Aspirational changes for the Elected Body

Resuming the debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body Amendment Bill, 2017

Madam Speaker, I can inform the Assembly that the opposition will not be opposing this Bill. However, I take this time to make some comments on the nature of the Bill and the proposed amendments, and the position of the Elected Body in the indigenous community.

In the explanatory statement to the Assembly, the Minister noted that the intention of some of the proposed amendments were to replace the deficit language of the Act, with wording that was more consistent with equitable outcomes based on a strengths-based approach. She stated that the amendments were designed to improve community and stakeholder understanding of the role of the Elected Body, and that it would establish more effective community and stakeholder consultations.

I want to briefly speak to each of these matters and highlight some of the issues of concern. In the first instance, although the language of the Object of the Act has been changed, we have come to understand that many of the amendments are in fact of a deficit nature (as was admitted to us during the directorate briefing). They are designed to compensate for the previous dysfunction of past elected Bodies, and are not aspirational or about good practice.

This comes as a result of the fact that the Elected Body is not, and never has been in the past truly representational of the community. In fact, less than 10% of eligible people vote during the elections for the Elected Body. And very few members of the community have turned up to hearings or forums. There have been many instances where Elected Body meetings could not be held, a quorum was not reached for some meetings, or a full membership was not achieved.

Some of the amendments, such as changing the Public Hearings, held to review and examine the Annual Reports, to only 2 per term are a result of this dysfunction. A truly aspirational or good practice model would require these Public Hearings to be held each year. How can the Elected Body be truly feeding concerns back to the government about its services and products, if the Elected Body fails to hold a public hearing for that year? It is this type of deficit approach which will continue to hamper the workings of the Elected Body as being seen to be truly representational of the community.

Please understand, I consider it very important for the Elected Body to hold the consultations, as enshrined in the Amendments, with the public on a wide range of issues. But the amendments in section 8, to the function of the Elected Body, appear to limit what the Elected Body may inquire and consult on.

The Jenke’s report made it very clear that the Elected Body was perceived by the indigenous community as an extension and arm of the government. By reducing the functions and limiting what the Elected Body may formally conduct inquiries and consult on, to only include the programs and services of the government, this perception will not change.

Limiting the scope of the Elected Body to only cover issues of government programs and services, and issues as directed by the Minister, will further cement this perception in the minds of the community.

There seems to be no ability under the amendments for the Elected Body to bring to the attention of relevant Ministers or their directorate, broader issues as they affect the Community. It would appear that the Elected Body, as defined by the Amendments to its functions, will be acting at too high a level, and it will continue to fail to meet the basic criticism levelled at it in the Jenke’s report, and by the community – the failure to be truly consultative. What is being done to give a voice to the community on matters that are important to them?

Consultation in both directions is important for a number of reasons, most importantly to make sure that the one way direction from the respective Minister or the government to the community does not just become a tick-the-box exercise. But also to ensure that the community can raise matters about the day to day practical and personal issues which affect them.

The Amendments to the functions of the Elected Body Act, as they are written, beg the question, what is the purpose of the Elected Body? Is it only to be a conduit between the government to the Indigenous community on systemic and whole of government issues? What about matters that affect the community?

Or even other matters, for example, how does the Elected Body help the government to work on behalf of or with the indigenous community to meet the COAG targets for closing the gap in their community? How will the Elected Body help to ensure that the government is supporting their programs to meet the needs of the community to achieve the equitable outcomes in Education, Health, Housing, Employment, economic participation and Justice?

In my own extensive and ongoing consultations with the indigenous community, these are the issues that are constantly raised. The community is concerned about a number of grass roots issues. These include

  • the lack of indigenous teachers employed in Koori pre-schools and government schools;
  • the ongoing gap in educational outcomes across all indicators;
  • the gap in income earnings;
  • the lack of employment opportunities in the ACT public service – where targets have been reduced from the COAG 3% to 2% of employees;
  • the problems in health care and services;
  • the closure of the Aboriginal Justice Centre;
  • the closure of an indigenous housing organisation; and most recently,
  • the failure of the Bush Healing Farm to become a centre for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

The community are asking me, when will they get what has been promised and what they continually say is needed?

The Elected Body is going into its fourth term, but this government’s track record over this time is more about the indigenous organisations and programs that have closed, or failed to get off the ground, than about the progress that is actually being made.

So, I ask again, what is the function of the Elected Body to help improve matters, work with their community to reach more equitable outcomes for the indigenous community here in the ACT – as enshrined in this Amendment Bill?

How does the agreement between the Elected Body and the Government fit in with this legislation, and how does it reflect the needs of the community that I have just listed? I understand that this agreement replaces the current COAG targets, but the agreement does not include any indicators of success or measurables. It is of grave concern to me that the government is moving away from the targets set. This would indicate that there is a lack of will to work to make a difference.

The Closing the Gap targets, set by COAG in 2008 are major measures of improvement. I know that the government likes to measure itself against the national mean in some of the outcomes, but these national means include areas such as North West Australia and Remote areas of the Northern Territory. The reality is that whilst we measure up against the National mean we do not measure up against ourselves – the general Canberran Community! There has been no improvement or closing of the gap during the time that the Elected Body has been enacted. How will the Amendments as proposed in this Bill help to make that difference in the future?

As a final note, one of the responses by the directorate to our questions on the Bill has been that many further details in response to the Jenke’s Report are to be worked out in the Regulations – yet to be developed! The Minister in presenting this Bill, without the mentioned Regulations, is asking us to take rather a lot on spec.

As I finish, we can all agree that consultation and listening to the indigenous community as enshrined in the Amendment Bill is important. Moreover, we can also agree that reaching equitable outcomes across all areas of need are important. And, we agree that the language of the existing Act needs to move away from a deficit model to one that is aspirational.

Do I think that the current Amendment Bill meets those targets? No, as it is currently written it falls short. I welcome the initiative by the Minister to improve the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body Act, but suspect there is still a long way to go, and that we will be seeing further amendments to address ongoing gaps in the provisions.