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ATSIC: Aboriginal governance is a matter of concern to all Australians

By Gavin Mooney - posted Thursday, 22 April 2004

Let us be clear. The demise of ATSIC is a matter of concern to all Australians and not just Aboriginal people. The future of Aboriginal governance has to be as well. The government's wish to change ATSIC is understandable; their desire to destroy it is not. Their decision to replace it with a non-elected body appointed by the Prime Minister is not only unacceptable to Aboriginal people; it is unacceptable to all Australians. As a nation we will never be able to move forward to build a decent society until the grievances and the governance of Aboriginal people are resolved satisfactorily.

The government has chosen to ignore the fact that Aboriginal culture not only exists but is different. This is "culture nullius". Aboriginal people according to Minister Vanstone are to be treated "the same". Now at first sight that might seem a very egalitarian way of doing things. To treat people the same, however, assumes that people are the same. Yet anyone with a smidgeon of understanding of Aboriginal people, their culture and their history will recognise immediately are different in important ways. The government's failure to acknowledge this is deeply disturbing. It might be dubbed racist by some.

What is needed is not that Aboriginal people be treated the same but their culture be treated with the same respect. Acknowledging and celebrating Aboriginal cultural differences must concern all of us. It is clear that the changes to ATSIC are driven by a Prime Minister who simply does not understand this idea. His calls for "practical reconciliation" are evidence of this. In similar vein he criticises ATSIC for focussing "far too much on the symbolic rights issues". That is political speak for "cultural issues".


Even Noel Pearson, who has been seen by Howard as the welcome conservative voice of Aboriginal people, is opposed to the government's proposal of a non-elected advisory panel.

What is particularly concerning is the ignorance or - as Carol Martin, the WA state member for the Kimberley, called it - the stupidity, of Minister Vanstone in making comparisons between ATSIC`s existence and the former apartheid regime in South Africa. For a Federal minister to draw such a parallel is offensive, not only to Aboriginal people but to all South Africans today, black and white. It is worrying to all Australian voters that it is possible to become a Federal minister, especially holding this portfolio, and be so out of touch as to attempt to distort recent world history in this way. She should resign.

While there can be little doubt that there is a need for reform of the way in which governance operates for Aboriginal people in this country (and many in ATSIC must share some responsibility for what has happened), the government's proposal represents a move back into history not a step forward. It is argued by the government that the quality of those who have come forward to stand for election for ATSIC has left much to be desired. The same comment could be made about many of those who stand for our federal and state parliaments, including most obviously and most relevantly in this debate Amanda Vanstone. No one is suggesting that as a result of the mediocrity of our parliamentarians we should do away with Australian democracy.

The issue of Aboriginal governance in this country is critical. So many Aboriginal people are suffering not so much because of ATSIC's policies but because of the existing mainstreaming of services. For example, the gap in health status between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people is growing. Yet for Aboriginal people, responsibility for their health services, since 1996, has rested not with ATSIC but with mainstream services coming out of Canberra and state governments. There were problems with ATSIC but the problems of ill-health in the Aboriginal community cannot be laid at their door. It is mainstream services that have failed them.

It does seem that, in many respects, according to Aboriginal culture, it would be better if the system of governance of Aboriginal matters rested with regional bodies rather than a national one. There may still be a case, however, for a peak national body.

But rather than have me (a non-Aborigine) speculate about what some new body or bodies might look like, the key issue here is to recognise not only that ATSIC failed but that it was doomed to fail. It was in essence primarily devised by non-Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people. Given that fact, it is hardly surprising that it failed.


We now need to learn from the mistakes that have been made. The idea that the principle of self-determination for Aboriginal people should be abandoned because of the failing at a practical level of the ATSIC "experiment", as the Prime Minister called it, is illogical. The principle still holds good. The issue now is this: what do Aboriginal people want by way of a structure of governance for their affairs? That is the question that needs to be posed to the Aboriginal people of this country. In the 21st century it is not acceptable (and it never was) for the affairs of Aboriginal people to be governed in the same way as the affairs of the rest of us. Aboriginal culture is different. It must be respected as being different. The way to do that begins by asking Aboriginal people what they want by way of governance and then listening and trying to implement that system of governance.

Minister Vanstone seemed to be agreeing with that proposition when she said: "Indigenous Australians on the ground … never get a chance to come to Canberra and put their view." Yes, and the reason may well be that they have never been asked. They need to be. It is they who should determine their governance system.

This is morally and culturally the right thing to do. Now is the time for Mr Howard and Minister Vanstone to recognise that they must be silent so that they can hear the voices of Aboriginal people. They must call a summit of Aboriginal people and their leaders to tell all Australians: this is what we, as Aboriginal people, want to replace ATSIC.

As a society we need to do better in Aboriginal affairs. Better governance is where to start. That "better" must be defined according to Aboriginal preferences and Aboriginal culture.

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About the Author

Gavin Mooney is a health economist and Honorary Professor at the Universities of Sydney and Cape Town. He is also the Co-convenor of the WA Social Justice Network . See

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