Indigenous Law Bulletin
by James Reynolds
In December 2002, the Commonwealth Government announced the review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (‘ATSIC’). There was a call for submissions on its performance in increasing Indigenous participation in the development of Commonwealth policies affecting Indigenous people. The advertisement listed the review’s purpose:
[E]xamine and make recommendations to Government on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can in the future be best represented in the process of the development of Commonwealth policies and programmes.
The review’s terms of reference look at the functions of ATSIC and its Regional Councils in providing advocacy, services and advice on legislation. This review could not be occurring at a more inopportune time for ATSIC, particularly the elected arm.
For the last four years ATSIC’s leadership has been embroiled in allegations of wrongdoing of both a personal and public nature, particularly in relation to accountability and propriety. The chairperson, Geoff Clarke, and the deputy chairperson, Ray Robinson, have faced more than their fair share of serious allegations. In spite of this, largely the same group of commissioners were re-elected in the recent ATSIC elections. The election results suggest support by Indigenous people for the status quo.
Adding to ATSIC’s woes is that the current political climate is quite different to the one that existed when it was created. Australia’s social outlook has changed dramatically in the past ten years from a society with strong welfare provisions to a community focused on allowing markets to choose winners. The attitudinal change is best evidenced by the ‘work for the dole’ program and the increased use of private organisations in the provision of education and health services.
Arguments will be made that ATSIC has not performed, and that it has had a limited impact on Commonwealth policies affecting Indigenous people. However, this argument ignores two important realities. First, ATSIC is a junior agency located at the lower end of a very large hierarchy in public administration. Secondly, it ignores the reality of ATSIC’s electoral system.
On the first point, ATSIC’s ability to negotiate outcomes is determined by the limited amount of power it has over Indigenous issues where other government agencies have responsibility for service delivery. On this test ATSIC is clearly a junior agency. It is because of this hierarchy that ATSIC is stuck in the ineffective role of lobbying government agencies with more authority than itself.
Secondly, ATSIC’s electoral process creates politicians. The fact that ATSIC’s elected leaders must battle a series of democratic votes, firstly by Indigenous people and then by elected representatives, means that ATSIC’s politicians are just as practiced at ‘counting the numbers’ to capture the ultimate prize as other politicians. More importantly, ATSIC’s politicians act no differently to other politicians – they are very good at looking after themselves first and their constituents second. However, they still have to regularly face the electorate and be judged by the voters – it is a democracy.
Nevertheless, it is important that ATSIC be reviewed. However, the review must acknowledge the reality of ATSIC’s electoral system and the fact that politicians are politicians no matter what their race. The review could examine alternative electoral systems that provide better Indigenous representation. Any proposals will have to be acceptable to the non-Indigenous community, who already find it difficult to understand the manner in which our family and tribal structures choose leaders.
In addition, to have any analytical integrity the review must address the current institutional framework, which requires ATSIC to negotiate its way through significant coordination barriers to influence the development of policy and the delivery of services to Indigenous people. ATSIC has never had sufficient power to make other government agencies accountable for their Indigenous policies.
As an agency designed to represent Indigenous people ATSIC’s performance is as effective as any other modern democratic institution. It does some things well and others appallingly. By all means review ATSIC. However, it is important that the review be undertaken in context and on the basis of better problem identification rather than simple, unhelpful and short-sighted assumptions.
James Reynolds is of Gangalidda heritage from the Gulf of Carpentaria. He has a Bachelor of Economics and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Queensland.
 Which is not compulsory voting as in mainstream elections.