The Guardian November 8, 2000


TAKING ISSUE with Jo Dunleavy
Behind the attack on ATSIC

From the moment of its election in 1996 the Howard Government fixed its 
sights on getting rid of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
Commission. That same year it announced a $400 million cut to ATSIC's 
funding and has since set about taking areas such as Aboriginal housing and 
employment programs out of the organisation's hands.

ATSIC was set up in 1990 with the stated aim of giving Indigenous people, 
rather than government departments, management over their own affairs.

Earlier this year ATSIC Chairman, Geoff Clark, described the goals of 
reconciliation as a process that must "forge the ground rules for 
relationships between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians based on 
justice and equity and the proper recognition of Indigenous rights."

He said that it is "essential that all parties recognise Indigenous peoples 
possess distinct rights arising from our status as first peoples, our 
relationship with our territories and waters and our systems of law and 
governance."

Straight-forward enough. But last month's Government-convened forum on some 
of the issues affecting Indigenous communities, such as  health, substance 
abuse and family violence, officially bypassed ATSIC while at the same time 
inviting two ATSIC Commissioners.

It also excluded the body representing Aboriginal health organisations, the 
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

Such are the divide-and-rule tactics being used by the Government.

My point is that we are seeing a stepping up of the offensive against ATSIC 
within the broader attack on Indigenous rights, of which the recent forum 
is a part.

The forum was chaired by Family and Community Services Minister Jocelyn 
Newman and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron.

It followed the same pattern put in train in February this year when Herron 
threatened to scrap ATSIC's housing budget completely if ATSIC did not 
agree to move the program into a newly-created authority controlled by the 
Government and run by himself, Newman and Health Minister Michael 
Wooldridge.

NACCHO condemned the forum, calling its claim to have dealt with substance 
abuse in Aboriginal communities a sham because the very people with 
expertise in the area were excluded.

Craig Ritchie from NACCHO said, "The Government is selling the forum as 
being responsive to the needs of the local communities because they [the 
communities] `know best what solutions will work for them'.

"This is hard to stomach when the health services that Aboriginal families 
turn to for assistance from substance misuse and family violence have been 
told their input is not required."

Exactly! Craig Ritchie was right when he said the forum was set up to go 
round in circles. 

The Government's intention is to destroy the gains made in the long 
struggle for rights and leave Indigenous people to grapple with a myriad 
conflicting state laws and policies.

The forum's call for "the development of self-reliance for Indigenous 
people, rather than one that entrenches welfare dependency" is telling.

In practice this means the scrapping of welfare programs for special needs 
arising out of the unique situation in Indigenous communities  scrapping, 
in fact, any possibility of forging "ground rules" for recognition that 
"Indigenous people possess distinct rights" arising from their status "as 
first peoples". 

It would bring the Government nearer to its goal of assimilation, which 
essentially means the wiping out of a culture.

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