The decision of the Howard government to abolish ATSIC in 2005 was the stuff of nightmares. ATSIC was not without its problems, but to see the governmental power in stripping all representative and legislative rights and powers from Indigenous people in one foul swoop demonstrated just how Indigenous people are at the mercy of the government. As Dr Perkins once said, "We pray eternally that the White authority structure will not turn on us and impede what little progress we have made." The destruction of ATSIC was the realisation of this fear, and Indigenous affairs has never really recovered from it. Indeed, John Howard referred to it as the 'failed experiment of self-determination'.
ATSIC – What it did
ATSIC was first thought as the great hope for Indigenous participation in the legislative and policy process. The benefits of ATSIC lay in its broad legislative mandate which included the formulation and implementation of programs, monitoring the effectiveness of programs conducted by all bodies and agencies, developing policy proposals, assisting, advising and cooperating with all stakeholders, advising the Minister, protecting cultural material and information, and collecting and publishing statistical material.
Its capacity to engage with government at the highest level was a key benefit of having ATSIC as the national representative body. It was the first national representative body that gave Indigenous people both advisory and decision making capacity. The dual role provided ATSIC with a legitimate role in determining the direction and priorities in respect of Commonwealth policy, albeit within fairly tight constraints. This very real power provided ATSIC with a capacity to negotiate on the playing field and, although not level, this was a far cry from the powerless positions experienced in negotiations by Indigenous representative bodies up until that time, and for the twelve years since it was abolished.
Over the course of the last twelve years we have seen consecutive governments take a bipartisan approach to Indigenous policies, without any real community consultation, to enact policies that have further eliminated the rights of Indigenous people. From the Northern Territory Intervention, 'cashless welfare' cards, massive funding cuts, and remote community closures – all moves that have been to the detriment of Indigenous people.
Without a national representative body that has legislative input, the interests of Indigenous people will not be at the forefront of policy making even if those very policies directly impact Indigenous people. That is not to say lessons cannot be learnt from the experience of ATSIC or the National Indigenous Council (2004-2007), an earlier version of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council which is itself a failed notion as the representatives are handpicked rather than democratically elected by the people they are tasked with representing, and all they can do is 'advise' without having any real leverage or negotiating power. This is demonstrative of a government paying lip service to the concept of Indigenous consultation without any real regard to the nature of Indigenous communities and how collectivism for the good of the community works.
The only representative body with a more collective approach is the National Congress of Australia’s First People’s but again, they are at the whim of government funding and were defunded last year in a move that showed how little respect the government had for them. ATSIC had two democratic mechanisms to be utilised in delivering outcomes for Indigenous people; it had an elected arm and it had a legislative mandate that gave it an alternative voice on policy to government, one that better reflected the perspectives and interests of Aboriginal people.
Any truly representative body would need to have the same impact upon policy as ATSIC had. ATSIC had both an administrative and elected arm and so it had to play a delicate balancing act as the primary representative voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the national level while also operating as a government agency.
Overcoming the ATSIC stigma
ATSIC was a convenient scapegoat for the government and poor social indicators were blamed on ATSIC ,as it was deemed responsible for every Indigenous issue, despite not having the executive power to enforce the programs that it recommended. Thus the Prime Minister and Cabinet often made decisions that went against what ATSIC recommended, but those failures were laid at the feet of ATSIC and formed part of the rhetoric in the lead up to the abolishment.
The ensuing media witch hunt of ATSIC as an organisation coupled with relentless attacks on its senior members were the death knell for ATSIC - the stigma remains and the headlines are still remembered. Perceived failings of ATSIC are often still brought up today for why no meaningful replacement was introduced, an argument often made to seem infinitely ludicrous by the seemingly never-ending failures and scandals of the same government figures who abolished ATSIC.
Where to now?
The bipartisan policies of consecutive governments have led to a dramatic decline in the wellbeing of Indigenous people in Australia and the mental health crisis is demonstrative of the effect of governmental policies on communities that are disempowered and have no recourse.
Indigenous Australia needs a national representative body that has the representative and legislative powers that ATSIC retained, in addition to the executive support of the Prime Minister’s cabinet to ensure recommendations are implemented and State interface legislation to ensure cohesive policy implementation. A governance structure with clear delineation of scope and powers would avoid the witch hunt that was ATSIC, and a treaty or consitutional amendment that enshrined its existence would ensure that such an organisation could be reformed if it ever strayed off track from its purpose, but that it could not be so easily put to the axe as ATSIC was.
Given the refusal to acknowledge the rights of Indigenous peoples in any form whatsoever it seems to hard to imagine that this will happen anytime soon. Given the ever widening 'gap however, such a body is one of the few options that could help put Indigenous affairs back on track, could put Indigenous peoples behind the wheel, and fins the necessary balance between self-determination and accountability both to Indigenous Australians, and to the wider community.