• Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion. (AAP)Source: AAP
The Federal Government is one step closer to establishing a new Indigenous Productivity Commissioner role, despite the controversy surrounding the definition of 'Indigenous person'.
28 Feb 2018 - 6:54 PM  UPDATED 1 Mar 2018 - 1:05 PM

Indigenous Affairs will be strengthened and better outcomes will be delivered to First Australians under a new role established within the Productivity Commission, according to Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion. 

"This important new role will help to build an evidence base to inform funding decisions and deliver better outcomes for First Australians," Mr Scullion said. 

The government says the new role will enable the Productivity Commission to implement government evaluation strategies, policies and programmes that impact on Indigenous Australians. 

But the appointment of a new Indigenous Commissioner relies on amendments to the Productivity Commission Act of 1998, including the addition of defining an Indigenous person. 

The proposed definition states an Indigenous person is a person who is; 

a) A member of the Aboriginal race of Australia; or 

b) A descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of the Torres Strait Islands 

The government says the legislation uses the existing standard legislative definition of an Indigenous person, which has been used by all Commonwealth Governments since 1975.  

"The definition of an Indigenous person in the new legislation is wholly consistent with the standard Commonwealth legislative definition used under both Liberal and Labor governments since the 1970’s," Mr Scullion said.  

But Labor says the 'old-fashioned' definition needs to be updated, calling on the government to reconsider its race-based terminology. 

"Labor believes we should use the definition that is now standard across government and community sector groups," Labor MP Andrew Leigh told NITV News. 

The updated definition states that an Indigenous person is; 

  • a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent;
  • who identifies as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin and
  • who is accepted as such by the community with which the person associates

Mr Leigh says his party's Senate amendment would bring the definition of Indigeneity into line with the broader description used by other federal groups, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Law Reform Commission.

“We are not living in the 18th Century. It’s time to demonstrate leadership on how Australia can change attitudes around the use of the term race. It’s important for Reconciliation, multiculturalism and egalitarianism," he said.  

“It is disingenuous for the Coalition to blame Labor for delaying legislation when we have been waiting for Malcolm Turnbull to return our calls on this common-sense proposal." 

But Mr Scullion says if there interest in changing legislation, a parliamentary amendment to the Treasury Bill is not the appropriate process.

"Instead it should be considered as part of a separate dedicated process which includes consultations with Indigenous peoples, legal experts and others to ensure there are no unforeseen or unintended consequences," he said. 

Mr Scullion says the Opposition is frustrating the passage of the legislation by proposing a different definition of what an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is, other than what has been in legislation under successive governments for decades. 

"It is clear that Labor is engaging in petty politics in order to frustrate the Coalition’s plans to establish the new Indigenous Productivity Commissioner," Mr Scullion told NITV News. 

Mr Scullion also dismissed claims the definition was being 'watered down' or being  'dumped' for a two-part interpretation. 

"Reports that the Government is changing the definition of an Indigenous person are entirely inaccurate – nothing has changed," he said. 

But UNSW Professor of Law and constitutional expert, Megan Davis, says Indigenous Australians should be alarmed. 

"I have not been concentrating so not sure if mob are alarmed at what the government are doing with the Indigenous productivity commissioner? Check out the definition of Indigenous. They are dumping the three-part definition in favour of their new two-part definition of "Indigenous person," she wrote on Twitter. 

Outgoing Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO, Sean Gordon, backed up these claims. 

"The Federal Government are watering down the three-part test for Indigenous Recognition. People should be alarmed at what the government is doing with the Indigenous productivity commissioner role. Who in the Indigenous community was consulted on this major definition change?" he questioned. 

The legislation to establish the new Commissioner role passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday, with the Treasury Laws Amendment (2017 Measures No. 5) Bill now progressing to the Senate. 

Productivity Commissioner dispute shows Government does not understand the definition of Indigenous people today
OPINION | How a culturally distinct group of people are spoken of is reflected in how they are treated, and the chosen wording of the Productivity Commission Act is not consistent with today’s standards, writes Karen Wyld.