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ATSIC must be replaced by a new body without 'flexible integrity'

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 28 April 2004

Where am I?

Scene one – family members rising early to the shriek of parrots, galahs and lorikeets to erect galvanised tin sheeting, to stop the incessant morning breeze from blowing out the newly lit fire, specially made to cook breakfast and dry the dampness from school uniforms.

Scene two – children playing with bare feet on an abandoned vehicle littered with broken glass constantly rubbing sore eyes and swatting unrelenting flies.


Scene three – effluent seeping into living quarters of a large family home.

Scene four – man falls through deteriorating floorboards whilst sitting on the toilet.

Scene five – residents sit upright in bed afraid to sleep at night while their house is overrun by a plague of mice with ravenous appetites.

Answer (tick or insert appropriate answer): Africa, South America, Middle East, Bangladesh or other (name country only)

How prophetic the words Mark Phillips (Courier Mail, April 19) credits John Howard with: “…there should be no separate treatment of the first Australians.” And Pauline Hanson’s penned in The Queensland Times, January 6, 1996: “…until governments wake up to themselves and start looking at equality, not colour, then we might start to work together as one.” Especially viewed in light of the announcement by John Howard on January 17, 2004 to abolish ATSIC.

Without blowing the trumpet of the extreme right-wing Prime Minister, who enunciates the same racist vitriol at times as the former Federal Independent Member for Oxley, I do believe Indigenous Australians need to reflect for a moment and assess where we now stand as an identifiable group within the broader community.


One need not go any further than the recent Social Justice Report (2003) of Bill Jonas, the outgoing Social Justice Commissioner for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, which paints a grim picture of Indigenous disadvantage.

  • In 2001 the gross income of Indigenous people was 62 per cent of the rate of non-Indigenous Australians, compared to 64 per cent in 1996.
  • In 2001 the unemployment rate for Indigenous people was 20 per cent - an improvement from the rate of 23 per cent in 1996. This is three times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.
  • In 2002, 38 per cent of Indigenous students were retained to year 12 compared to over 76 per cent for non-Indigenous students. This was an increase from 29 per cent in 1996.
  • In 2001, 63 per cent of Indigenous households were renting compared to 27 per cent of non-Indigenous households, and 13 per cent owned their home outright, compared to 40 per cent.
  • Indigenous people have consistently constituted 20 per cent of the total prison population since the late 1990s; compared to 14 per cent in 1991 (we are only 2 per cent of the population).
  • Life expectancy for Indigenous females declined slightly from 1997-2001 to 62.8 years and Indigenous males increased slightly from 1997-2001 to 56.3 years.
  • There are 2.5 times as many deaths among Indigenous infants than non-Indigenous infants in Australia.
  • The narrowing of the gap is so miniscule over the past decade that these figures make the government records of sub-Saharan Africa (with the impact of HIV-AIDs factored out) and Myanmar (Burma), Papua New Guinea and Cambodia seem quite inspiring.

Are we so blinded by our own self-pity that we persist in calling for the maintenance of the status quo by supporting our overpaid and under-performing ATSIC Commissioners? There are some within our political ranks who wish to go beyond rhetorical condemnation of the inevitable passing of the Howard-inspired legislation in the May 2004 sitting of parliament.

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An edited version of this article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 19 April 2004.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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