It surprised no one when, last Tuesday, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin announced that that the National Indigenous Council was to be put down. This Howard Government pet had been born a sickly creature of doubtful parentage four years earlier and had subsequently failed to thrive. Called upon only occasionally to perform tricks for a master whose mind was clearly on other things, the NIC had become something of an embarrassment and its early demise will cause little distress.
However, the vacuum left by the cashiered council throws into high relief the absence of a national representative Indigenous body. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are thus denied a formal opportunity to contribute directly to Indigenous policy development. This is not a good look, particularly for the party of the ‘light on the hill’ which prides itself on its social justice credentials. Though details are thin on the ground, Macklin has made an in-principle commitment to the establishment of a national representative body. For this she deserves credit.
However, the road ahead is long and tortuous. There was no formal Indigenous Affairs policy launch by the ALP in the run up to the Federal election. Instead we had a decidedly low-rent affair here in the humble surrounds of the Desert Knowledge centre in Alice Springs. The Labor member for the NT seat of Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, accompanied the then Shadow Minister Macklin in making a series of announcements centring on Indigenous economic development. The ALP was offering much-needed funding for education, health and housing. There were also some innovative ideas around Indigenous land and sea management and carbon trading. But a national representative Indigenous body wasn’t mentioned.
Although long considered to be party policy, the latest evocation of this promise arrived in an opinion piece by Macklin just prior to the election, where she gave an undertaking that "in consultation with Indigenous people, Labor will establish a national representative body – different from ATSIC – to achieve greater accountability at all levels of government and to facilitate a real and honest conversation with Government."
It seems certain that the new outfit will not be an elected body, although the Minister is at pains to stress that she will "consult widely with Indigenous people about the best process to establish this new representative body."
I spoke yesterday to Des Rogers, a former chair of the ATSIC Regional Council in Alice Springs. He was unperturbed about the proposed new body being appointed rather than elected.
"The democratic process is fraught with danger in the sense that the old ATSIC system didn’t work in producing a broad cross section of representative people," he said. "We need to explore all avenues about how we might have a representative body. But if we are going to go down the path of selecting people there needs to be a strong due diligence around the process. Perhaps a call for expressions of interest from people who can demonstrate that they have the will and the capacity to participate in something like this."
Rogers insists that the new body must have credibility and genuine connection with Aboriginal people, particularly those living in remote Australia. "One of the flaws of the National Indigenous Council was that they didn’t have any real connection with grass-roots Indigenous people." For her part, Macklin has already alluded to the importance of ensuring that the new body has representation from across Indigenous communities – urban, regional and remote.
Aboriginal people have all too often been dudded by politicians directing their bureaucrats to undertake a protracted charade of consultation. Meetings are held, minutes are written, and media releases are fired off to demonstrate the worthiness of the undertaking to the wider public. The pollies are then presented with a range of often contradictory views – providing a convenient rationale for parking the problem in the too-hard basket. If challenged, they will regretfully declare the obstacles to be intractable, and go looking for easier wins in other arenas. The proposed new body must not be exposed to this fate.
Consultation is crucial, but justice delayed is justice denied. The Minister must consider a swift and sure consultation process which culminates without delay in the appointment of at least an interim representative body, so that Indigenous Australians will again have direct input into the formulation of the policies that govern their very existence.
Any new representative Indigenous body will of course be haunted by the spectre of ATSIC, for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is a badly discredited brand. Winners get to write history, so ATSIC has been retrospectively characterised by conservative governments as the devil incarnate: corrupt, incompetent and without redeeming features of any kind. This version of events was convenient and easily digestible by the general public. It just wasn’t true. But the extra-curricular activities of high profile commissioners like Victoria’s Geoff Clark and Queensland’s ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson commanded far more media attention that the less spectacular but often very effective work performed by the ATSIC Regional Councils. The die was thus cast.
Macklin has demonstrated considerable political nous in her public insistence that any new body be "different from ATSIC". An organisation free of the baggage of the past will have the greatest chance to prosper. But whatever the shape of the new body, it will inevitably be subjected to an unprecedented level of scrutiny from media and politicians. A troubled infancy is assured. The Federal Government must provide the support to allow the vulnerable newborn to mature into a strong and purposeful contributor.
Indigenous Australians deserve nothing less.
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