Australia's only national indigenous organization is facing a radical overhaul, after persistent allegations of fraud and mismanagement. The government has ordered a review of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and suspended its power to control its own funding. Critics of the review say the government is showing its prejudices against Aborigines.
These are not harmonious times for Australia's main indigenous political body. The federal government believes ATSIC needs fine-tuning. It has already taken away its powers to control its publicly funded half billion-dollar budget and may make more changes at the end of the month.
Ministers have argued ATSIC is riddled with conflicts of interests, with members handing out lucrative housing contracts worth millions of dollars, for example, to their own companies. The government also believes fraud is a problem and a review team has been asked to find out if allegations are true.
Cliff Foley is one of ATSIC's elected-commissioners. He denies any suggestion of financial deception and claims the organization is being unfairly targeted. "Governments and politicians usually bring up the hackneyed argument about… them black fellow are up to no good it's taxpayer's money and there's misappropriation attacks on aboriginal people are done conveniently by the media and by politicians to keep the focus off something else that's going on," he says.
ATSIC was created in 1990 by the federal government as a semi-autonomous body. ATSIC advises state and federal governments on indigenous affairs and administers welfare, land rights and other community programs. Indigenous communities elect their own commissioners, although voter turnout is historically low.
But critics are concerned about its performance, saying many of Australia's half million Aborigines are missing out on its services.
Conservative newspaper commentator Piers Akerman says political sensitivities make government reform of the organization difficult. "If the government takes a too strong a role in these things it's accused of being patronizing and neo-colonialist and so on… On the other hand, the funding is all taxpayer's money, so you have to weigh up the criticism that you are being paternalistic, but you really should follow strict company accounting methods," he says.
Aborigines are more likely to be unemployed, ill or in jail than any other group. Most rely on funding from the government, which is distributed through ATSIC.
Indigenous Australians have never had a cohesive and strong leadership and are now represented by thousands of community organizations, where serious disputes about money can occur.
Many communities have shown success, especially in the areas of health, education and employment. The work of ATSIC, however, has failed to tackle endemic alcohol and drug abuse, as well as soaring levels of domestic violence.
There are those who believe ATSIC, which is controlled by the government, does not have the ability to address these social concerns freely and independently. They call for ATSIC to be given more power, not less, to work for change.
Professor Richie Howitt from Macquarie University in Sydney says the broader issue is that Aborigines have not been allowed to develop their own network of independent decision-making bodies. "When we hear the fractiousness of disputes within the aboriginal polity, it often seems like there's a loss of unity, I'm saying realistically, there aren't mechanisms that allow aboriginal people to construct those notions of unity," he says.
Many Aborigines do not think government programs like ATSIC are the answer and call for self-determination. What that means in practice varies. Some think bodies like ATSIC are stepping-stones towards an indigenous government, while others would be happy with the return of ancestral lands.
Aboriginal lawyer Paul Coe believes the government simply does not appreciate the political needs of native Australians. "The government has always had this strange notion that we, the aboriginal people, are one single homogenous group. We're not," he says. "They are something like 400 aboriginal nations and it's only through that approach will they get anywhere dealing with aboriginal peoples. If the minister puts aboriginal people under one umbrella and says you're all the same grouping, you're all the same tribes, he doesn't understand aboriginal culture or aboriginal history and he doesn't understand the conflicts that have occurred between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people."
The government has insisted it is committed to making the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission more effective. Some indigenous leaders, however, believe the authorities have simply run out of patience with Australia's only national indigenous body. They believe any reform will weaken its power.