ATSIC falls under the microscope
|To be an ATSIC commissioner means withstanding political and media
scrutiny, being accountable and dealing in the often surreal world of Aboriginal
politics. Paul Chamberlin reports.
Clearly, some commissioners who are chosen are not up to the job. ATSIC is hoping this changes during its third election.
His handlebar moustache quivering, commissioner Guy Parker could not believe what had been done to him. It was totally unfair, he lamented.
The board of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission had just voted away approval for a trip to North America that Mr Parker had been planning for 12 months. And it was the chairwoman, Lois O'Donoghue, the friend and colleague who was to accompany him, who led the charge.
Ms O'Donoghue, faced with scandal, internal dissent and unrelenting political pressure about the running of ATSIC, patiently explained later to her fellow commissioner that he was no longer a credible person and could not be associated with the respected mining industry executives also in the delegation.
Mr Parker had not realised that a conviction a fortnight ago for passing four dud cheques at a race meeting would, in all probability, leave him without a job.
Since the last ATSIC election in 1993, 25 indigenous people have held the post of commissioner. Many have carried out their difficult work with diligence, but The Age has learnt that four have been or are presently under police investigation, while a handful of others are in open warfare with either Ms O'Donoghue, the Government or other Aboriginal organisations.
To be a commissioner means withstanding searing political and media scrutiny, accountability provisions bordering on the loathsome, and a heightened experience of the often surreal world of Aboriginal politics.
Even at more than $1 billion a year, federal funding is limited and the 2000 groups that receive it are always trying for more, so there is constant lobbying pressure on commissioners and regional councillors for funds.
Democrats Leader Cheryl Kernot says that as the pool of money is so small and indigenous needs so great, it is not surprising allegations of fraud, mismanagement and conflicts of interest are rife.
Very few of these allegations are ever proven, she says.
It is true that while in office, Mr Parker is the only commissioner to have been convicted of a crime.
Ms O'Donoghue recognises the main problem, although few of her fellow commissioners agree with her proposed solution.
Only months away from ending her six-year tenure as chairwoman, she talks forlornly of ATSIC's unique structure, a sort of ``elected bureaucracy" where commissioners are elected by their communities and then expected to return the favor with large grants of taxpayers' money. Ms O'Donoghue wants to break that link by giving power over the funding of grants to ATSIC's administrative arm.
The registrar of Aboriginal Corporations, Mr Noureddine Bouhafs, says the greatest impediment to effective management is a lack of structured training or assistance for office- bearers of ATSIC. Clearly, some commissioners who are chosen are not up to the job. ATSIC is hoping this changes during its third election in October - or it may not survive another three years. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, John Herron, said he would like to see the day when ATSIC was unnecessary.
Senator Herron's robust position on ATSIC harks back to the coalition's anger at its creation in 1989. It damned ATSIC as a ``Black Parliament" that would create an apartheid-type situation in Australia. The coalition's promise in the late '80s to starve ATSIC of funds when in Government turned into it sustaining ATSIC as an entity, but supporting the principle of accountability over self-determination.
For Robert Tickner, Labor's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs during ATSIC's first six years, self-determination was paramount.
Stringent accountability procedures were set up internally in ATSIC and he left it to sort out its own problems. The Howard Government says he took his eye off the ball.
In the end, ATSIC's future will depend upon the 18 commissioners elected to the board by indigenous people in October. The Government has made it clear it expects a higher calibre next time than many of the people mentioned below.
GUY PARKER: Mr Parker says it was not much of a crime; it was his own cheques that bounced, not ATSIC money, and he will pay restitution of $900 as ordered by the Court of Petty Sessions.
But the six-month good behavior bond he also received would usually be considered enough to end the career of a politician.
Senator Herron now has carriage of the matter and is unlikely to think an ATSIC commissioner should be exempt from the unwritten rules that would apply to him in the same situation. The board has already acted, stripping him of approval to visit Canada and the United States in the mining and native title delegation.
This was commended by Senator Herron.
Ms O'Donoghue lodged her official report with Senator Herron this week, urging Mr Parker be suspended for an unspecified period. Senator Herron, in turn, has written to Mr Parker, giving him seven days to show why this action should not be taken. Suspension will make it very difficult for Mr Parker to be re-elected in October.
ALF BAMBLETT: A Victorian commissioner who resigned from the board in April last year. The Viner inquiry had found him guilty of improper behavior as a commissioner under the ATSIC Act, by not informing ATSIC that an organisation of which he was chief executive had received funding while deregistered.
He remains under police investigation for his involvement in a payout made by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service - of which he was a director at the time - to its then chief executive officer.
Mr Bamblett has not been charged or convicted and has denied he has done anything improper.
``SUGAR RAY" ROBINSON: One day a book will be written about the man who began his criminal career in 1962 stealing cordial and tinned fruit, progressed to rape and assault, was ``rehabilitated" in 1992 when found not guilty of another rape charge and now holds as much power as any other leader of his people.
Mr Robinson has made many enemies along the way, not least the coalition, which is so terrified of him being elected chairman of ATSIC that it wants to introduce legislation so Senator Herron can appoint the chair.
Foes in other Aboriginal groups have been steadily providing information to the Government since Senator Herron began his get-tough campaign, and the Federal Police are now investigating allegations involving Mr Robinson.
There is more at stake for Mr Robinson than the $80,000 or so he is paid by ATSIC. It is estimated that total remuneration for the various offices he holds may be as much as $250,000 a year.
TERRY O'SHANE: The brother of prominent Aboriginal magistrate Pat O'Shane, his name has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Ms O'Donoghue.
There is only one problem. As the sole supporter of the proposal to appoint rather than elect the next chairman or woman, half the board apparently only speaks to him when they have to.
This is something of a shame, as Mr O'Shane is not afraid to voice thoughts many others would find difficult. Nepotism and cronyism are frowned upon in Western society, but Mr O'Shane points out that the bonds between kith and kin have sustained Aboriginal culture for more than 40,000 years.
STEPHEN GORDON: A six-year veteran of ATSIC, this NSW commissioner has performed well and sees himself as a potential chairman.
But he may have blotted his copybook when he recently attacked proposals of both the coalition and Ms O'Donoghue, saying he would call a vote of no confidence in the latter. In the end, a vote never came to pass.
CHARLES PERKINS: Another leader who has never lost his zeal and outspokenness. A former head of ATSIC's forerunner, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, he resigned from ATSIC in January but many, such as Mr Robinson, see him returning as appointed chairman.
He is blamed by the Keating Government for getting ATSIC into hot water about a board decision last year to spend $20 million of an available $24 million on land purchases in the Northern Territory.
GERHARDT PEARSON: The brother of Mabo hero Noel Pearson, he is embroiled in a messy battle with the Cairns-based Tharpuntoo Legal Service about competing claims for land and mining royalties.
Tharpuntoo has been a vocal critic of Pearson's actions in the Hope Vale community, north of Cairns, claiming he has failed to declare pecuniary interests. The legal service is one of seven now under federal audit ordered by Senator Herron.
CHRISTINE WILLIAMS: The NSW metropolitan commissioner is under Federal Police investigation for $220,000 paid in 1993- 94 to the National Aborigine and Islander Day Observance Committee, which she chaired. At issue is allegations of double dipping of travelling allowances and $6000 paid to rent her garage to store committee documents.
She has steadfastly protested her innocence, claiming she was never interviewed in relation to the matters. Ms O'Donoghue has told her that if she was in the same predicament, she would stand aside, but Ms Williams says this could mean going without a job for up to two years.
ATSIC UNDER SIEGE.
LOIS O'DONOGHOE: faced with scandal, internal dissent and unrelenting political pressure about the running of ATSIC.
GUY PARKER: Lois O'Donoghue has urged that Mr Parker be suspended for an unspecified period. Senator Herron, in turn, has written to Mr Parker, giving him seven days to show why this action should not be taken.
ALF BAMBLETT: Resigned from the board last year, and is under police investigation for his involvement in a payout made by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.
``SUGAR RAY" ROBINSON: The federal coalition, terrified of him being elected ATSIC chairman, wants to legislate so that Senator Herron has that responsibility.
CHRISTINE WILLIAMS: Under police investigation for $220,000 paid to the National Aborigine and Islander Day Observance Committee, which she chaired. She has asserted her innocence.