen cabinet.’ Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway described the NIC as ‘just another example of Howard Government window dressing to hide its lack of action and achievements in Indigenous Affairs.’
Former ATSIC Chairman, Geoff Clark, isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But he was twice elected to the chair of the Commission by senior representatives of Indigenous Australia, themselves elected in a nationwide vote of Indigenous people. As a democratically elected, national representative body, ATSIC enjoyed a legitimacy which simply cannot be attained by the government-appointed members of the NIC, regardless of their unquestioned policy expertise.
Earlier this year I interviewed Clark at his Framlingham fiefdom near Warrnambool on Victoria’s west coast, and found him uncharacteristically circumspect about the NIC. ‘We shouldn’t fall for the trap of criticising Aboriginal people who potentially have some capacity to change things,’ he told me. ‘Some of those people on the NIC are astute and have a good understanding of the issues.’ However the battle-scarred veteran also took the opportunity to cut through to the heart of the matter: ‘The problem is that they don’t have a mandate. On whose behalf are they speaking?’
Since its inception, the Council has been bedevilled by doubts surrounding its role and legitimacy. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with governments seeking ‘expert advice’ from any quarter, but the NIC was seen to emerge from the ruins of ATSIC in a swirl of Government spin.
The National Indigenous Council has never managed to shake the widespread public perception that it is an ineffectual, politically tainted replacement for its predecessor.
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