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Ruddock's changes to ATSIC further disempower Indigneous Australians

By Aden Ridgeway - posted Thursday, 8 May 2003

Indigenous policy over the past 30 years has been a crazy quilt of varying and inconsistent laws, failed attempts at Indigenous "consultative" bodies and mismatched administrations divided between the bureaucracies of Federal, State and Territory governments.

It was hoped the overwhelming "yes" vote in the 1967 referendum would signal a new approach by federal governments to overcome the endemic social problems in Aboriginal communities left in the wake of crude acts of governments to dispossess Aboriginal people of their land, culture and children.

The recent decision by the current Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock, regarding ATSIC has a sense of deja vu about it.


It takes us back to a time 30 years ago when the first clumsy steps were taken towards setting up an elected national Indigenous consultative structure.

Have we have learned anything from the failure of the two national consultative bodies - the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) and the National Aboriginal Congress (NAC) - or are we bound to repeat history?

ATSIC's role combined consultation, advocacy and policy development, monitoring of other government departments' performance and administration of some of the programs in the Indigenous affairs budget - such as CDEP (the Work for the Dole scheme), community housing and infrastructure and later areas like native title.

All other services concerned with improving the lot of Indigenous people, especially in the areas of education, health, domestic violence and high rates of incarceration remain with their various federal departments.

The problem, as I see it, is that government administrators, mission managers and now bureaucrats have continued to be the dominant players in the lives of Indigenous Australians and the problems in Indigenous communities are largely the result of failed federal policy.

ATSIC was a flawed model from the very start. First, it was created as an agency of government and second, it has never enjoy cross-party support - even before it was established.


Our current Prime Minister argued rabidly against the creation of ATSIC in 1989 saying, "…that if the government wants to divide Australian against Australian, if it wants to create a black nation within the Australian nation, it should go ahead with its ATSIC legislation and its treaty. In the process, it will be doing a monumental disservice to the Australian community".

The heavily amended legislation ensured - and time has shown - the creation of ATSIC has done nothing of the sort.

There are many still in public life today who rail against Indigenous Australians exercising their right to have a say in their lives in any way.

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About the Author

Senator Aden Ridgeway is the Australian Democrats' Spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs and a Senator for New South Wales.

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