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Abolishing ATSIC won't help Australia catch up on indigenous affairs

By Olga Havnen - posted Friday, 13 August 2004

Let's not make this week's International Day of Indigenous People another day of doom as countries reflect on the contributions of Indigenous people and their status. The truth is Australia is surrounded by examples of Western governments restoring dignity, health and rights to indigenous people. Take life expectancy - Canada, the US, New Zealand and Norway have almost closed the gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous people. In the US, the difference is three to four years and the difference between the indigenous Sami and other Norwegians is negligible. Here, an indigenous man or woman dies 20 years before the average non-indigenous Australian. A person from Nigeria or Bangladesh would be expected to live longer than an indigenous Australian.

Why have we lagged behind international standards on indigenous people? Well, despite the rhetoric, it's not because of ATSIC. We're so often presented with speeches and stories on the inadequacies of ATSIC, we tend not to hear about the successes. ATSIC, on the regional level, is doing good work. It is a key funder of employment, housing, legal services and native title representative bodies. Regional Councils have employed and skilled many indigenous Australians. The government's own review, In the hands of the regions - a new ATSIC, recognised the positive outcomes of Regional Councils and the need to continue their work. The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) also states, in its submission to the review of the bill to abolish ATSIC, that Regional Councils could identify needs and respond quickly on key issues such as family violence.

There is another important role of ATSIC that's been forgotten. I'm of Western Arrente descent and people of my mother's generation around Central Australia remember the days when Aboriginal people lived on missions and reserves where they had no freedom of movement and their lives were controlled by white settlers.


It took a long struggle to change things. The formation of ATSIC was one of the key points where indigenous people could celebrate being given a voice. It was the first time indigenous Australians had any control over government services.

Of course, this input needs to be strengthened. By educating and encouraging more voting and participation in Regional Council elections, we could better support indigenous people in key decision-making roles.

If Australia's poor record on indigenous people is not ATSIC's fault whose is it? In my work, I've seen indigenous issues from many sides of the fence. I've looked at it from the human rights point of view with international organisations, from the land rights angle on the Central Land Council, the health arena working for the Fred Hollows Foundation and on the reconciliation agenda with ANTaR and others. My view is there's no shortage of ideas and people ready to take them forward. The Senate Committee on the bill to abolish ATSIC has received 80 submissions with around 80 to come. The only missing link is the political will and government resources to really improve the lives and rights of Indigenous Australians.

In an election year, let's not let Canberra take the politically expedient and naïve view that if they get rid of ATSIC indigenous issues will disappear. Whatever happens regarding ATSIC, indigenous representation must not be allowed to slide. International organisations will continue to monitor Australia's progress on indigenous peoples. Let's work together to give indigenous Australians and the world some positive progress to celebrate.

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About the Author

Olga Havnen is currently a member of the ACOSS Board of Governors, is on the National Committee of ANTaR and works for the Aboriginal Land Council.

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