A new Aboriginal peak body?


Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma released the Our Future in Our Hands report to the National Press Club on August 27. It outlined a proposed structure for a new national body to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

However, the federal government has already said it will not adequately fund it. The proposal has also come under fire from some Indigenous leaders.

The report was drafted by a steering committee of 10 indigenous members. In December, the federal ALP government appointed Calma to head the committee.

The report said the mission of the proposed body "should be to provide national leadership in recognition of the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Nations peoples, in protecting our rights and advancing the wellbeing of our communities".

The new body would strictly be a representative body, designed to advise on policy rather than deliver services.

The report said: "A key issue ... was the desire for the National Representative Body to be independent from government (in particular, free of the ability of government to control or abolish the body) while also being influential with government and playing a key role in the policy development process."

Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin welcomed the report on August 27, but dismissed one of its proposals for independent funding.

She said the government "respects the Steering Committee's view that the establishment of a capital fund would allow the national representative body to operate independently of grant funding. However the government has no plans to contribute to such a fund at this time."

Instead the government would "provide modest and appropriate recurrent funding for the national representative body once it is established".

The September 3 National Indigenous Times said the funding arrangement would amount to "drip funding from government, delivered at the whim of government".

Conservatives used the previous Indigenous representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), as a whipping boy for Aboriginal policy.

It was set up as an advisory body to inform and critique government policy in 1990 and oversaw some government spending on Aboriginal programs.

It had little power to direct government funds, but the former Howard government blamed ATSIC for continuing Aboriginal disadvantage.

ATSIC's alleged failures were also used to justify huge budget cuts.

The 2005 abolition of ATSIC opened a new period of government paternalism in Aboriginal policy.

But some Indigenous critics have said the proposal gives too much ground to those who oppose Aboriginal self-determination.

Michael Mansell from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre attacked the proposed structure because it made elections to the body dependent on candidates being vetted by a proposed "ethics council", CAAMA radio said on August 27.

In a September 1 Online Opinion article, former ATSIC regional councillor Stephan Hagan called the proposal "inept".

"Right wing social commentators would be charging their glasses, and ultra conservatives in the Coalition Party marvelling at the blue print 'gift' on Indigenous affairs handed to them on a silver platter", he said.

He echoed Mansell's criticism of the proposed character checks for candidates and said the proposed structure was undemocratic.

"Democracy, a 4th century BC Greek term meaning 'popular government', is what epitomises the good in western society as opposed to the bad in a dictatorial regime, but yet it is the very word that the steering committee has sought to white-out in this report", Hagan said.

"If [Macklin] endorses Calma's report, she effectively says to all Indigenous Australians that we can't be trusted to make decisions through the democratic process. And further that we can't be trusted with money or influence.

"What would all the good, white, handsomely remunerated public servants do if those demanding blacks regained control over the purse strings and the decision making processes concerning their people?"