Attempt to hide GST impact on indigenous people
By Margaret Allum
The minister for Aboriginal affairs, Senator John Herron, admitted on April 29 that he ordered the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to remove from its web site a report and submission on the effect of the proposed goods and services tax (GST) on indigenous Australians, especially those living in remote communities, which gave an unfavourable assessment.
Responding to a question in the Senate from Labor's Chris Schacht, Herron initially denied that he attempted to censor the material during the 1998 federal election campaign, but then said he had assumed that the question referred only to the current parliamentary period. He claimed that the material on the site breached departmental guidelines.
ATSIC's submission and the report by James Cook University's Professor Owen Stanley remain on the ATSIC web page at <http://www.atsic.gov.au>. The submission stated that the GST would have an adverse effect on the living conditions of indigenous Australians, largely because of the disproportionate number living below the poverty line and the special circumstances of many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote communities.
The submission claimed that indigenous people are two to three times more likely to be below the poverty line than non-indigenous Australians, and spend a larger proportion of their income on food, clothing and other essential items than other Australian households, including those on low incomes.
Those in remote communities also face significantly higher food costs due to higher transport costs, the inaccessibility of some communities and retail store monopolies.
The submission warned that the adverse effects of the GST on indigenous Australians' overall living standards could lower their already alarmingly low level of health. It also stated that the government's proposed tax would be counterproductive to economic development and would reduce community organisations' ability to provide services.
The compensation package, it said, is inadequate. The submission recommended exempting food from the GST or, at a minimum, increasing the level of compensation to rural and remote communities. It also recommended increased assistance to indigenous businesses and organisations, including the lowering of transport costs by extending the transport fuel credit system.