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Abbott’s ‘Indigenous dozen’ grasping the poison chalice

by Stephen Hagan 25 November 2013

T

he long awaited announcement on the weekend of Tony Abbott’s hand picked Indigenous advisory committee commences another chapter in the lives of Australia’s most marginalized, impoverished and fractured people. Only time will tell whether the dream team described as the “most powerful business and Indigenous figures in the country” will be able to put a quantifiable dint in narrowing the chasm of social marginalization and economic disparity with our mob and mainstream society. And what a dream team Abbott’s selected from 300 applicants: Gail Kelly, Westpac Bank CEO; David Peever, Rio Tinto Australia’s Managing Director; Andrew Penfold, Australian Indigenous Education Foundation Chief

Warren Mundine in Arnham Land. Image:The Australian

Executive; Leah Armstrong, Reconciliation Australia Chief Executive; Djambawa Marawili, East Arnhem Land Traditional Owner and Artist; Peter Shergold, former Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary; Daniel Tucker, Carey Mining Managing Director; Richard Ah Mat, Cape York Welfare Reform Executive; Dr Ngiare Brown, former Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association Chief Executive; Josephine Cashman, Riverview Global Partners Managing Director; Bruce Martin, Cape York Aak Puul Ngantam Chief Executive; and Warren Mundine, former GenerationOne CEO. The question Indigenous Australia collectively pose to Abbott and his “Indigenous dozen” is: What is Plan B if you fail? Let’s go back a decade to look at the same scene in our

tempestuous political odyssey that was played out in public to see if there are lessons to be learnt for the “Indigenous dozen”. Abbott’s Coalition predecessor John Howard brought to an abrupt end the 14-year experiment of Indigenous self-government when he announced on 15 April 2004 he was going to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Back then an emphatic ultra conservative PM said the “experiment in separate representation, elected representation, for Indigenous people has been a failure”. Howard used the infighting of ATSIC Commissioners broadly and rape allegations and pub brawling accusations against its Chairman, Geoff Clark, specifically for his decision to shut down ATSIC. Howard’s solution to ATSIC was

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anointed “Indigenous advisors” – in much the same manner as the current PM has elected to take control of the wheel to traverse treacherous waters in his ‘ship of hope’ to closing-the-gap by handpicking his “Indigenous dozen”. A defiant Geoff Clark juxtaposed Howards’ Indigenous advisory committee back then to “breastplated Aboriginals” appointed in Australia’s colonial days and “sent to the museum 150 years ago”. Noel Pearson also bought into the debate on the demise of ATSIC and the plan to replace it with an appointed advisory body when he told the ABC 7.30 Report that it was “two steps backwards” towards the “old mainstreaming disaster” in Aboriginal affairs. Lowitja O’Donoghue didn’t miss Howard either and remarked that, “abolishing the organization would do nothing to help Indigenous people while denying them a say in their future”. Almost a decade later Pearson and O’Donoghue’s prophetic words ring true with Indigenous advisory committees’ paid counsel to successive Prime Ministers failing to deliver meaningful outcomes for our mob from their self promoted

positions of exalted wisdom and financial clout. The quasi-democratic National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples who took office in June 2011 have also failed pitifully in winning over Indigenous Australians to their way of doing business. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ independent Ethics Council’s position that “situates Congress as a unique organization at the cutting edge of Australian best practice in the area of corporate ethical conduct” proved untenable when challenged by First Nations Telegraph of their propriety in August this year. Wiradjuri leader Ann Weldon and respected accountant Gavin Tye from the Mandandandji people told First Nations Telegraph they received identical letters from National Congress CEO, Lindon Coombs, stating their applications for Chamber 3 were culled due to “a strong field of applicants applying for positions in Chamber 3”. Although being told by National Congress staff that the outsourced team who culled candidates for Chamber 3 came from Melbourne

Mundine and Abbott. Image: Herald Sun

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University – the same university that the successful Chamber 3 candidate Mark McMillan, a law professor, worked at - Co-chairs Les Malezer and Kirstie Parker all of a sudden feigned ignorance as their defence when questioned by First Nations Telegraph on who sat on the culling committee. McMillan denied any involvement in the culling process and said he had no idea who within his university took on that onerous job. For a body who actively vet the suitability of applicants to join their finite membership, National Congress remains a joke in the eyes of most of our mob as they sit pompously upright on their galloping white horse called Integrity whilst hiding their eyes and flowing locks behind the convenient veil of secrecy. Back on 15 April 2004 Howard’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone joined him in attacking ATSIC Commissioners, adding there was a disconnect on the ground between the Indigenous communities and ATSIC and that they “haven’t been getting value for money”. Vanstone endorsed her Prime Minister’s appointed advisory committee concept to succeed ATSIC and was optimistic that this pathway would deliver results. “We’ll be judged on whether we deliver better outcomes to Indigenous Australians, whether they get better value,” she said. Fail with a capital F is what our mob gave Senator Vanstone and her Prime Minister John Howard in their experiment with their hand-picked Indigenous advisory committee. We never did get to see what their Plan B was. Now over to Abbott’s “Indigenous dozen” as they grasp the poison chalice. Let’s hope Abbott – unlike his Coalition predecessor - has a Plan B!


Grasping the poison chalice