Future can be bright

The abolition of ATSIC offers a great opportunity for indigenous Australians, writes Stephen Hagan
FOLLOWING Prime Minister John Howard's announcement to abolish ATSIC, indigenous Australians need to reflect for a moment and assess where we now stand as an identifiable group within the broader community.
One need not go any further than the recent Social Justice Report (2003) of Bill Jonas, outgoing Social Justice Commissioner for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, which paints a grim picture of indigenous disadvantage.
In 2001, the gross income of indigenous people was 62 per cent of the rate for non-indigenous Australians compared with 64 per cent in 1996.
In 2001, the unemployment rate for indigenous people was 20 per cent -- an improvement from the rate of 23 per cent in 1996. This is three times higher than the rate for non-indigenous Australians
In 2001, 63 per cent of indigenous households were renting (compared with 27 per cent of non-indigenous households), and 13 per cent owned their home outright (compared with 40 per cent)
The narrowing of the gap between black and white is so minuscule over the past decade that our figures make the government record of sub-Saharan Africa (with the impact of HIV-AIDs factored out) and Myanmar (Burma), Papua New Guinea and Cambodia quite inspiring.
Are we so blinded by our own self-pity that we persist in calling for the maintenance of the status quo by supporting our overpaid and underperforming ATSIC commissioners?
I do not condone violent protests of any description. What is required by our more enlightened and progressive thinking leaders is to take time out to read the fine print of the new proposal and to strategise on how best to turn a negative into a positive.
We should embrace the concept of mainstreaming indigenous affairs and the redirection of the $1.4 billion annual budget of ATSIC by exerting pressure on the bureaucrats charged with administering their new windfall to deliver for our people.
What do we have to lose, as they couldn't possibly be any worse than ATSIC in indigenous service delivery?
In The Courier-Mail on April 17, John Howard's views on the mainstreaming of indigenous programs were made clear when he said: ``I think it can be better achieved treating everybody equally and where there are areas of disadvantage, having special assistance and special programs is the best way of helping indigenous people.''
I agree with Howard when he says we should all be treated equally. I can assure readers from my personal experience, as a former ATSIC regional councillor, that within the highly volatile council meetings the 12 elected black officials did not always assess indigenous submissions for grant funding on a needs basis.
Unfortunately, I concur with a term thrown around loosely by a silent majority within our community-- ``taxpayers' money going to the greedy not the needy''-- as being right on the money.
Tony Koch (C-M, April 16) correctly points out that: ``It (ATSIC) was established to deliver to the most needy Australians, to lift them from disadvantage to at least equal status with the rest of the population. But despite all those best intentions, the indefatigable efforts of many good people, and the investment of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, it achieved virtually nothing.''
Some of our leaders certainly had fun with taxpayers' money (including indigenous taxpayers) and, over time, mastered the art of political manipulation and nepotism at the expense of the more destitute within their respective communities.
We, the indigenous population, can cry ``poor bugger me'' and ``racist politicians'' at the inevitable legislative abolition of ATSIC or we can engage in open and frank dialogue with the Government and bureaucrats in charge of administering ``ATSIC moneys'' on our behalf.
There is a large pool of experienced indigenous workers within incorporated indigenous organisations who would be more than happy to continue on in their jobs.
Perhaps the Government should give consideration to securing their futures by locking them into the public service employment career path.
On a recent exercise with an experienced Four Corners team in rural Queensland I witnessed their producer and journalist, hardened from assignments in war-torn Africa and Eastern Europe, brought to tears on hearing the depressing stories of indigenous people living in this town.
I speak of my home town of Cunnamulla where my relatives who live in ATSIC-funded houses live in despair while my relatives who live next door in State Housing Commission homes live in relative luxury with unlimited hot water and electrical wiring that meets strict health-and-safety regulations.
The compulsory installation of reverse cycle airconditioning keeps them out of harm's way when the temperature reaches more than 40C in summer and the bitterly sub-zero temperatures in winter.
Try asking the relatives from the former group if they would support mainstreaming or fight to maintain the status quo with ATSIC.