A black and white case to end a rort

Who has the right to call themselves an Aborigine? Tony Koch reports
IF THERE is an issue guaranteed to incite resentment in Australia, it is the revelation that individuals or groups are receiving taxpayer assistance to which they are not entitled.
Some refer to it as ``rorting the system''. Such concern is now concentrated on the billions of dollars paid to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) for the welfare and assistance of indigenous Australians and their families.
Until three decades ago, many people felt that there was a distinct stigma attached to being ``Aboriginal''. Coincidentally, about that time governments realised they had an obligation to lift the lot of the most downtrodden section of the Australian community. So budgets provided especially for health, welfare, education, legal assistance, housing and business assistance.
These were initially administered by federal and state government departments, with little success. In 1989, ATSIC was born, with the view that the elected board of indigenous people would administer virtually all funds channelled to their constituency.
The organisation has had mixed success. Accountability has always been a problem. And the main criticism is that, regardless of the billions that have been spent, little has been achieved in lifting the lifestyles of indigenous people -- particularly those in remote communities like the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York.
The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report on ATSI population states: ``Based on current trends in fertility and mortality, Australia's indigenous population is projected to increase from 386,000 in 1996 to 469,000 in 2006 at an annual average rate of 2 percent per year.'' However, the growth in the indigenous population in recent decades cannot be explained by natural increase alone.
``Much of the unexplained growth can be attributed to an increasing prevalence of persons to be identified as indigenous on census forms. If the increasing rate of identification (as experienced between 1991 and 1996) is assumed to continue, the indigenous population is projected to increase at an annual average rate of 5.3 percent per year, reaching 649,000 in 2006.
``Under either assumption, the indigenous population is growing much faster than the total Australian population (1.2 percent during the '96-97 financial year).''
On April 20, 1998, Federal Court Justice Merkel handed down a 120-page decision in the matter of Shaw and Another v. Wolf and Others (BC9801311). A key element in that judgment -- the latest on the issue -- was the declaration that to be Aboriginal one must, among other things, be descended from the inhabitants of Australia at the time immediately prior to European settlement.
THE ATSIC guidelines for applicants for benefits state that a statutory declaration must be completed setting out that the applicant is: Of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent; that some or all of the applicant's ancestors must be ATSI people; and that he or she identifies as an ATSI person and is recognised by his or her community as a person of ATSI descent. An applicant making a false or misleading declaration can attract a fine of $1000 or six months in prison, or both.
The ATSIC documents state: Community organisations considering whether to certify the Aboriginality or Torres Strait Islander descent of applicants seeking assistance from ATSIC should appreciate that they bear a heavy responsibility in both ensuring that only people who are ATSI people receive benefits to which they are entitled, and also in ensuring that people who are not ATSI do not receive them.
The confirmation of a person's aboriginality must be approved by a resolution at a formal meeting of the incorporated community organisation's governing body and the record of such resolution is to be sealed with the Common Seal of the organisation and signed by the authorised signatories.
The Courier-Mail's revelation last Saturday that more than 100 people of Sri Lankan descent in the Bundaberg region have, over 30 years, received benefits when they have no Aboriginal background has stirred up a storm.
The Appo family is the one against whom the allegations were made, but it is clear that several branches of the family can claim aboriginality through marriage.
ATSIC commissioners Ray Robinson and Col Dillon joined Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway in calling for a public inquiry to clear up the anomaly. Robinson, deputy chairman of ATSIC, went so far as to declare that the practice was rife, and hundreds of bogus claimants were running off with millions in ATSIC dollars every year.
It is an intolerable situation and one which needs to be urgently addressed. Looked at in another light, if there were several hundred people fraudulently claiming war pensions and they had never even been in the army, there would be a national outcry. The perpetrators would be weeded out and probably charged.
WHY are the rules different when it comes to people fraudulently claiming to be Aborigines and claiming millions in benefits that are specifically provided to aid needy indigenous people? It is theft from the public purse.
Any number of names of very prominent ``indigenous'' people are bandied around as falling into the bogus category. And still the deprivation and desperation continues among Aboriginal people on remote communities.
What certain members of the Appo family are claimed to have been getting away with is a national disgrace and is most worthy of an urgent police investigation. But why has it been allowed to go unchecked for so long?
The organisation which must answer to the taxpayers of Queensland is ATSIC. These are the people, highly paid and presumably efficient, who bear the responsibility of ensuring that the funds they administer are paid only to bona fide recipients.
But they are not doing it.
There are too many stories of registered Aboriginal organisations being prepared to ``certify'' that some mate or other is ``Aboriginal'' when it is obvious the person is Maori, South Sea Islander, New Guinean or even African. Even a white Australian.
ATSIC has a sorry record in regard to dispersal of funds and accountability for them. Yet the bogus Aboriginal issue is probably the most blatant and serious example of all, and they have done nothing whatever to check the theft and deception.
In being so lax, ATSIC has provided fuel for the detractors and One Nation types who question why there should be one set of rules for one section of the Australian community. The obvious response is that this section -- ATSI people -- are unarguably the most downtrodden and disadvantaged, and need special, if unequal, help.
Psychologists refer to a malady they term ``downward envy'' which describes the unhealthy desires of some people to ensure that anyone they deem to be lower on the social and economic scale than themselves, stays there. No better targets for ``downward envy'' by selfish and small-minded people exist than Aboriginal people.
If ATSIC and the Federal Department of Indigenous Affairs do not move with haste to clear out the bogus Aborigines who are fraudulently claiming benefits, it will be clear to all that they do not accept their responsibility to properly handle taxpayer funds.
In which case they should be abolished and an organisation put in their place which is prepared to act with propriety.