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Where to from here post ATSIC?

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 14 April 2005

With ATSIC conquered, off into the sunset rides the blissfully exuberant Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone with her largesse of over $1billion, courtesy of the support in the Senate from the ALP, co-conspirators of the downfall of our only elected national voice, a union of antagonists inconceivable under a Paul Keating leadership. And for good measure Vanstone torches the last bridge she crosses on her heavily perspiring thoroughbred.

It reminds me of Hernando Cortez, a Spanish Conquistador, who allegedly defeated and conquered the Aztec Empire. Recognised by his government for his military deeds, Cortez was sent to colonise Mexico in 1518. On April 21, 1519, he landed with a large armed contingent near the site of Veracruz. There, to prevent all thought of retreat, he burned his ships. Leaving a small force on the coast, Cortez led the rest of his men into the interior.

The moral of this story is that Cortez burnt his ships, which consequently forced his militia to fend for themselves, and complete what they set out to do - to establish and sustain a colony. I’m not sure how close to the mark I was with my throwaway line of “Vanstone torches the last bridge she crosses” but for many the analogy might well be time-honoured for its sinister message.


The parallel drawn from this journey back from yesteryear is the sad but inevitable fall of ATSIC and the challenge to Indigenous people to take stock and rebuild. For all its successes ATSIC will unfortunately be remembered for the public scandals that swathed the organisation in its final years. On March 16, 2005 parliament passed the ATSIC Amendment Bill repealing provisions of the ATSIC Act, and in particular abolishing ATSIC. On the March 23, the legislation received the Royal Assent from Governor General Michael Jeffrey.

Now that the official paper work has been concluded the ATSIC Commissioners will receive four months' severance pay as a parting gesture (legitimate entitlement), which translates into an $80,000 payout for controversial chairman Geoff Clark - representing one third of his annual $240,000 salary.

On a gallop into her delusion of grandeur, Vanstone has effectively eliminated our access paths to the national capital and left us, her portfolio flock, with a colossal task of rebuilding. Sink or swim I believe the famous Spanish Conquistador would bellow if he was in control. Well Hernando Cortez isn’t in control and we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t get things right for our next generation.

However I believe all is not doom and gloom as there are literally thousands of successful national programs - some are small family affairs while others are quite substantial enterprises - continuing to operate and support proud and resilient Indigenous communities. Unfortunately most Indigenous success stories are lost in the glare of media spotlights as they shine brightly on Palm Island and - it is, after all, what sells papers and gains TV ratings.

Sadly or happily (depending on your political viewpoint) our elected officials are now a thing of the past and vanished are their inducements of lease vehicles, fuel cards, mobile phones, executive aides, media advisers, envious sitting fees, first class travel, five star hotels and a myriad of other benefits that came with the job. I don’t disapprove of those fringe benefits, after all their white elected equivalents wouldn’t do without them, but for many at the grass roots level some of their leaders lost sight of the big picture items, the impoverished conditions of their constituents, and dabbled once too often in the non-core issues, and lost.

Where to from here - post ATSIC?


Theodore Roosevelt, in his inspirational lecture of April 10, 1899, said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”.

Indigenous leaders need to be innovative in their goal of improving the lives of their people. Roosevelt calls it risk taking. Public servants ought to loosen their grip over the purse strings (some need to conceal their eternal smile as they assume the mantle of colonial masters again) and fund new experiments that the community genuinely believes will benefit them in the long term.

In line with “mutual obligation” the community needs to get their governance issues in order. Don’t vote for your relative or friend who has repeatedly failed you and your community. Don’t vote for the town bully because he or she continues to intimidate you and your family. Why vote for them when the only place they’ll be found, during business hours, when you need to discuss your concerns, is at the pub, TAB, playing cards, pokies or down the creek fishing or out of town again on another irrelevant meeting?

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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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