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Labor's all-of-government approach is good for Indigenous policy

By Fred Chaney - posted Tuesday, 13 April 2004

The statement on Indigenous affairs released by Opposition Leader Mark Latham and Shadow Minister for Reconciliation Kerry O’Brien suggests a welcome bipartisanship towards ending Indigenous disadvantage.

The ALP’s focus on whole-of-government approaches, partnerships with the private and community sector and the importance of Indigenous governance showed a willingness to commit to policy beyond the electoral cycle.

It is encouraging that the Opposition is supporting approaches that may make a difference to Indigenous people out there in the community. And they are recognising that the futures of Indigenous people must be driven by Indigenous aspiration.


The ALP’s statement shows an understanding that ending Indigenous disadvantage requires determined, non-party political commitment over the long term.

It is important that policies affecting the most disadvantaged in our community should not polarise political debate, particularly in an election year. The fact that the ALP is supporting policies that are taking shape across Commonwealth portfolios should ensure that these serious issues are not politicised to the detriment of sound progress.

In relation to the ALP’s plan to abolish ATSIC, whoever is in government needs to be sure that reforms to national Indigenous governance structures are aimed at improving the social and economic circumstances of Indigenous Australians, and based on the wishes of Indigenous people.

It is important not to get so bogged down in arguments about these structures that we forget the role ATSIC was originally meant to play, its successes and the continuing need for a strong Indigenous voice at the national level.

ATSIC was a natural outcome of a largely bipartisan view in the mid -1970s that the situation of Indigenous people would improve if they were in control of decisions that affected them. And so we saw the beginnings of what was called self-management in the period of the Whitlam government which developed under Malcolm Fraser.

The Fraser Government, of which I was a part, took this concept a bit further when we introduced the Aboriginal Development Commission, which took over some of the program management from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.


Under the Hawke Labor Government, ATSIC was born. It took over a wide swathe of programs, subsumed the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and was supposed to become the chief advisor to government on Aboriginal matters.

Not only was it to be a principle advisor but it was also responsible for filling in the gaps between mainstream government programs - programs that served the general community reasonably well but often didn't serve the Indigenous community well.

Clearly, one of the difficulties that emerged over subsequent years was that people stopped seeing ATSIC as the gap-filler and started seeing ATSIC as responsible for Indigenous matters generally, a role for which it was neither staffed nor financed.

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About the Author

Fred Chaney is Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia and Deputy President of the National Native Title Tribunal. He was Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs between 1978 and 1980.

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