Author: Gary Hughes
Date: 2nd March 1995
Publication: The Age

Gary Hughes reports on the crisis of confidence, inside and outside Atsic, now seen by many as a somewhat tarnished experiment in Aboriginal self-determination through bureaucracy.

THE TERM ``coconut" is a unique and particularly scathing Aboriginal insult. It means someone who is black on the outside, but at heart has sold out their culture and thinks and acts like a white man.

A growing number of Aborigines throughout Australia is beginning to look on their own peak representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, as the biggest coconut of all an organisation with a carefully crafted black veneer covering an essentially white heart.

The criticism goes deeper than just the claim that Atsic, born of the old Department of Aboriginal Affairs after a Federal Government- inspired fling with black self-determination, is still essentially a white-dominated bureaucracy.

Increasingly, there is unease over Atsic's perceived lack of independence and its cosy relationship with the Federal Government.

Some black leaders are saying that Atsic, rather than being the abrasive advocate in the fight for Aboriginal rights, has slipped meekly into the role of a rubber stamp, endorsing Government policies that often don't work.

Tomorrow commission lawyers return to the Federal Court for the second round in the unprecedented legal fight to suppress a damaging Commonwealth Ombudsman's report into a complaint from a NSW Aboriginal group about its local Atsic office.

In the original court documents Atsic claimed release of the report could cause ``irreparable damage", but the question now remains whether this damage would have come anywhere near that caused by the action itself.

The Community and Public Sector Union, which represents Atsic staff, is one of those which believes the fallout from the legal move has not only been far worse, but has played into the hands of white ``rednecks".

Even some of Atsic's own elected commissioners are unhappy about the handling of the Ombudsman's report. Not only weren't they formally consulted by Atsic's government-appointed chairperson, Lois O'Donoghue, before the decision to take legal action was made, but they have still not been given copies of the report to judge the contents for themselves.

Atsic handles criticism badly, but some now wonder if it is overly obsessed with damage control.

One senior Atsic figure privately suggests that the court action might have as much to do with federal cabinet Budget brawling and the row over who should control Aboriginal health spending as it does with Atsic's reputation.

With federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner, lobbying for an extra $1.5 billion and the cabinet tussle over health unresolved, it is a bad time for Atsic's record on financial administration and accountability to be put under the spotlight.

This same line of argument has also been put forward to explain the delay by Tickner in acting on a second, and potentially even more damaging report, he has had on his desk for three months.

This is the result of an independent investigation by former federal minister, Ian Viner, QC, into allegations made against Atsic's sole Victorian commissioner, Alf Bamblett. The Viner report looks at Bamblett's involvement in a car business now under investigation for suspected sales tax fraud and the payment of Atsic funds to an organisation he ran while it was deregistered. Bamblett has denied any wrongdoing and Tickner has blamed delays on the need to follow legal advice.

Atsic commissioners are also unhappy over the handling of the Viner report. Earlier last month they were given a verbal summary of the contents, but have been denied access to it. Copies within Atsic's board have been restricted to O'Donoghue and Bamblett.

Atsic's problems do not end there.

A former Western Australian Atsic commissioner, Neil Phillips, is facing five fraud charges involving grant applications made while still with the commission in 1993.

The Age also reported this week that a second complaint has been made to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the same Atsic office in Lismore in northern NSW at the centre of the report the commission is legally trying to suppress.

Added to these are the mounting criticisms, particularly from Victoria and NSW, of Atsic over its reluctance to act on allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement within black organisations it funds from its $1 billion budget. Significantly, these complaints have come not from white ``rednecks" but from within the Koori community itself. In Victoria the push for reform is being led by three of Atsic's own regional councillors, who have gone as far as to call for an independent inquiry or royal commission into the way funds are administered.

If apparent lack of accountability and allegations of misconduct by staff and officials were not enough, another potentially even more difficult issue is looming.

In the Brisbane Federal Court in July a challenge to the election of an Atsic regional councillor is scheduled to be heard on the basis the candidate is not an Aborigine. A similiar detailed allegation against another regional councillor in Victoria has been made to Tickner, who has in turn referred it to Atsic. Both complaints were made by Aborigines.

The two allegations will not only publicly raise the issue of whether non-Aborigines are trying to ride the Atsic gravy train, but pose the prickly question of whether some attempt should be made to legally define how much Aboriginal blood a person must have to qualify for government-funded programs.

Internally, the pressure on Atsic is showing in the form of increased tensions over its role and direction.

Some elected commissioners are concerned that Atsic must be seen to be independent of government if it is to fulfil its role of providing black Australia with true self-determination. Central to this is the role of chairperson.

It is no secret that Lois O'Donoghue has a good working relationship with Tickner and gets on particularly well with Paul Keating, despite the establishment of a seperate office of indigenous affairs to advise on policy within the Prime Minister's Department. Commissioners' concerns that there might be a perception she is now too close to government are shared by a growing number of outside Koori community leaders, who believe the time has come to have an elected head of Atsic.

Tensions within the commission's boardroom came to the surface after the December 1993 Atsic elections, when the high profile former head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and long-time commission critic, Charles Perkins, became a regional councillor.

In March 1994 Perkins ran for the deputy chairperson's position against O'Donoghue's preferred candidate, Alf Bamblett. Many had predicted that Bamblett, a supporter of O'Donoghue, would become deputy before moving into the chairperson's office when her term came to an end this month.

But Bamblett lost to Perkins by just a couple of votes and a month later ran into his own problems with allegations of misconduct and the subsequent Viner inquiry. Not only did Perkins not get on with O'Donoghue, but his agreement during the 1993 federal election campaign to serve in a proposed coalition government ``kitchen cabinet" of community advisers put him politically at odds with Tickner and Keating.

In May last year O'Donoghue, who had been in hospital with heart problems, took the extraordinary step of going on television to claim Perkins was plotting a boardroom coup. She said he was preparing to spring a vote of no confidence in her at the following month's board meeting and then pressure the Government into accepting a popularly elected Atsic head.

Perkins denied the plot, but is understood to have agreed to take a lower profile and bide his time until O'Donoghue stepped down voluntarily. Perkins, along with the other commissioners, believed this would happen on schedule this month and O'Donoghue herself began a final round of Atsic state offices last November to say goodbye.

But at a board meeting in December O'Donoghue surprised her fellow commissioners by announcing she had agreed with the Federal Government to stay on until the next Atsic election in 1996.

Perkins immediately resumed his high profile activities, loudly defending Atsic against its growing number of critics and sharing with the media his vision for a totally independent commission responsible not to Parliament but to its black constituents.

Some commissioners believe O'Donoghue's unexpected change of heart can be attributed to the need for the Government to keep the powerful position of head of Atsic from falling into hostile hands. One commissioner commented that while it was uncertain whether Perkins would have the numbers to take the top job if it was put to the vote, the outspoken former public servant certainly believed he did.

Faced with the potential embarrassment of numerous internal and external investigations, the row over the control of Aboriginal health spending, the problems of trying to get the Mabo land fund up and running and the difficult cabinet Budget negotiations, it would be a bad time for Atsic to run politically off the rails and begin criticising the Government.

There is little doubt the Atsic experiment in self-determination is coming rapidly to a crossroads. Increasingly torn between its conflicting roles of government department and independent black parliament, it will inevitably have to choose one over the other or continue being criticised for doing neither very well.