Former leader berates ATSIC

FORMER ATSIC chief Lowitja O'Donoghue has unleashed a furious attack on the disbanded body, claiming its male leaders were preoccupied with drinking, gambling and womanising.
At a closed-door meeting in Adelaide yesterday, where indigenous leaders were hammering out how the successor to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission should be constituted, Ms O'Donoghue said the organisation she headed for six years in the 1990s ``supported the greedy, not the needy''.
ATSIC was a ``joke'' because decisions were made at casinos instead of the board table, its foundation chairwoman and one-time Australian of the Year said.
``I am sick and tired of going to conferences and forums where gambling becomes the priority,'' she told stunned indigenous leaders, who were meeting to consider models for the new indigenous representative body promised by the Rudd Government.
``In the afternoons there are empty seats all around the room because too many people are off gambling on horse races or poker machines,'' she said.
``Aboriginal leaders have a major problem with drinking, smoking and using illicit drugs. The other big problem with indigenous men is they womanise too much -- they don't know how to curb their womanising behaviour.
``It is something they enjoy, and it affects their decision-making as leaders.''
Ms O'Donoghue, 76, said last night it was the first time she had spoken out about the abuses of power she had witnessed in ATSIC, but she declined to repeat the criticism outside the closed session.
``I did speak out very strongly but it was only for the ears of my people,'' she told The Australian.
Ms O'Donoghue said that when she retired from ATSIC in December 1996, she had to have live-in security at her home.
Ms O'Donoghue was the keynote speaker and received a standing ovation at the opening of the three-day conference yesterday. The media were banned from the room while she addressed the 100 delegates, who had been selected to debate ideas on what the replacement body for ATSIC should look like.
The organisation was abolished in 2005 by the Howard government, amid heavy criticism of the alleged excesses of some of its male leaders. One of Ms O'Donoghue's successors as ATSIC chair, Geoff Clark, was in 2007 found by a civil jury to have led two gang rapes in 1971 of a teenage girl, who was awarded $20,000 in damages for pain and suffering. Mr Clark denied involvement in the attacks.
Former ATSIC deputy chair ``Sugar'' Ray Robinson was found to have gambled nearly $5million over a three-month period between 2000 and 2002, after Ms O'Donoghue's retirement, racking up the equivalent of $5300 a day in wagers at Conrad Jupiters Casino.
Last year, he was found guilty of using his former ATSIC position for an improper purpose by a District Court jury in Toowoomba. He was placed on a good-behaviour bond and ordered to repay $45,000 to the commonwealth Government, after it was found he had used money from the unauthorised 2004 sale of taxpayer-funded vehicles to fund legal proceedings he was involved in.
Last night, indigenous leader and human rights lawyer Hannah McGlade, an ATSIC employee in the late 1990s, said Dr O'Donoghue's recollections sounded ``about right''.
``I remember it being something like a men's club,'' she said. ``There was a lot of that culture, a lot of drinking. They lay on the grog ... then we would get sexual harassment (allegations) the next day. It was a hard environment.''
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin told yesterday's forum she wanted to see the new representative group established by year's end. ``I'd like to see it done as quickly as possible,'' Ms Macklin said.
She has asked Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma to advise on an interim body which could run from mid-2009 until the permanent representation model is ready.
But she issued a warning to the delegates in Adelaide that mistakes of the past would not be allowed to happen again.
``We've already ruled out another ATSIC,'' she said. ``We do want to make sure we get it right this time.''
Ms O'Donoghue told the session she no longer believed in an ATSIC-style elected body.
``Prime minister Paul Keating used to ring me and say the Aboriginal affairs minister Robert Tickner was crying again in cabinet,'' delegates quoted her as saying. ``We had three ministers, Gerry Hand, Robert Tickner and Dr John Herron. We used to refer to them as Gerry Hand, Jerry Lewis and Geriatric.
``I don't believe in a democratically elected representative body for indigenous people. It doesn't work because of nepotism.
``I knew exactly what decision was going to be adopted at the ATSIC meetings because they had been decided at the casino.
``In any new body, Torres Strait Islander people should be separated from Aboriginals. They are favoured by state and federal governments and that is reflected in the amount of money they get.
``The Torres Strait Islanders should have an independent statutory organisation similar to Norfolk Island. I also believe a major problem with ATSIC was there was a conflict because it had to serve two masters, the government and the people.
``ATSIC got too close to government at the United Nations, and at the UN we should have an independent seat separate from the Australian government,'' Ms O'Donoghue said.
``The new representative body should be a political lobby group. It should not replicate the Black Power groups of the 1960s and 1970s and the National Tribal Council where they just believed that `black is beautiful' and their chant was `Breed, baby, breed'. Those groups undermined good white people involved in fighting for the 1967 referendum.''
While Mr Calma, who is leading the three-day workshop to formulate potential models, said there were lessons to be drawn from ATSIC, he did not condemn the former body's failings as strongly as did Ms Macklin.
When asked how Australians could be sure they wouldn't get another ATSIC, he responded, ``Why does the Australian public need to be assured that that's not going to happen?''