On the anniversary of the day Aboriginal people finally won the right to vote, the Howard Government introduced legislation into Parliament to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Established by the Hawke Government, ATSIC was an attempt to give Indigenous Australians a genuine say through an elected national body.
Almost from the day it came to power the Howard Government has been undermining ATSIC. First, it cut funding for ATSIC by up to 50%. Then in 2003, Howard removed control of Indigenous programs from ATSIC by establishing a separate government department, ATSIS, to administer them. Other key areas such as health and education have long been controlled directly by the government rather than ATSIC.
John Howard has systematically attacked ATSIC for “being too preoccupied with symbolic issues.” By “symbolic issues” Howard means fundamental political questions such as a treaty, an apology to the stolen generations and land rights. In contrast, Howard proposes “practical reconciliation” as a way to achieve outcomes for Aboriginal Australians.
But on both “practical” and “symbolic” issues the Howard Government has failed Aboriginal Australians. Indigenous health remains a disgrace. The median age of death for Aborigines is 53, the same as it was when Howard was elected. For other Australians the median age of death is 77. Abstudy has been undermined to the point where the number of Indigenous students enrolled in higher education is going backwards. Howard has eroded Native Title and continues to scapegoat Aboriginal people for poverty and drug addiction. His attacks on the so-called “Black armband” view of history are designed to bury the truth about how this continent was invaded and occupied. He simply ignored the reconciliation movement, dissipating what, eight years ago, seemed like an unstoppable public sentiment for a treaty.
Howard now proposes to replace ATSIC with an appointed advisory body and to mainstream Aboriginal services.
Elected ATSIC commissioners characterise plans to scrap ATSIC as an act of revenge. Queensland Commissioner Sugar Ray Robinson told the ABC “it is barefaced retaliation” because a group of commissioners commenced a High Court action, challenging the government’s removal of Indigenous programs from ATSIC through the establishment of ATSIS.
Acting chair, Lionel Quartermaine, accused the Howard Government of trying to “make ATSIC the scapegoat in a bid to win over the support of former One Nation voters.” Commissioner Alison Anderson argued that “the aim of the government is to knock ATSIC out so that we don’t go and talk about Aboriginal disadvantage in the UN and highlight the problems, the racist attitudes…governments have towards Aboriginal people in this country.”
But ATSIC has its Indigenous critics. A three-person review, headed by historian Jackie Huggins, had recommended major reforms to ATSIC. However, Huggins is furious that her review team’s recommendations have been ignored in favour of annihilating ATSIC.
Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, understands why many Aboriginal people refused to mobilise to defend the institution of ATSIC. He told the Freedom Socialist Bulletin, “for most Aboriginal people ATSIC was a remote and bureaucratic body which did not address our needs or lead a fight around our priorities. Sure, many understood that ATSIC was being deliberately set up by the Howard Government to fail, and it did.”
Griffith University academic Bonnie Robertson, argues that if something isn’t working, “we put in another structure, make sure that the structure maintains self-determination and self-management of our people.” She predicts that the abolition of ATSIC and mainstreaming of services will wind back the clock to a time when Aboriginal people did not have the right to vote.
While many Aboriginal people like Jackson and Robertson are ambivalent about fighting to defend ATSIC, opposition to Howard’s plans has succeeded in uniting Indigenous people, from Alice Springs to Arnhem Land and from the Kimberley to Canberra.
Angry protests have been held in Cairns, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. On 24 May, a march organised by the Community Development Employment Program sector descended upon Parliament House in Canberra. The marchers, who wore T-shirts saying “Enough is enough: John Howard Get Stuffed,” called on the Senate to block the legislation. But this is not really a strategy, as ATSIC is already being dismantled and services mainstreamed, with or without legislation. Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Amanda Vanstone, has vowed that the Howard Government will proceed with its plan, even if it is forced to retain ATSIC as a shell organisation.
Jackson argues that now is not the time to fight to retain the status quo, but to use the depth of community anger to win something better. “What Aboriginal people are fired up about is not defence of ATSIC itself, but the question of what will replace it. We will not accept a government-appointed advisory body, and any Aboriginal person who agrees to serve on such a body will lose all credibility with the community. Any new body must be chosen by Aboriginal people ourselves. I favour a national structure where the heart of decision-making is at the regional level. This will be more relevant to Aboriginal communities, because it would have a stronger connection to the grassroots.”
Indigenous activist Sam Watson, the lead Socialist Alliance Senate candidate for Queensland, agrees with Jackson. He told the Freedom Socialist Bulletin that he does not lament the loss of ATSIC, instead seeing this racist attack as an opportunity to refocus on key questions, such as the need for a treaty which genuinely recognises sovereignty! Watson argues that “A treaty will deliver justice to our people. Indigenous political leadership first began to call for a treaty in the 1970s, agitating for a formal treaty between the Parliament of Australia and the tribal nations. Even though the treaty process is only one demand on the vast page of grievances, it is the most fundamental and its significance is all-embracing.”
Watson, a savage critic of sell-out bureaucrats who get comfortable in their well-paid jobs, sees this as “a final chance for the coconuts [those who are black on the outside but do the bidding of authorities and are therefore white on the inside] to get back on board and fight the good fight. Those plastic credit cards have held your souls in pawn for decades, now you have a chance at redemption: take it! Get back out on the street.”
History shows that government-appointed bodies and “mainstreamed” services have — and will continue to — fail Aboriginal people. ATSIC, despite its limitations, was a step forward for Aboriginal people. But what replaces it can be so much better. Any new body needs strong grassroots connections to Aboriginal and Islander communities. It must be well-resourced and accountable to Indigenous Australians keen to take up the fight for a treaty. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians must unite around the key question of recognising Indigenous sovereignty. Self-determination is key to Indigenous survival, to repairing the damage caused by colonisation and to ensure survival. As Watson argues, we need to get back on the streets.