22 08 04 - Alison Holland Fellowship

*Speakers: Luke Hickey (L), Alison Holland (A)

*Audience: (Au)


*Date: 4/8/22

L:        Yama, good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Luke Hickey, I’m the Assistant Director General of the Engagement Branch and I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and the custodians of this land. I’d like to give my respect to elders past and present and emerging and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well.

Our thank you for those who have braved the weather in attending this event in the theatre and a big thank you to those who are joining us online as well, we’re coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country here.

This afternoon’s presentation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission: Toward a History is by Associate Professor Allison Holland, a 2022 National Library of Australia Fellow. Our distinguished fellowships program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library’s collection through residencies of three months. National Library of Australia fellowships are made possible by generous philanthropic support and we thank our sponsors. Professor Holland’s scholarship is supported by past and present members of the National Library Council and patrons.

Alison Holland is an Associate Professor in History and Archaeology at Macquarie University where she specialises in Australian history with research interests in indigenous history, policy and governance, humanitarianism, social justice and citizenship. She has published widely on these themes and her book, Just Relations, the Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s History Prize in 2016. It was described as a major achievement and a remarkable contribution to Australian history. Her second book, Breaking the Silence, Aboriginal Defenders and the Settler State from 1905 to 1939 was published in 2019.

In her presentation today Professor Holland will present research findings on the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission which will contribute to the first major written history of this organisation. As the nation moves towards implementing the Uluru Statement of the Heart it’s timely for us to look back on the history of indigenous policymaking in Australia so please join me in welcoming Professor Holland.


A:        Thank you, Luke. So I would also like to begin by acknowledging that I am delivering this presentation on the unceded lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to elders past and present. I also want to thank the past and present members of the Library’s Council and patrons for this fellowship and the fellowship’s team as well as Rebecca Bateman from Indigenous Engagement, all of whom have been really fantastic help and support while I’ve been on this fellowship.

So before I get started properly I’d like to just show this cultural sensitivity warning. I’ll just read it out. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised this presentation contains names and images of deceased people and other content that may be culturally sensitive. Please be aware that you may hear and/or see certain words, descriptions or images which reflect the attitude of the person or persons who originally said or created them at a particular historical moment that may now be considered offensive. They do not reflect the views - my views.

Okay so there might be some of you who remember the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the longest running peak indigenous representative body that lasted for some 15 years, a decade-and-a-half in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs were in the words of its first Chairperson, Lowitja O'Donoghue, at the leading edge of public and political debate in this country.

I remember it really well or I should say I remember its abolition really well. A couple of years just prior to it I had been asked to develop a unit on what was then called Aboriginal History at my university and one of the things I made a lot of use of at the time was the ATSIC website, an amazing resource jam-packed with information, resources and links to some wonderful research including on international developments in indigenous affairs. It truly was the best website I’ve ever seen.

So when ATSIC was abolished and the website with it I felt somewhat winded. All of that body of work of indigenous knowledge, production and circulation, of intercommunity dialogue and activism crumbled, gone in an instant and had come to fully appreciate that which I instinctively felt at the time which was just how seriously winded many first nations people were too. As Sam Jeffries, Chairperson of [Manipaki] 4:50 Regional Council commented to me, he was a product of ATSIC and he grieved ATSIC.

Perhaps you remember some of the rather hostile politics that accompanied its end. Hardly ever out of the news during its lifetime, in the lead-up to its abolition the media was dominated by very hostile press coverage from sensational headlines of corruption, fraud and waste, what the Liberal MP Christopher Pyne labelled the ATSIC gravy train to exaggerated cartoon depictions of the same like you see here, indigenous leaders abandoning their constituents through personal feuds or just incompetence in the face of significant disadvantage.

In any case the then Prime Minister John Howard’s determination to bury ATSIC seems to have worked remarkably well, even to the point that it seems at times one should not even utter its name despite deeply important and relevant history for indigenous affairs today.

So one of the benefits of this National Library fellowship is that I’ve been able to recover aspects of the history, indeed start to recover the institution itself. The Library holds something in the order of a quarter of a million items relating to the organisation, annual reports, discussion papers, information kits, materials that ATSIC produced, copies of speeches and papers, indigenous newspapers, maps, corporate plans, pictures and the list goes on, all testament of course to the amazing amount of work outputs and recordkeeping of the Commission. Gratefully I was given permission to view the papers of Lowitja O'Donoghue as well as some oral histories of key first nations people involved in the organisation and some of the politicians too.

Personally I have been interested in questions of indigenous politics and governance in Australian history for a long time, focusing on – in my work on – largely on civil societies’ interactions and interventions in this politics and their interface with governments. In my last book, Breaking The Silence, Aboriginal Defenders and the Settler State, 1904 to 1939, I demonstrated the politic – the problematics of not listening to or talking over the top of the indigenous political order.

So in this project I aim to be attuned to first nations perspectives and knowledges while shining a light on nonindigenous modes of policy and governance. ATSIC was a Commonwealth Government agency. As a nonindigenous historian I’m interested in historicising how the Australian state has responded to the question of first nations self-determination.

So today I’m going to recover some of the story of ATSIC from my 12 weeks here by looking at three broad stages in its evolution and along the way give you just a little taste of the amazing work that it did.

Firstly a difficult birth, chronologically going through in the middle period I’m calling hope and promise and the last phase which some of us probably remember – I’ve called it under siege because it was - it’s constantly the thing that people in ATSIC were talking about and it was also of course labelled as such in the press in these final years.

So to start with, a difficult birth. In presenting his bill the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill for its second reading in the House of Representatives in August 1988 the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke Ministry, Gerry Hand, outlined what it was all about and I just want to quote some of his speech. He said, before I proceed to the substance of this bill I would like to recount a story which I believe illustrates very vividly what ATSIC is all about. It is a story about a meeting held in February this year in a dried up creek bed at a place called Wingellina on the borders of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. There were between two to 300 people at this meeting, many of whom had travelled long distances from some of the most remote areas of the country. They had gathered together to discuss a new proposal, one which would allow them to have for the first time a direct involvement in the directions – decisions which affect their own lives.

In their own languages across three days they worked through the proposal. The Chairman of the meeting was Yami Lester, well known and respected by all who knew him, he guided them through the meeting and the details. The proposal they were considering was the setting up of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. For the [Nandra] 9:23 and Pitjantjatjara people the new body would mean they would be charged with setting the priorities for their own people in their own regions. It would also mean their own elected representative, one of their own people, would be part of a Commission which would have the power to formulate and implement policies for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The people who attended the meeting decided that such a body would be a good idea and they voted unanimously to support it. The legislation would establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a statutory body amalgamating the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development Commission which were the two bodies that had preceded it.

Hand also said this, the philosophy underlying ATSIC was that it was to be a solid foundation that Aboriginal people could use and build upon in their quest for self-determination and self-management. In proposing the establishment of ATSIC the government recognised and accepted the persistent demands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this nation to become involved in the decision-making process of government. ATSIC is an acknowledgment by all of us that it is no longer acceptable for governments to dictate what is best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they should decide for themselves what needs to be done. That is exactly what will happen when this legislation is enacted.

Okay, that’s part of his speech. In his Foundations for the Future speech launching the Commission proposal in the Federal Parliament some nine months earlier than this. Hand said there was a need to understand and address seriously the vital issue of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. He said self-determination, and I quote again, did not imply separate nationhood, rather it embodies the ambitions and aspirations of indigenous communities to play their role in a way which is meaningful to them and by way of mechanisms and programs over which they exercise significant control.

The linchpin of the Commission would be 28 regional councils organised around zones who would elect a regional representative to sit on a National Commission. Together they would form a decentralised administrative structure to ensure that the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people flowed from the grassroots to the centre of government. The legislation giving effect to the Commission would also have a lengthy preamble, recognising indigenous people as prior owners of the land as well as dispossession without compensation or agreement and it also cited objectives for action including rectification of past injustices, reconciliation, policies to overcome economic and social disadvantage and furtherance of self-determination. It also referred to Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

So Hand’s proposal received much criticism, particularly by the opposition who were vehemently opposed to it. It would be a black parliament, a black mafia, would operate Aboriginal affairs. In the words of John Howard, ATSIC would tear at the unity of the Australian nation. Styling the legislation a racial law he maintained it would create distrust and division. Much critique of the opposition was also levelled at the preamble. They argued that it might create a legal precedent that could be used and I quote, as a tool to influence the High Court to recognise an antecedent title of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia. Now this was five years before the Mabo decision and they were complaining that this preamble might actually give effect to something like that.

So Hand rejected the idea that the preamble carried such legal import and he argued that its importance was rather, and I quote, as a historical expression of philosophy and principle. Nevertheless with the help of the Democrats the opposition successfully lobbied for a Senate Select Committee to examine the proposal including the question of consultation. To complicate matters, concurrent with this was a series of inquiries into the administration of the Aboriginal Department, the one that was already in existence, around public accountability and its operation and its funding arrangements including allegations of [patronage] 13:54 and favouritism which fuelled the critique.

Hand put a lot of store in his consultation, arguing that implementation of the proposal rested on community approval. In early 1988 with Charlie Perkins he toured 50,000km around the country and spoke personally with 6,000 indigenous representatives from 1,200 indigenous groups. His foundation speech was widely distributed in Aboriginal communities, explanatory videos were made in six languages and there were extensive community meetings and consultations.

From these consultations came unanimous support for the regional council structure. This isn’t surprising. Regional assemblies had been central to a report conducted by [Yankinjara] 14:39 woman Lowitja O'Donoghue in 1985. Commissioned by the then Aboriginal Affairs Minster Clyde Holding, he sought her advice on a replacement for the National Aboriginal Conference, the representative body which preceded ATSIC. This followed an investigation which found that there were significant shortcomings in the advisory role of the organisation. Like the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee before it both were elected bodies designed to give effect to self-determination which lacked decision-making powers. Holding proposed a replacement that would be based on Aboriginal aspirations.

The regional council structure was one of the main areas of concern in Hand’s consultation with communities. They were widely seen as the most important and innovative part of the proposal. But Hand’s 28 regional offices which were based on the original regional offices of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs at the time were not only too few but not particularly sensitive to cultural, historical or linguistic differences. Boundary lines sometimes went through and separated communities from their outstations, for example.

As the [Anmajurra] 15:51 community from central Australia informed the Select Committee, quote, you can’t split up our country, you can’t put us with all those other people from different country. That mob from south haven’t got skin groups like us, unquote. Speaking of the diverse sovereignties of indigenous Australia the [Yugulmanga] 16:07 Community Council from the Northern Territory said, in our traditional society we are many nations, as diverse from one another as Europeans are from Chinese.

Hand took all of these critiques on board including the recommendations from various reports into the administration of his department. The Select Committee ultimately supported the bill to proceed following a list of 40 recommendations which were mainly around the composition of the regional councils and their setup and tightening provisions around accountability.

So the revised legislation now projected 60 regional councils and called for the establishment of an Office of Evaluation and Audit within ATSIC to conduct regular audits of its operations and to report quarterly to the board and to the Minister. As the first indigenous CEO of ATSIC, Pat Turner, declared, this meant that along with annual reports of the National Audit Office and regular Parliamentary inquiries ATSIC was the most scrutinised agency of Commonwealth public administration.

Following another six months of Parliamentary debate and 90 amendments, to that point the second most amended piece of legislation since federation, and nearly two years since the idea had first been floated the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act was passed bringing into being a network – sorry, bringing into being a National Commission of elected indigenous representatives from 17 zones and a network of regional councils consisting of between 10 and 20 members who were elected every three years. The Government then appointed a further three people including the Chair and Deputy Chair and the administrative arm was staffed by public servants and headed by a CEO who was also appointed by the Minister.

So ATSIC’s primary role was to formulate and monitor programs, develop policy proposals, advise the Minister and coordinate activities of all levels of government. It expended Commonwealth Government funds to specific programs along with other Commonwealth Government departments like the Department of Employment, Education and Training and other programs from state and territory governments.

Of the total sum dedicated to indigenous affairs by the Commonwealth the Commission’s budget throughout its lifetime accounted for about 40 to 60% so the total amount and 40 to 60% of that was – just went to ATSIC from Commonwealth funds.

By the mid-1990s it was administering something in the order of 6,000 grants to about 1,500 incorporated community-led indigenous organisations across Australia. In addition about 25% of its budget went to the provision of sewerage, water, roads, electricity and the like and it also ran a series of other programs and schemes around Aboriginal hostels, health, business and housing, housing loans so a range of other sort of schemes like that. The plan was a phased devolution to the regions, a gradual transition of more of ATSIC’s budget being allocated to regional councils according to need and you can see on this graph here that that’s exactly what happened so you see this is the proportion of funds administered by regional councils. The regional council programs are represented in black and the Commission programs are the grey and you can see from 1991 through to 1995 that the black increases quite significantly by the time you get to 1995 so it’s exactly what they said they would do.

ATSIC organised its work around a structure of programs initially in three core areas, economic, social and corporate and then there were of course a range of subprograms, land, law and justice, heritage, community, housing and training, commercial, economic and business initiatives. All programs were aimed at and measured in terms of achieving social justice.

So a complex agency combining representative, advisory and administrative functions, ATSIC began operation in March 1990. In Hand’s words, a radical and timely change in the administration of Aboriginal affairs. Out in the regions it’s been described as the single most important representative body for indigenous Australians.

So turning to hope and promise. For the first Chairperson of a Commission, Lowitja O'Donoghue, it was a revolution in Aboriginal affairs, by which she meant a complete turnaround in the line of authority. She said the world was watching, commenting that the head of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations saw it as a major new advance in indigenous governance, untried anywhere in the world. Lowitja hoped that it would earn the respect of the world.

After the elections in November 1990 the regional councils began formal operations early in 1991. Their purpose was to develop regional plans for the social and economic advancement of their communities, consult and represent the interests of their regions and administer projects. As this comment from the Chairperson of the [Mayalli] 21:41 Regional Council in the Northern Territory suggests there was much community optimism.

Since the birth of ATSIC and the subsequent regional council elections genuine hope of a better future for the Aboriginal people living in the communities of the [Mayalli] region has pervaded every meeting and consultation undertaken by the regional councillors and the ATSIC field officers working with us. For the first time in the history of the Aboriginal affairs portfolio the Aboriginal people have felt free to express their concerns, their wishes and their aspirations. It can be said that the birth of ATSIC has given a new impetus to the maintenance of traditions and the development of cultural life.

Two major tasks were overseen by the Commission in the first year of operation, implementation of the Federal Government’s National Aboriginal Health Strategy, a significant injection of funds across five years administered by ATSIC’s Office of Aboriginal Health and helping to formulate a national response to the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, what O’Donoghue described as the most important social document of the 20th century.

The Royal Commission concluded that social, economic and cultural deprivation were crucial factors leading to the deaths and emphasised the importance of self-determination and empowerment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. ATSIC developed a Royal Commission monitoring unit and coordinated an extensive consultation process across the country, delivering their findings on indigenous responses and priorities to the report to the Federal Cabinet in 1992. That was the first such meeting of its kind ever.

They put the injection of funds from the Commonwealth to substance abuse prevention, legal services, land acquisition and a variety of other programs targeting art, culture, sport, recreation and employment and training for young people. However this moment also coincided with the Mabo decision which in a very real sense put ATSIC to the test. How empowered were indigenous people, really? Would the advice of its peak indigenous body be taken on board by the government? Would it help to counter the critique of some indigenous groups that ATSIC was little more than a white bureaucratic structure serving government aims?

The June 1992 Mabo judgement related to the claims of the Murray Islanders in the Torres Strait to custodianship of their land and waters on the basis of their own laws and customs. After a protracted 10-year legal battle the High Court upheld the claim, overturning terra nullius as the basis of British sovereignty and recognising indigenous claims within the common law.

You might recall the heightened public and political debate around this decision as the nation grappled with its implications for the mainland. From the moment of the High Court’s ruling in June 1992 ‘til 18 months later when the Native Title Bill was finally passed Mabo was a household name and it fuelled much heated debate and political discussion including alarmist claims about citizens losing their backyards and the spread of disinformation by shock jocks and the press which like so much else concerning indigenous affairs drowned out what they were saying or even how they were responding.

So I don’t have time in this paper to go through the details of what was an incredibly conflicted political landscape across this 18 months as the Commonwealth Government battled it out with the state and territory governments, remembering that land management is the purview of the states and as indigenous representatives battled it out with both as well as the various stakeholders such as the mining and pastoral industries. However it is important to recover ATSIC’s role because as the leading indigenous advisory body it was required to lead the national indigenous response. It is impossible to overstate what sense of purpose and pride it felt at the task. The Mabo judgment had delivered something that indigenous people in Australia had never had before and as they noted this decision brought Australia in line with comparable countries who had recognised indigenous title for a long time. It raised their expectations and they saw their task as providing policy and legal advice to the Commonwealth.

One of the recurring threads through the debates was an indigenous demand that this be a national settlement. Referring to the ’67 referendum they insisted that the Commonwealth accept its constitutional authority to take responsibility in indigenous affairs.

When the Commonwealth Government initiated a consultation process in October 1992 ATSIC contributed a 10-point submission which itemised core concerns and called on the government to maintain the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act which had been the Whitlam Government’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1975.

ATSIC said that the Racial Discrimination Act protected native title from extinguishment without compensation and actually threw doubt on leases that had been granted since 1975. They also pointed to the need for a national tribunal to determine native title claims and the need to take into account what they said – and I came across this quite a lot – the needs of the dispossessed by which they meant that most indigenous people would not in fact benefit from the Mabo decision as traditional lands had been alienated and because of the historical condition of their dispossession. So there was a need for the government to develop national land rights legislation as well as a land fund.

In the public domain debate raged amidst demands for bucketloads of extinguishment and economic security. The states, particularly Western Australia but also Queensland as you can see on the screen, remained opposed and hostile to the concept of native title and they invoked states’ rights while the resources industry was hoping for a quick fix, a legislative response to validate titles issued after 1975.

In the early months of 1993 things looked particularly grim as the Federal Government agreed to support Northern Territory legislation aimed at protecting a major mining project from a Mabo-style native title claim. Indigenous people saw this as a sell-out to Mabo principles.

By April 1993 ATSIC delivered a peace plan, a peace plan to the Prime Minister in which they agreed to the validation of all mining leases since 1975 as long as a set of conditions were met, sacred site and other environmental protections, compensation, remuneration for the value of minerals found, recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, recognition that native title could coexist with Crown grants and be revived at the termination of mining leases, no extinguishment without consent and importantly the initiation of a long-term settlement process to the benefit of first nations people and negotiation on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Keating’s Government responded by issuing a set of 33 principles in June that worried ATSIC and other indigenous groups. In particular they had strong reservations about the threat to the Racial Discrimination Act, the need for full consent on development projects and about the package of social justice measures. They saw that Keating’s principles provided no guarantee that Aboriginal rights would be protected or the Racial Discrimination Act or the principle of consent. Further, they treated native title as comparable with all other interests in land rather than as special interests. They allowed no time to consider a social justice package.

By August an important intervention emerged from the Eva Valley community in the Northern Territory who rejected the Federal Government’s proposals outright. They said, in general there is no evidence that native title is a welcome addition to the Australian legal landscape capable of enriching its multicultural society, it is treated as a nuisance to be tied down and confined as much as possible so that the privileged non-Aboriginal Australians can get back to business as usual with minimum inconvenience.

Referencing the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission the Eva Valley group reiterated the principle that all legislation must be negotiated and based on indigenous consent, that the Commonwealth take full control of native title to the exclusion of the states and honour its international human rights obligation and the need for a settlement process for the long-term benefit of Aboriginal people that recognised the historical truth of the violation of their rights and redress for their dispossession and disadvantage. They wanted to see native title legislation go beyond property rights to a broad social justice package.

So in the next few months as the Commonwealth continued its negotiations with the states ATSIC worked closely with other indigenous groups, particularly the Land and Legal Councils. It developed a close working relationship with the Eva Valley group, establishing a working party in Canberra and they needed this alliance as Keating ultimately caved in to state pressures. Despite continuing exhortations from Lowitja to protect Aboriginal human rights Keating’s draft legislation in September rejected the indigenous peace plan. All non-Aboriginal titles back to 1788 would be validated, land interests were to be subject to state authorities, the Racial Discrimination Act would be suspended where it threatened validations between 1975 and 1992 and no compensation land fund was foreshadowed.

So the indigenous negotiators were deeply disappointed. According to one it proposed to effect the greatest single act of extinguishment of native title since 1788. In a day known as Black Friday in early October led by Lowitja the indigenous negotiators rejected the draft outright. They then entered into a very lengthy two to three-week day night process, weeks long of negotiating process with the government. They suggested that in order to project the Racial Discrimination Act native title legislation should be enacted as a special measure within the confines of the legislation in exchange for a number of negotiated benefits including being able to choose to have claims heard in a federal tribunal rather than a state one, setting just terms of compensation, the right of negotiation and again developing a social justice package.

Finally, on these principles Keating finally agreed. Just like the ATSIC legislation before it the native title legislation had a difficult passage through Parliament, Opposition Leader John Hewson describing it as a millstone around our country’s prosperity. Indeed after the longest debate in the Senate’s history with the support of the Greens and the Democrats at the stroke of midnight and to a standing ovation of two to 300 people in the galleries the Native Title Bill was passed three days before Christmas in 1993.

O’Donoghue saw this as an historical moment for indigenous people, not because they got all they wanted. As she pointed out they had to compromise in the interests of national settlement. Negotiation had been at the core of indigenous demands from the start. The real significance with her was the emergence of a powerful coalition in indigenous affairs. These intercommunity negotiations, she would later write, were actually very difficult, they were not easy but ATSIC ran with organisations who were prepared to develop a national indigenous position such as Land Councils who became part of the negotiating team.

Not only did they demonstrate their political credentials, she said, they put old arguments to rest. I have a quote there for her on the screen, the tired old arguments that Aboriginal people could not negotiate, the united front of indigenous organisations could not be achieved, that ATSIC could never gain a political voice independent of government have been laid to rest.

So the Mabo moment enabled ATSIC to find its feet, to exercise a political voice, to pull together in a common cause when in O’Donoghue’s terms ATSIC quote, set out to charter a new course for indigenous people set by the beacon of native title.

We can see the middle 1990s period as one of great productivity and consolidation. The second ATSIC elections were held in December 1993 and nominations and voter enrolments were significantly higher than the first election. O’Donoghue saw this as proof that ATSIC was now seen as part of the machinery of government with an independent voice.

We see the ongoing very successful delivery of services. In particular their flagship programs, the Community Development and Employment Program, the CDEP and the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program or CHIP which you can see on the screen are sort of graphs showing you the success of the CDEP program. On the right-hand side is just showing you the number of community development projects around Australia as at 1993 so that’s quite early in the piece and if you track through the annual reports, the maps like this you can see that it just keeps growing so right toward the end you’ve got a lot of these projects across Australia. On the left-hand side you can see the participants and expenditure from 1976 which was when the program started, to 1995 and you can see the black dots of the participants and they go right up to where we get to 1995 to ’96. The expenditure also in the grey also goes up.

So we see the consolidation of these two flagship programs. Now CDEP was a community-led and initiated employment program as a substitute for sit-down money. Participants would relinquish unemployment benefits to work on a community project funded by an ATSIC grant which would pay wages to participants. Most of the funds were offset against unemployment benefits that would otherwise be paid to them. It was by far and away the most productive and appreciated program, providing much needed skills, education and training as well as confidence and self-esteem.

As a participant in the scheme noted, quote, the good thing about the CDEP is that it’s got no reverse gear. It’s got some rough edges but we aren’t going backwards to the social system.

By 2003 just prior to ATSIC’s abolition CDEP employed 35,000 people in 270 projects across the country. Beyond this across its 400-page annual reports we see accounts of the amazingly rich and diverse programs and services ATSIC funded, supported and seeded. To name a few, Legal Aid, violence protection, native title services, revival of languages, heritage protection including the repatriation of cultural and human remains and a range of arts, culture and sports programs. ATSIC was also the primary funder of indigenous broadcasting, establishing a broadcasting for remote Aboriginal community scheme and subsidising Imparja, the only indigenous-controlled and owned TV service in Alice Springs as well as lobbying for a national indigenous broadcaster.

Members of the organisation regularly attended the UN Working Group on Indigenous Rights and in 1993 ATSIC funded a group of Pitjantjatjara women to attend an international conference on indigenous women hosted by the Maori Women’s League in New Zealand. As well there was a continuing devolution of funds to the regions like I pointed out a little while ago. It continued to deliver policy advice and advocacy.

In March 1995 ATSIC delivered a major report titled Recognition Rights and Reform to the Australian Government. This was the final part of the reform process begun by the Mabo decision. It was ATSIC’s articulation of the social justice package that had been so integral to their demands around native title. Following an extensive consultative process they developed 113 recommendations which called for institutional, structural, collaborative and cooperative reform and a major reorientation of administration from welfare to rights, from dependence to autonomy and from government assistance to self-determination. A major theme of the report threaded all the way through it was that the need to redefine indigenous Australians’ relationship with governments.

In that year too, 1995, ATSIC gained NGO status with the Social and Economic Council of the UN, giving it an independent voice at international forums and it had been – played a very important role in – within the Working Group on Indigenous Rights within the UN. It helped to draft the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and it played a really important role in the wording around – particularly around self-determination. So a really important development.

Okay so so much hope and progress. I’m afraid we have to turn to a period, the last period which I can only describe as being them being under siege. So the momentum of these middle years was halted from March 1996 with the change of government to the Prime Ministership of John Howard who never hid his opposition to ATSIC or to self-determination or his support for a particular version of Australian history. I mean I think most of us in the room possibly remember.

His administration was characterised by a move away from social justice as the measure of all policy to what he called practical reconciliation, in his terms, and I quote, lifting health and educational standards rather than being driven by a politically correct agenda, unquote. A view that social justice could not be delivered until a range of socioeconomic disadvantages had been met.

His government straight away announced a $470m cut to ATSIC’s budget which by quarantining employment and housing meant that they had to make difficult decisions to cut community training and youth programs both of which and been recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, John Herron, alienated the Board of Commissioners straight away by making a series of interventions in indigenous affairs before he even met with them. Included in this was a determination to cut the number of regional councils all to the legislation to prevent the position of Chairperson becoming an elected representative and the appointment of a special auditor to examine accountability in the organisation, to decide if the indigenous organisations who got grants were fit and proper bodies to receive them.

This million dollar exercise which ATSIC paid for was cut short because the Federal Court ruled that the government had actually overreached the legislation by appointing the auditor in the first place however the company, KPMG, published its results and it found that at the 1,122 organisations being funded by ATSIC 95% of them were cleared for further funding and only 5% were not, either because they were too small or because through a lack of management and training they fell short. The report also uncovered no instances of fraud but discovered a system of grant administration so detailed as to make breaches of grant conditions inevitable.

Sorry, I think I should have probably – I’m going to this. This led to a very tense relationship between the Minister and ATSIC which wasn’t helped by Herron establishing an Office of Indigenous Policy within Prime Minster and Cabinet, effectively sidelining ATSIC. Nor was it helped by the direction of policy in the mid to late 1990s. Not only did the government indicate that it would not support the recommendations of ATSIC’s 1995 social justice package, a document Herron admitted to never having read, but it divided remote from urban communities in policy terms, a division that they did not agree with themselves.

As well, the government sought significant changes to native title, heritage protection and land rights legislation against an increase in public discussion of ATSIC getting more than its fair share of public resources accompanied by derogatory comments about a guilt industry and Aboriginal industry and political correctness.

Indeed by the late 1990s – that’s why my cascading headlines were meant to come in at this point – indeed by the late 1990s ATSIC lurched through a series of accountability crises in the context of unremitting scrutiny of the organisation, an immediate discourse which focused on alleged cases of corruption, financial mismanagement, criminal activity and waste, what O’Donoghue framed as the myth of the wasted millions. As her successor, Gatjil Djerrkura, noted, in the midst of alarming directions in indigenous affairs debate on them was totally eclipsed by discussions around ATSIC’s accountability.

In truth, criticism of ATSIC had never abated. It reared its head during the Mabo campaign when a regular feature began to appear in the annual reports, tracking the climate of criticism. In the early ‘90s O’Donoghue frequently referred to the vehement attacks on the organisation and the ignorance and resentment that was propagated which ran the risk of diverting it from its charter. She highlighted how ATSIC was being criticised for not fixing over two centuries of dispossession and marginalisation in its first three years and how much of the critique had the effect of holding indigenous people responsible for their own disadvantage. She turned the critique of accountability on its head saying the following, to contend that a lot of indigenous affairs budget has somehow gone missing conveniently masks the true state of affairs, indigenous Australians are cheated by the system. This is what we regard as the great issue in indigenous affairs, the lack of accountability of state and territory governments to their indigenous citizens, unquote.

Health, the area, the portfolio of health is the most glaring example of what she’s talking about. When the Keating Government transferred the health portfolio from ATSIC to the Department of Health and Human Services in 1995 there was discussion that this was because ATSIC had failed in the area. Yet a government inquiry found at the exact same time that there was actually very little evidence of funding of the national health strategy and that ATSIC had been a scapegoat for inaction and the failure of governments to deliver.

By the late 1990s ATSIC referred to being under siege, subjected to review after review of its operations including regular audits they ordinarily had as policy changes were sharply felt and a systemic ignorance was propagated in the media. ATISC fought back including a vote of no confidence in the Minister and submitting a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressing concern about the direction of policy in relation to native title, heritage protection and mandatory detention in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. They also alerted the body to the fact that they only learnt that the government was dropping a commitment to self-determination through the pages of the press. They produced their own reports as a matter of fact, answering the myths and misconceptions about indigenous Australians, a plain English guide to the Wik case and coexistence, negotiation and certainty.

As a quarter of a million of us walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to express our support for reconciliation and many more signing sorry books around the country, as Cathy Freeman lit the flame at the Sydney Olympics and won 400m gold, as we celebrated the deep history of indigenous Australians at the opening ceremony the winds of change in indigenous affairs were far less optimistic. Indeed the government announced a restructure of ATSIC in 2000 which essentially began the process of freezing the elected arm out of the administrative and fiscal mix. In a speech titled Changing Directions in 2002 the new Minister, Philip Ruddock, pointed to the need for the individual to replace the community-orientation of indigenous organisations and an emphasis on the responsibilities of indigenous people in partnership with government. He also signalled another major review of the organisation.

The clearest example we have of the complete divergence of government and ATSIC’s aims at this moment were the efforts of ATSIC to rethink its structure and mandate at exactly this moment. In fact the Board had never not welcomed the various reviews into its operation but as the Commonwealth isolated the elected body, they were doing some of their most interesting work, conceptualising their future role. Consulting contemporary international programs of poverty reduction, sustainable development and capacity building, drawing on the work of welfare economist, Professor Amartya Sen, they began to think about ways of moving beyond grants administration to development and spoke of systematic reconstruction of their communities to recover from individual and collective trauma. Human rights and treaty were certainly part of this but they rested on principles of self-sufficiency, sustainability, capability and partnership with governments that worked to a set of agreed principles around governance and responsibility.

As ATSIC worked, the government effected what they termed a separation of powers in 2003 creating a whole new executive agency called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services to administer ATSIC which meant that ATSIC now had no funding decisions at all. From this moment on ATSIC was engulfed in yet another media frenzy, allegations of rorts, nepotism and mismanagement with a sharp focus on the leadership who were fighting various charges through the courts including defrauding taxpayers by misusing public funds. Analysing a series of articles in The Australian across these years Noongar scholar, Lauren Heinritz, argued that ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark was increasingly flamed as the cause of all of ATSIC’s alleged failures.

There was also a determined campaign around what Howard framed as ATSIC’s emphasis on symbolic issues and an amplification through the media of indigenous disadvantage, dysfunction and vulnerability which had the effect of making talk of indigenous rights seem indulgent and wasteful too.

Over and over again ATSIC tried to combat systemic ignorance about its role and capacity as a service provider. Like a broken record the leadership reiterated that it was not understood, that ATSIC was a supplementary funding body only intended to augment funding provided by the Commonwealth, states and territory governments. It did not have primary responsibility for health, employment, education, housing or infrastructure, that two-thirds of its budget was taken up with just two programs, CDEP and CHIP, that 25% of its budget was providing municipal services most other Australians took for granted and this left a discretionary budget of just 15%.

However against a deeply conflicted landscape and media consensus declaring ATSIC shambolic, a failure and responsible for its own demise the Prime Minster John Howard with bipartisan support from the Labor leader, Mark Latham, announced the abolition of the organisation in April 2004, declaring the experiment in separate indigenous representation a failure. This was just six months after its own review had recommended otherwise and before the Senate Select Committee set up to investigate the proposed changes to the legislation had brought down its report. Within three months the majority of ATSIC services and programs were transferred to mainstream departments including the ejection of elected Commissioners and regional councillors in the midst of their three-year terms.

Mainstreaming was one of the worst aspects of this process. First nations people complained that mainstreaming had only ever led to neglect and devastation and in fact report after report, usually commissioned by the government itself, said the same thing.

From a 1993 report on access and equity which described how ATSIC was required to step in in the face of agency failure or to Commonwealth Grant Commission reports in 1991 and 2001 – 1999 and 2001 that found a system of blurred responsibility between all levels of government as well as a duplication of services and buck-passing and that the supplementary funds provided through ATSIC were forced to do much work because of the barriers of access to mainstream departments and the fact that indigenous people simply didn’t like to use mainstream departments.

The $1.4m ATSIC review the government commissioned in 2003 also pointed out that funding services in mainstream agencies was totally unsustainable and it said, time and again ATSIC has been used as a scapegoat for poor indigenous affairs outcomes, even when the program responsibility did not belong to ATSIC. Many mainstream services and programs providers avoid accountability, preferring to leave the impression that ATSIC is at fault.

Most disturbing in the rush to dissolve the institution was the findings of the Senate Select Committee into the proposed abolition. It was called After ATSIC, Life in the Mainstream and it reported in March 2005 just after ATSIC had been disbanded. While it noted some weaknesses in the organisation, which were mainly structural including imposing a nonindigenous model of governance as well as problems around perception, the conflict between the advocacy and service delivery roles of the organisation and a lack of institutional muscle and resources, it also recognised many strengths and successes including a record or innovation in service delivery like CDEP, increased political participation, capacity-building and leadership of indigenous people, advocacy of indigenous interests, negotiation of agreements with state and territory governments, particularly in the area of housing and participation in international forums.

Indigenous media covered the widely felt shock and dismay of communities at the abolition and the fact that no consultation had taken place. There was a widespread sense of betrayal, that issues around the leadership were being used to destroy an entire organisation, that misuse of funds was being construed as an indigenous issue and that they were being judged by standards not applied to the white bureaucracy.

This actually accorded – this conclusion accorded with the Senate Select Committee conclusion as well. Refuting the accusation of indigenous failure it noted that its deliberations had found that at a national level our institutions’ policies and programs had failed indigenous people.

It concluded, the failure of public policy to overcome disadvantage is not a sign that ATSIC failed nor indeed is it a sign that the broader policy of self-determination is a failure. The committee does not accept that the recognition of indigenous rights has been responsible for the failure to address indigenous disadvantage, international evidence would in fact suggest that recognition and empowerment of indigenous people are fundamental to addressing indigenous disadvantage. The committee considers that national performance in indigenous affairs should be continuously carefully and transparently monitored. The government as a whole must be held accountable.

I think I’ve gone way over but to conclude, ATSIC was a significant innovation in indigenous affairs. The fact that it lasted for 15 years in the context of almost continuous hostility and critique is testament to the commitment, tenacity, belief and sheer hard work of the organisation and its regional councils. This work was evident in numerous outcomes already mentioned but it was also evident in outputs.

One of the condition of the legislation was that along with a national body each of the regional councils submit an annual report. These were among the first things I examined during this fellowship and they represent a comprehensive record of achievement from 1991 to 2004. From the remotest community in the north to the most urban in the south annual reports were duly sent in. They are a very rich record, mapping community vision and distinctiveness as well as achievements and programs, reports of work done, biographies of councillors, regional plans and, like the reports of the national body, detailed accounts of all expenditure, an impressive record of accountability and compliance.

Certainly ATSIC had challenges, there was conflict between the different layers of the body, particularly the administrative and elected arm and at times between the regions and the national body, there were interpersonal tensions in the Commission and disagreements about policy and there were challenges with funding distribution. It had always had indigenous critics too.

This is hardly surprising given its complexity but the story told here also indicates how critical intergovernmental relations were to its operation as well as government accountability. It demonstrates the need for a set of agreed principles around governance and the nature of the relationship between governments and voice. It requires that governments meet indigenous people halfway and this was exactly what the Senate Committee found, the 2005 Senate Select Committee actually recommended that governments adopt benchmarks, timeframes, that governments produce annual reports and independent reviews of their progress. It also suggested that governments adopt ATSIC’s model of capacity-building and sustainability development into the future.

The last word is going to go to Sam Jeffries who I mentioned at the very beginning of the talk who was the Chairperson of [Manipaki] Regional Council, now the [Manipaki] Regional Assembly, the peak body representing 16 communities in western New South Wales today, a tangible legacy of ATSIC. He said to me, ATSIC, like the Mabo decision, was the high water mark, nothing before it or after it has reached the same heights. Thank you.


L:        Thanks so much, Professor Holland. I think it’s quite remarkable that you’ve been able to get across such a range of material, particularly the size of those collection objects that you – and items that you found but also the complexity of the issues, the political landscape and recognising the hard work of those who worked in and with the organisation at the time I think is excellent.

We do have a few minutes for some questions. As the presentation is being recorded please pop your hand up and Jane and Kelly will come down and pass the microphone to you. Any questions for Professor Holland?

Au:      Hi, Sylvia. Now my concerns are that we’re currently on the verge of making decisions in relation to the constitution. I know it’s not entirely relevant to what’s being spoken about here today but I think it shows that what we do is we have a tendency to talk the talk but don’t necessarily provide the indigenous people with a voice. Now the proposal is in the constitution that we’re going to include an indigenous voice. That’s fine. How do we go about that? It’s been proposed by Albanese that we can do a yes or a no vote. Now I’m torn with this because a yes vote means that I support what the government is proposing in regard to an Aboriginal voice but what they’re doing is also saying that they're going to once again maintain control. If I say no it means that I'm against the Aboriginal people having a voice which is not the case but I do object to the degree of control that the government is proposing. Do you have any comment?

A:        Well I mean we don’t really know what the voice is going to look like although there’s been quite a lot written about it too that is at our disposal on the other hand. I think one of the things that’s interesting about the ATSIC case study is that it was clearly government-led and government-controlled from the get-go. It was – the language was self-determination and self-management and even though Lowitja said at some stage in the mid-1990s, she said something about how it had just become like a grants administrative body where it was really about self-management, that they’d yet to get to self-determination. Yes, we were self-managing but we weren’t really self-determining yet. Of course this is the big issue, isn’t it? I mean how do we establish a system that allows for self-determination by diverse interests, indigenous interests across the nation?

But I think it’s important that – one of the reasons I think it’s important to do things like this is because we have a history at our disposal of exactly these sorts of attempts and it’s really been quite remarkable to me that that history has hardly ever been referenced or referred to. We have - between 1972 when Whitlam decided to begin effect to self-determination we had the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee and that was put in place as a way of effecting self-determination. We did not – we had a voice, we had a voice from that moment on all the way to ATSIC virtually. There was a small period where there wasn’t a voice but we have had a long history of voice-making. We need to look at what worked, what didn’t work. We need to see where the challenges were, where they lay and where the successes were. I mean ATSIC was always – there was always indigenous critics of ATSIC, it wasn’t a unanimous ra, ra, we think this is the best thing but it was still a very remarkable institution for the moment, I think.

I think Lowitja, she – it was remarkable because she was able to direct it for the first six years so it was the longest-running – she was Chairperson for six years at that institution. She steered – people called her a moderate and she steered I guess a moderate path. She had to placate indigenous interests and the government and this was the challenge. She gave it her best shot and – but I think what I showed today as well is that there were a whole lot of complex threads weaving through here to mitigate – even mitigate any sort of successes, in fact. But I don’t have an answer, I just think that this historical work needs to be done and we need to learn the lessons from what we've already done. I mean there’s been – there is so many words, I can’t tell you, there has been so many reports and so much words as you say, rhetoric, there’s been a lot of talk the talk. But there’s been deep, deep, long reports as well. There is a lot out there at our disposal to think about this if we really want to. Tried methods, failures, successes.

The other thing I can say is that ATSIC – when it was abolished, and I hope I showed that when it was abolished it was devasting so right across the board even people who didn’t necessarily agree with it, indigenous political actors for whom it was too moderate or didn’t go far enough or who cosied up too much to the government or whatever were still devastated by the loss of it. So we have to look at this stuff and think about it, yeah.

L:        Any other questions from the floor? We do have one from online if you’ve got time for it and again this might be one that kind of goes more into discussion or any kind of observations and reflections that you’ve got but the question is, the Federal Government has ruled out handing over control of Aboriginal funding to the proposed Voice to Parliament. This is consistent with final report of the Indigenous Voice Co-design process. Given that administration of funding was crucial for the governance functions of ATSIC at a local, regional and national level is the Federal Government already setting the bar too low for the proposed Voice to Parliament? Quite a bit in that but perhaps any observations that you have of what you found.

A:        Well the funding issue was absolutely core to the whole thing from whoa to go. Gerry Hand wanted to bring in self-determination and suddenly this body was thrown into the deep end with managing all this money, all these grants. The issue of how remote communities handled all of that, the need for training and so forth was really high, was really needy. So – and as I just said O’Donoghue ended up saying, that’s all we seem to do here, is we seem to administer grants. I thought we were actually also about ideas and policy and advocacy and those sorts of things.

So – but I hope my paper showed that the real problem with funding was that the states and territories and governments did not do the work so I think we have to put this on the table and say like – I mean I think indigenous – the indigenous representatives of ATSIC, I showed you the pie chart where the funding went. As I pointed out two-thirds of it was in just two programs and they had bits and pieces around the edges of other things, that’s what they had, it was supplementary funding. They actually did that very well. If you look at the pie chart in the annual report in 1991 and you look at the pie chart in 2003/2004 just before it gets disbanded it looked pretty much the same, it looked pretty much the same.

So they were actually very good at – from their end. But the real issue is the question of what governments do and how governments pick up their act, actually, yeah.

L:        If there’s no other questions I’d ask you again to join me in thanking Professor Holland for her excellent talk today.


For those of you in the room apologies for the noise, part of the joy of working in a building that’s got continuous building works happening over the next couple of years. But a couple of quick plugs before we leave. Just wanted to firstly acknowledge today’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day as well so encourage you to look up some information on that, we do have a little bit on our social media today. I hope you can join us for our next fellowship lecture as well which is the Stockade Project to be delivered by Creative Arts Fellow and artist, Anthony White, at 5:30pm on Thursday, the 11th of August and our website is the place where you’ll be able to find recordings of the interesting and diverse recent talks that we’ve had from our fellows including today’s talk as well which are also available on our YouTube channel. If you’d like to know some more about our formed collections you can search the guide to our collections which is also on our website. Again please join me in again congratulating Professor Holland. Thank you so much.


End of recording

In this Fellowship presentation, Associate Professor Alison Holland talks about her research into the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), its work, its achievements and its legacies. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) – which was formed in 1990 and dissolved in 2005 – was an Indigenous elected national representative body without parallel anywhere in the world. It had both representative and administrative functions which achieved many policy successes including increased Indigenous participation in the public sector. Associate Professor Hollands's project explores the published works of the organisation in order to research its structure and mandate, its work across Australia in Indigenous communities, the issues it addressed and policies it initiated, its leadership, its many written reports, its national and international advocacy, its achievements and legacies. This research will be the critical base for the first written history of this innovative exercise in public administration which is part of a larger research project on the creation, operation and demise of the organisation and its relationship to the policy of self-determination. Associate Professor Alison Holland is a 2022 National Library of Australia Fellow supported by past and present members of the National Library Council and Patrons.