Failed experiment

Since its inception in 1990, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has been embroiled in controversy. That is hardly surprising as, in the eyes of many people, the nature of the organisation -- providing exclusively for one section of the community -- is controversial.
But it had to be so. The imbalance suffered by indigenous Australians demanded redress, and this was the opportunity for Aboriginal people to demonstrate that they could run their own affairs -- that they did not need the white ``big brother'' looking over their shoulders.
The concept of ATSIC was excellent, and a proper response to the problems of the time.
The decade since then saw big issues for Aboriginal people: native title, reconciliation, and the Noel Pearson-inspired debate about rejecting welfare dependency.
Throughout that time, the Federal Government has invested more than $1 billion a year through ATSIC to run its own programs, to develop policies for the betterment of indigenous Australians, and to improve the health, education and employment opportunities of this most disadvantaged section of the Australian population.
But the experiment has been a dismal failure, largely through lack of leadership at the bureaucratic level and among Aboriginal people themselves.
To begin with, the system of electing commissioners is archaic and open to abuse. Indigenous people don't have a direct say in the election of the all-powerful commissioners, that is done by the elected councillors.
History has demonstrated that this has resulted in the election of representatives who are bound by nepotism and family or clan loyalties. There are abundant examples where a person getting into a powerful position, such as ATSIC commissioner, and his supporters and family having exclusive access to the fruits of victory: the houses, jobs and legal representation. Those in the ``opposing'' camp get nothing.
The system also demonstrably discriminates against women, to the great detriment of all indigenous people. In the modern era, so many educated and respected Aboriginal and Islander women have contributed greatly in policy and services to their own people when the opportunity arose, but the ATSIC system ensures that they are kept down.
Lack of accountability and the loose manner in which ATSIC has allowed enormous sums of public money to be squandered on ill-considered schemes have been the final nail in the coffin.
It is totally unacceptable, for instance, for ATSIC to allow a system whereby commissioners can receive millions of dollars in grant money and then not be answerable even to ATSIC about the progress of the project for which the money was allocated.
It is equally unacceptable for such public investment to be quarantined from proper scrutiny, including freedom of information access.
A three-person review is now being conducted of ATSIC, but that is not going far enough. The level of criminal theft, misappropriation and fraud that has gone on among some recipients of ATSIC money in the past decade is such that the only appropriate response is to hold a royal commission of inquiry.
There has developed a culture that the money is ``ours'' and nobody has the right to question its expenditure.
Put bluntly, if indigenous people want to participate in Western culture, as they are encouraged to do, then they have to abide by basic principles of honesty and accountability.
It is not trite to claim that had the sort of misappropriation that has come to light in recent years been undertaken by a non-indigenous organisation, swift remedial action would have ensued and people would have been jailed.
But that has not been the case with ATSIC and the public funding that body controls. Too often it has been the case that ATSIC officers have chosen to cover up and create excuses for people who have not done the right thing. That type of response only serves to create more problems, and the belief among wrongdoers that they are bulletproof.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock has publicly stated that he will not put up with the inefficiency and corruption of the past.
It is no great secret among Liberal powerbrokers that ATSIC will not exist for much longer in its current form, but will be taken over by the Minister and commissioners will have to come to him with proposals for funding -- as occurs in other departments.
But in doing that, it becomes a return to the system of yesterday which was abandoned in favour of allowing indigenous people to run their own affairs. There has to be a happy medium struck, and it is within the power of Ruddock to arrive at that benchmark.
But a starting point has to be a royal commission that investigates the failures and crimes of the past, brings to justice those who served to destroy the system through their own greed, and consequently ensures that those mistakes are not repeated in the future.
ATSIC in its current form is a failed experiment that Australian taxpayers should no longer be expected to support.