Shooting the banker: essays on ATSIC and self-determination
Aboriginal representatives contemplating an open argument with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission(ATSIC) about funding or representation sometimes caution each other:'don't shoot the banker'. There is little doubt that this volume of essays on ATSIC will be taken in some quarters to be doing just that, but they are intended, and should be viewed, in a more constructive light. They are a collective attempt to analyse this complex organisation after six years of its...[Show more] operation, and to open up debate about reform. The writers adopt a variety of perspectives on the role and impact of ATSIC, and they do not agree with each other on all points. The volume as a whole concentrates on the representative role of ATSIC, its presentation of itself as the supreme Aboriginal representative and political body. It does not echo the fairly common, and often misplaced, criticisms of waste and inefficiency of ATSIC as a development program funding organisation. The writers understand the difficulties faced by staff, councillors and Commissioners in meeting the massive problem of Aboriginal material advancement. They would all feel, however, that ATSIC can also make its problems greater by ignoring much of the advice, experience and community knowledge of other Aboriginal organisations and individuals. The essays in this book span the wide area in Aboriginal politics that ATSIC itself covers. HC (Nugget) Coombs opens the volume with a reminder of the history and origin of the present structure, which is a far cry from the recommendations of his report that led to the abolition of its predecessor, the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC). He is particularly critical of ATSIC's electoral system which neglects to include existing community-based representative organisations. Several of the chapters are concerned with problems of ATSIC Regional Councils. In particular, Rowse's examination of the emerging political consciousness of Regional Councillors complements Finlayson and Dales's analysis of the frustrations of Regional Planning from the participants' perspective, and the tensions this produces between the Regional Councils and ATSIC itself. Smith's chapter concerns the problem of dealing with Aboriginal cultural complexity and diversity in a single structure. The chapter places the regional concerns examined by Rowse, and Finlayson and Dale, in the context of ATSIC's national funding and policy strategies. Both my chapter and Dillon's are concerned also with these 'big picture' issues. I examine ATSIC's role as the political representative of a distinct and separate people which, due to Australia's international obligations, has a right of political self-determination in association with the nation state. I find it is not constituted to perform this well, and has its effectiveness further reduced by having the incompatible responsibility of Aboriginal development and welfare funding. Dillon looks for the reasons for confusion and ineffectiveness of ATSIC's many roles in the turbulent history of its foundation, and the complexities of Aboriginal political life. He concludes ATSIC would do better if it did less, backed off from its claim to be supremely representative, and made better use of its unique position within government, rather than distinct from it. The range of these essays shows clearly one immediate problem with assessing ATSIC - it has no single and easily grasped corporate nature. Any statement about ATSIC must suffer from being aimed at only one of the manifestations of this highly complex organisation to the neglect of others. This is as true for an outside observer as for the varied participants. Even a Regional Council Chairperson may from time to time be heard to refer to their Council's 'trouble with ATSIC', as if they were not themselves ATSIC. Thus, there is a danger of allowing critical points levelled at one aspect of the organisation to overshadow or neglect contradictory elements of the same organisation that are moving in alternative directions. In comparison with previous administrative arrangements ATSIC has been an enormous step forward for indigenous control of important aspects of life. Equally, it has over its first six years of operation provided a proving ground for much indigenous expertise and raised, wittingly or not, high expectations. It is the voices of those pushing at the outer limits of ATSIC's capabilities that, by and large, the authors of the essays in this volume are used to hearing. From these essays on diverse regions and areas of ATSIC's operation some common themes emerge. All papers reveal that greater regionalisation of the ATSIC structure and greater integration with Aboriginal communities and their organisations is called for. Regionalisation is now recognised to be a positive step by many people within ATSIC itself, but this needs to go further than simply increasing local control over development plans. Most of the papers, but in particular Rowse's analysis of the opinions of Regional Councillors, and Finlayson and Dale's description of their planning problems, lead to the conclusion that: • Funding needs to be aggregated much more than at present. Blocks of funds for broad purposes should be made rather than the multitude of single project schemes that now abound. Many block grants could be allocated on at least a triennial basis rather than following the present annual bidding cycle. Problems of accountability can be overcome, as they are in other publicly-funded organisations. • Regional Councils should be integrated much more firmly with existing regional and local community organisations. • If this is done, Regional Councils must be better resourced to act as regional representatives. Regional Plans must be seen as part of the political accommodation between whites and Aborigines in a particular region, not just as money grant wish-lists. This requires greater use of Regional Office resources, and a reexamination of the role of the Regional Office itself. Changes of this nature are being increasingly driven by the need for better representation of Aboriginal interests in the regions, particularly as a result of the Native Title Act 1993 and the mediation requirements of the National Native Title Tribunal. More powerful regional bodies, with more security of funding, which gain a wider role for themselves as representatives, rather than simple distributors of funds, would bring into question ATSIC's national role. While firmly defending itself from outside criticism, ATSIC nationally often does not seem to have a clear policy about its role. • Is it the cradle-to-grave care provider it often suggests it ought be? • Is it the Aboriginal parliament its original conservative critics feared it would be? • Or should it simply be a coordinating and consultation body to render more effective development programs administered by other bodies? The confusion of functions, and resultant frustration, revealed in many of the chapters in this book lead to the conclusion that ATSIC should not try to be all of these things it is neither possible nor required. Its representative structure relies too much on rather simple and formal electoral principles at the national Board level, providing no means of ensuring the necessary synthesis and balancing of community voices. To have a 'representative structure' is not the same as to actually be politically representative. Nor does ATSIC's control of Aboriginal material development programs mean that Aborigines are at last running their own affairs. There is more to self-determination than this. In practical terms as well it cannot fund and administer every aspect of Aboriginal development. It does not have the expertise, and if it were to acquire it this would be a wasteful duplication. As presently structured, it is equally far from being able to offer Aborigines self-government, either regionally or nationally. Self government must necessarily develop regionally. Even if the regional developments suggested here do occur, this will not automatically make the elected board, or the bureaucratic office holders, more authentically representative of Aboriginal voices. A broader forum is required for this. One in which Regional Councils and community organisations can directly participate, as my chapter suggests. Mike Dillon also points out, ATSIC would be more effective accepting itself as part of government - a rather privileged and potentially influential part. It should use its power of closeness to government, coupled with its relative independence, to influence more effectively the other Commonwealth program and policy providers. It could then strategically allow the emergence of a more independent forum for the diversity of Aboriginal political views. This may be the role it eventually accepts at the national level- the coordinator of national Aboriginal development policy. With a regional structure more effectively empowered to reflect regional needs it could perform this function well, and contribute its voice as the arm of Aboriginal material development - one powerful voice among many of the legitimate Aboriginal representative organisations throughout the country.
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