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Atsic in crisis? tough times for aboriginal self-determination.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is facing an uncertain future. Over the past eighteen months major upheavals have shaken the confidence of both Indigenous people and the general public in the Commission's capacity to deliver effective outcomes and quality policy advice for constituents, and to conduct its affairs with probity. In addition, ongoing confusion and disagreement persists about ATSIC's roles. For the government, ATSIC's primary role is that of a supplementary service deliverer to Indigenous people. By contrast, Indigenous constituents want ATSIC to advocate and implement self-determination in policy development, programs and rights. More broadly, ATSIC's statutory roles as an advisory, advocacy and monitoring peak body are complex and poorly clarified because the organisation operates, of necessity, in a highly contested political domain characterised by often conflicting priorities and demands.

A succession of changes to ATSIC's administrative arm, which has faced significant upheaval through major organisational restructures over the course of the 1990s, has further added to the instability in recent years. In 1992 a review of the ATSIC legislation was undertaken which resulted in changes to the ATSIC Act in 1993. Further amendments were made in 1997.

These changes were designed to separate policy development from program management, and to provide a stronger administrative presence in the ATSIC regions. To achieve such an outcome, significant devolution of staff and operations from Canberra to regional networks occurred. A major restructure of the Commission was conducted in 2001 whereby policy and programs were separated and decentralised to regional areas.

In 2002/03 a further restructure occurred, largely reversing the earlier distribution of functions to the regions. The recent appointment of yet another CEO has involved further organisational change based on the relocation of senior management back to Canberra.

The current restructure has also been driven by organisational and managerial reform to align ATSIC with conventional models of departmental structures and procedures. The extent and pace of reform, coupled with the shedding of staff and relocation cycles, has meant a consequent loss of corporate knowledge.

Another long-term source of concern has been ATSIC's accountability for its expenditures of public funds, and the probity of its decision-making. The personal conduct of some senior elected officials, including the Chair of the ATSIC Board of Commissioners, has been the focus of serious allegations. Such allegations, in combination with wider concerns about professional corporate conduct, have raised questions about ethical standards and the nature of decision-making in the Commission, particularly in relation to grant funding, the primary public 'litmus test' of accountability.

In November 2002 the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Phillip Ruddock, announced a review of ATSIC by a three-person panel. The review process, he claimed, would be conducted with the full knowledge and support of the commission's chair and board. Following this, the minister expressed disquiet over public perceptions of conflicts of interest in ATSIC, announcing his intentions to 'make a general direction under section 12 of the ATSIC Act, preventing ATSIC from funding organisations of which full-time ATSIC office holders are directors or in which they have a controlling interest' (media release 26/11/2002).

The review will examine and make recommendations to government on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can in the future be best represented in the process of the development of Commonwealth policies and programs to assist them. In particular the reassessment will consider the appropriate role for regional councils in ensuring the delivery of government programs and services to Indigenous people. The reassessment will also consider and report on any potential financial implications.

However, some might argue that the outcome of much of the review has been pre-empted by the Minister's announcement of radical surgery to address the perceived problems of conflicts of interest before the review team had produced their first discussion paper. Under the Minister's plan, ATSIC's elected and administrative arms will be separated into two distinct organisations. From 1 July 2003, ATSIC itself will comprise only the board of commissioners and regional councils, with a small staff-support unit to assist them, while staff of the existing administrative arm will be transferred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS). ATSIS will make and implement funding decisions, but operate in conformity with policies and priorities established by the ATSIC board and the regional councils, as well as reporting on ATSIC's performance to the elected arm (media release 17/4/2003). The elected arms at both the national and regional levels will focus on policy and advocacy issues. These measures are considered to be interim changes subject to further refinement once the current review is complete.

These reforms have, in part, been driven by concerns about ATSIC's performance over the past twelve years, particularly in relation to the decision-making processes behind individual program funding, including the perceived failure of the "separation of powers' between the elected and administrative arms of the commission. Two concerns are paramount: first, decision-making for effective service delivery, and second, the question of whether outcomes are realised for the funds expended. The latter concern is, of course, driven in part by a perennial perception about wastage in Indigenous affairs generally and is raised at regular intervals by critics of ATSIC.

While it is being conducted against a background of persistent concerns" with financial accountability and compliance, the present review will nevertheless influence future policy options for the three roles of ATSIC's objects: advice, advocacy and monitoring of service delivery to Indigenous people by governments.

Alternative pathways for the future

ATSIC's future roles and structure remain uncertain. Writing in a recent issue of Options, Noel Pearson forcefully argues for radical changes in government-sponsored Indigenous program delivery on the basis that 'government must retreat and relinquish responsibility in order for there to be a restoration of responsibility in our society'. The Queensland State Government and Cape York Partnerships are currently exploring how service delivery options can be achieved other than by engendering 'passive welfare', that is, a form of socioeconomic dependency that robs individuals and groups of responsibility for autonomous action.

Ruddock and Pearson share a common concern to make service delivery relevant to Indigenous needs, responsive through effective organisational structures, and to elevate the importance of Indigenous self-determination/self-management based on individual responsibility. But their approaches differ. Pearson is less concerned with the mechanics of structural change in bureaucracies like ATSIC and more interested in how other options such as the development and application of social capital in Indigenous communities can occur. He understands the lessons of the private sector where, increasingly, commercial companies view knowledge and knowledge management as valuable strategic resources for achieving outcomes in competitive circumstances.

For Pearson, private sector strategies are attractive alternatives to the limitations and regulatory entailments of public policy. In particular, the notion of intellectual capital created through a process of combining the knowledge and experience of different parties and of exchange between the parties when compared to a bureaucratic tradition of regulation for compliance and social change is undoubtedly seductive. Pearson writes:

I am convinced that the solutions to our problems will turn out to be very different to what bureaucracies would be inclined to do.

But Cape York Partnerships also demonstrate that private sector commercial agencies find the opportunity to move outside their own conceptual square to work with remote Indigenous communities equally appealing.

I agree with Pearson's implied view, that ATSIC should not be seen as the principal means by which Indigenous self-management and self-determination are to be achieved. These goals must also be realised through other mechanisms and structures, including local and regional Indigenous organisations, which can adopt a range of appropriate mechanisms by which they are based on and accountable to their particular constituencies. ATSIC, on the other hand, is a national and regional peak Indigenous advocacy and representative body operating at the political and administrative interface between Aboriginal people and the general Australian society.

A rigorous 'separation of powers' between elected and administrative arms is fundamental to good governance and to achieving outcomes for ATSIC's Indigenous constituents. This was clearly contemplated in the original 1989 Act. While the separation of powers in Indigenous organisations is seen by some as being antithetical to self-management and self-determination, there is a defensible argument that it provides a crucial mechanism for ensuring that organisational resources and services cannot be captured by the few, but are provided for the benefit of all those entitled to receive them. This is, of course, particularly important when public funding is involved.

Furthermore, a better separation of functions between the elected and administrative arms would enable ATSIC to focus on its core functions such as advocacy and representation, coordination, and policy advice and development. Whether the forthcoming move of current administrative staff into ATSIS is practicable and will achieve this objective remains to be seen.

It is of the utmost importance that ATSIC (and, soon, ATSIS) have the capacity to provide high-quality support and advocacy. This requires people who have the difficult, and perhaps rare, combination of close connections at the Indigenous community level and knowledge of its issues and concerns, as well as the ability to effectively and strategically operate within the world of policy development, government, and the bureaucracy. Given the severe disadvantage across so much of Indigenous society, it is absolutely imperative that steps be taken to attract the best possible candidates to stand for election at the regional level, and that capacity and professional development be core components of all regional council and commission positions.

It is possible that the rigorous separation of the elected arm from direct involvement in funding decisions may help in the long term to attract candidates with a more general concern for policy development and advocacy. Furthermore, it could be a first step in a necessary cultural change from the current focus at both commission and regional council levels on politicking about the allocation of ATSIC's relatively limited discretionary financial resources, to the critical task of strategically engaging with governments and their agencies.

Finally, ATSIC should be seen, not as the principal means of achieving self-determination and self-management for Indigenous people, but as the peak body in a national system of Indigenous organisations.

The development of ATSIC

ATSIC's formation was championed in 1989 by the then Federal Labor Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Gerry Hand. He conducted what he considered to be extensive Australia-wide consultations with Indigenous people. However, ATSlC was not the first, or only, attempt to develop an Indigenous representative advisory body, although it has proved to be the most enduring.

Between 1973-1985 ATSIC was preceded by two national representative organisations; the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) and the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC). ATSlC's predecessors failed for a number of reasons; some not dissimilar to issues underlying the present review. Their failures owed much to difficulties in the structural relationship between a representative agency and government. Another factor was the political inexperience of Indigenous representatives operating for the first time with a national constituency across a national policy landscape.

In both cases the objectives of these organisations was provision of policy advice to government on Indigenous affairs and to ensure that policy development appropriately addressed the circumstances and reflected the needs of Indigenous lives.

In theory, a peak Indigenous representative advisory body had the potential to directly influence policy and program forums. However, in reality such potential a was undermined by lack of clarity in role and vision, poor consultation processes, limited representation and gender equity, and the ever-present capacity of sectional interests to dominate decision making. These reasons alone were sufficient to ensure that neither the NACC nor the NAC realised its full potential.

By the mid-1980s policy debates recognised the importance of reconstituting a peak indigenous body, but no agreement was reached on the most appropriate form for a national representative organisation.

Debate on these questions was conducted against a background of increasing Parliamentary concern over financial management and governance issues within the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and as a consequence of reviews of the operations and decision-making of the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC).

Nevertheless, there was general agreement within the Federal Labor Government that a policy of self-determination should drive the activities of a national representative body, although less certainty prevailed about the best legislative vehicle to achieve balance between accountability and self-determination. Debates over the appropriate structure were underpinned by a bipartisan insistence that the policy goal of self-determination/self-management should be balanced by rigorous accountability to Parliament through the minister. Irrespective of what structure would be adopted, public accountability provisions were seen as mandatory.

The accountability debates influenced thinking with regard to the distribution of decision-making power in the proposed peak body and how this should be captured legislatively. They centred on what functions and roles the commission should perform and what decision--making roles would, or should, be shared between the ATSIC Board of Commissioners, the CEO, and the minister.

Ultimately the Aboriginal leadership during the time leading up to ATSIC's establishment in 1989 saw its role as developing and delivering specially tailored programs to indigenous constituents, in keeping with an ethos of culturally appropriate service delivery. They never envisaged that ATSIC's specialised programs would be a substitute for State and Federal Government funding and service delivery. ATSIC's programs provided only ancillary options for indigenous outcomes. This point is often forgotten in critiques of ATSIC's capacity to achieve national improvements in such areas as housing, education and employment.

Julie Finlayson is an anthropological consultant with Anthropos Consulting in the ACT.
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Title Annotation:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
Author:Finlayson, Julie
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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