Throughout the past couple of years I have been a public critic of both major federal parties, Labor and the Coalition, especially of their bipartisan support for the abolition of ATSIC.
Sure, I was one of the first Indigenous commentators to go on record as saying the old ATSIC was past its “use by” date - but I insisted, as did Jackie Huggins and her national review team later, that it needed to be replaced by a more accountable and transparent elected model.
So after the demise of a mean-spirited Coalition government, which has successfully wound back the clock four decades on all significant Indigenous policy initiatives, including education, land rights, health, employment, housing, national elective representation and so on, we ought to pause for a moment and reflect on how we intend to approach a new era under a new administration.
Kevin Rudd, the new Prime Minister, has declared his hand openly on the issue of a national elected Indigenous representative body and so we should hope that it will be a given - and be implemented by Labor within the first 12 months of the new term.
Who could ever forget the poignant words of Rudd’s predecessor Mark Latham before the last election, who announced to the world on March 30, 2004 that he would abolish ATSIC if he became Prime Minister, saying: "ATSIC is no longer capable of addressing endemic problems in Indigenous communities."
And how ironically prophetic were Latham’s words, “It (ATSIC) has lost the confidence of much of its own constituency and the wider community,” articulated in the same interview when just weeks later the nation had formed the identical view of Latham’s leadership and returned Howard to the Lodge.
Latham’s inept handling of Labor’s election campaign, which simply imploded before our eyes on national television, gifted the Coalition Government an increased majority, including control of both houses, and added a further three years of hardship and stress to the lives of those living on and below the bread line.
And we all know Indigenous Australians, as a discrete group, are over-represented in the category of Australians who experience financial difficulties.
It is therefore refreshing to hear Rudd has committed Labor to building a national consensus to improve the social and economic wellbeing of Indigenous people, to enable them to exercise their rights and to meet their responsibilities as members of the broader Australian community.
Labor recognises that governments have a responsibility to turn this disadvantage around and have said, through policy papers, that it is determined to see change through evidence-based programs which avoid bureaucracy and are designed in partnership with Indigenous people.
Jenny Macklin, the former shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister, said in her speech A New Direction With Indigenous Australians delivered to the 44th Australian Labor Party National Conference held in Sydney on April 27, 2007 that Labor would form a national Indigenous representative body. She said:
Fundamentally, our approach is different from the Howard Government’s because we are not afraid of hearing what Indigenous people actually think and want. We are prepared to have an honest conversation, to be told where we're going wrong, to work in partnership and with respect.
That’s why this platform today commits Labor to creating a new national representative body for Indigenous Australians. Labor doesn’t want Indigenous people to just be the subject of a national conversation; we need them to be part of that conversation. Part of the action. Part of the solutions.
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