Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, edited by Patrick Sullivan. Darwin: Australian National University, North Australia Research Unit (NARU), 1996. 129pp., chapter references. ISBN 0-7315-2448-7 (pbk). AUST$24.00. Reviewed by Peter Jull (appeared in #15/16, not yet published.)

This is the indispensable recent book for anyone seeking to understand Australian indigenous policy and politics. The federal government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, or ATSIC as it is universally known, is at the centre of things—nation-wide facilitator and fixer, though often embroiled in controversy itself; essential resource agency, but accused of trying to appropriate the voice of indigenous Australia as its price; attacked daily as too bashful, too forward, too luxurious, too paralysed by accounting, too centralised, too diffuse, too insidiously “white,” too self-consciously “black.”

Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and its compartments are much older, but nobody has ever tried to embarrass DIAND with shows of public affection, or even admiration, as has happened with ATSIC. No one has mistaken DIAND for the embodiment of Indian or Inuit Canada, as often occurs with ATSIC among sections of the white public. Corporate dandy too showy by half, or clerical bum too often a no-show—if not at the pub, as some whisper—ATSIC has attracted notice and noise which DIAND might envy. Public attention can be a form of political capital; it often enables much else to become possible. In Australia, however, ATSIC has too often attracted the anxiety and deep prejudice of non-indigenous people. It has been a national scapegoat since even before it came into existence. And in the past year a renegade MP has focussed populist backlash to Australian membership in the world community by urging withdrawal from the United Nations because it is just ATSIC writ large! (See the author’s review of Australia’s turbulent indigenous and northern year, “Voices of Summer,” in “Northern Notes” in this issue.)

But while one-line put-downs of ATSIC on the one hand, and the stoic pleas for reasonableness and racial tolerance of its first chair, Lois O’Donoghue, on the other, have both become a well-established part of Australian contemporary culture through the news media, only persons directly associated, or who are part of the national indigenous community, have any idea about the real ATSIC. The essays in this book provide its history, national context, inner life, larger political dynamics, prospects, and situation in comparative international terms. The images may not always be one which please ATSIC officials, but they should be content. What comes through clearly is that ATSIC is so much a creation of mixed motives, and was structured with such built-in dilemmas, that difficulties were impossible to avoid. A cynic might say that in making members of desperately under-privileged communities appear responsible for solving all their own problems, while giving them quite inadequate funding for the task, Australian governments ensure unseemly indigenous squabbles about the share-out and guarantees ongoing public distraction from the real problem, i.e., official sins of omission and commission past and present.

Formed from the preceding federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Aboriginal Development Commission, ATSIC has inherited the ambiguities and confused intentions of the national government following on the national referendum of 1967, At that time 91 percent of voters, the largest majority in the history of Australia’s constitutional referenda (which are required for any constitutional amendment), voted to remove the constitutional bar to a federal role in indigenous affairs, a vote recollected by many informed non-indigenous observers as a de facto vote to allow for federal action in a field where the negligence and worse of the states had become a serious embarrassment abroad and a source of shame at home. The first essay in thebook is by Dr. HC “Nugget” Coombs, the senior public servant central to early federal thinking on indigenous policy and long the national conscience on these matters (see The Northern Review, combined issues no. 12/13, pp 161-167), writing here with his research colleague, Cathy Robinson. Coombs and Robinson clearly provide the background and policy swings and debates resulting in ATSIC. As this and other essays in the book note, Coombs’ basic advice on the representative authenticity and bottom-up authority for the national administration was set aside in the creation of ATSIC. Whether that is responsible for the mixed results of ATSIC’s experience is discussed by several of the authors here.

Until 1967, the individual Australian states had exclusive power over indigenous peoples and their lands. They exercised that power as badly, and as punitively, as North American Indians might fear if Ottawa and Washington left matters to the provinces and states. A powerful play, No Sugar, by Aboriginal author Jack Davis, on Western Australian experience gave audiences a moving and disturbing insight into common past occurrences during is 1986 Canadian tour. (Federal experience was not much better, as the Louis Nowra stage adaptation of Xavier Herbert’s great Australian novel, Capricornia, set in Darwin and dealing with Aboriginal and mixed-blood policy, proved to audiences when it toured Australia in the bicentenary year of white settlement, 1988.) During the national process of community consultations and expert workshops to develop an “indigenous social justice” policy package in 1994-95 the most persistent and deeply felt issue around the country among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was anger at state and territory misuse or re-direction of indigenous funds while basic indigenous needs went unmet (see “New Directions in North Australia,” The Northern Review, No. 14).

An essay at the centre of this book is “The Political Identity of Regional Councillors,” by Tim Rowse. It should be required reading for all those in Canada and Scandinavia faced with new relationships between public authorities and indigenous spokespersons (i.e., the Sami Parliaments). ATSIC provides for indigenous regional councils elected district-by-district across the whole country. The relationship, however, of these regional councils to the workings of the public administration—ATSIC’s other face, i.e., the federal bureaucracy—and to the board of Commissioners who is its national executive—their number elected from groupings of those regional councils plus several federal appointments, including the ATSIC chairperson—is troubled. This, though, should surprise no one. In a political system whose underlying doctrine is the separation of powers, combining a bureaucracy beholden to a national Parliament and public service with elected representatives accountable to local indigenous groups, was always daft. The local indigenous electors often need basic services and infrastructure; impatience and frustration with the white system’s constraints was assured.

The other question is more important for the long run. The notion of a strong centralised ATSIC has appealed to some Aboriginal leaders because it could strongly fight national battles on gut issues like native title. It cannot be doubted that the indigenous movement, having come to final maturity in the years of the Hawke-Keating Labor government, often saw in the style of the dominant Labor Right faction’s power-brokers a model. That is, just as many Canadian indigenous groups mistook the long-lasting but ultimately transient Trudeau government political culture for Canadian political tradition as a whole, so many Aborigines assumed that the Labor style of governance was the way things were done in Australia as a whole. This is not surprising—Labor has welcomed indigenous causes and persons to their midst in a way which the Coalition, some few fine representatives past and present apart, have not.

It is clear, however, that many indigenous peoples, and certainly most of those who live in some part of their traditional territories, and also those isolated from the white community,e.g., on old reserves or missions sites, want a decentralised mode. They see maximum local and regional decision-making as an important means of protecting their unique society and cultural identity, and not surprisingly have found some inspiration in the resource management and self-government progress of Inuit and Indians in Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland. As Tim Rowse and others make clear in this book, the struggle between decentralist and centralist approaches has consumed much energy and may be responsible for many difficulties in ATSIC’s early years. The authors here all see an inexorable trend to regional decentralisation. However, some of them also see ATSIC as contesting local and regional political authority with the plethora of grass-roots organisations which had already grown up over many years. Coombs had urged Canberra that those existing bodies, not new ones imposed from above, should form the basis of indigenous political empowerment. It would be ironic, as one author notes, if a move to empower peoples in fact undermined their hard-won self-empowerment! (The 1996 attacks on ATSIC by the Howard government have given the ATSIC regional bodies a cachet some of them previously lacked with their constituents, reflected in better voter turnouts at the recent ATSIC elections across the country.)

The final essay in the book is written by its editor, Patrick Sullivan: “All Things to All People: ATSIC and Australia’s International Obligation to Uphold Indigenous Self-Determination.” This essay is most important for Australians trying to figure out where their country really stands amid the continual public relations bafflegab and angry disputes, and for the rest of the world in putting Australia in perspective. Because the creation of ATSIC was heralded and accompanied by a major campaign of disinformation and implicit racism by the Coalition, as the federal opposition at the end of the 1980s, ATSIC has always been oversold By supporters. In fact, that may be a large part of its problem. The diplomatic offensive reached Ottawa where various credulous persons, even in indigenous organisations, have bought the line that ATSIC is a great progressive reform. Few Canadian indigenes would be so keen if they realised that ATSIC was designed to pre-empt or replace the self-government they so determinedly seek. And as for the proud claim that no other country has gone the ATSIC route of building up the national indigenous administration—“a unique indigenous agency, without parallel anywhere in the world,”as Michael Dillon says in the first sentence of his otherwise useful essay here—the reason is that other countries view central colonial-style bureaucracies as an unfortunate relic due for euthanasia. Indeed, if the Howard government recovers from its disastrous start in indigenous affairs—and after all, when the Trudeau government unveiled its notorious Indian policy paper in its first year (1969), few would have foreseen indigenous leaders deeply distressed when Trudeau left office 15 years later—its best contribution may yet be a genuine devolution of power and funds to indigenous local and regional authorities. At any rate, such devolution is a positive notion which has circulated in Coalition ranks for many years.

Sullivan worries that while ATSIC is presented abroad as the embodiment of indigenous self-determination, it may be simply a means of continuing colonial control. This fear is widely shared by indigenous people themselves. Sullivan works much in the Kimberley, the northernmost region of Western Australia, amid one of the fiercest struggles between bottom-up indigenous regional land claims and self-government movements on the one hand, and the ATSIC structure on the other.1 Right across Northern Australia, as well as the great dry centre of the continent reaching as far south as the Great Australian Bight, indigenous regionalism wins through, with the federal administration coming to play a contented and constructive role as facilitator, as DIAND learned to do.

In the short term bringing together of so many functions and opposites in the ATSIC system may have muddied the waters. What is notable is the way in which officials black andwhite, as well as those connected with the regional councils and the national board of Commissioners, have tried to make the best of a fundamentally flawed concept and achieve real gains for indigenous people. As it was in Northern Canada, the move for the administration of indigenous peoples to political control by indigenous peoples seems a very big step for national governments. Meanwhile, the insider Dillon, who heads the Prime Minister’s department’s indigenous office, fears that ATSIC may be overstressing its indigenous authenticity at the expense of its potential influence within the interdepartmental, interagency machinations of Canberra. That would be good news to many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

      Peter Jull is an Associate of the Australian National University’s Northern Australia Research Unit, Darwin, Australia, and Advisory Board member of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen, Denmark. He lives in Brisbane and is an Advisory Editor of The Northern Review.


1.See P. Yu, “The Kimberley: From Welfare Colonialism to Self-Determination,” Aboriginal Australia: Land, Law and Culture. Edited by P. Poynton. Originally in Race and Class, Vol. 35, No. 4 (April-June 1994), 21-33; G. Crough, “Out of the Crocodile Hole: Towards a Regional Agreement in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia,” Arena Magazine, No. 18 (August-September 1995), 35-38; and P. Sullivan, Beyond Native Title: Multiple Land-Use Agreements and Aboriginal Governance in the Kimberley, Discussion Paper 89 (Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, 1995).

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