When then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gerry Hand, said these words in his Foundations for the Future speech in Federal parliament in 1987 he was introducing Labor’s proposals for the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, otherwise known as ATSIC. Referencing the ‘67 referendum and Aboriginal people’s ongoing dignity and integrity despite 200 years of European settlement, he said it was vital that ‘we’ understand properly, and address seriously, the issue of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Amid much political hostility and contention the Commission was established by Act of parliament in 1989, beginning operation in March 1990.
Described as a ‘bold experiment’ at the time ATSIC was a unique government agency responsible for Indigenous public policy without parallel anywhere in the world. Combining an administrative and elected arm, it was a unique mix of representative voice with government functions that many have argued was a high watermark in Indigenous participation, governance and representation. And it had many successes including First Nations’ housing and employment programs, strong regional governance and leadership, international advocacy and capacity building. Yet, fifteen years into its operations it was no more, abolished by Act of parliament in 2004.
This paper considers how and why a project of great and historic importance for all Australians in 1987 was unceremoniously abolished, labelled a shambles and a failure, fifteen years later. It reflects on aspects of the history and asks what the consequences of this loss were/are for First Nations people and for all Australians. How do we tell this story when the reverberations are still with us and the death of ATSIC hovers like the elephant in the room? What are the politics of self-determination and how can recovery of the ATSIC story contribute to contemporary discussions about First Nations’ governance and of taking self-determination seriously? How do we centre the story as an Indigenous one of rights claiming and making in late modern Australia?
Alison Holland is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Archaeology, Macquarie University where she teaches in Australian and World History and Human Rights History. Her research has focussed on issues of rights, humanitarianism, policy and civil society activism in settler-colonial Australia, particularly in the area of Indigenous history, governance and policy. Her last book, Breaking the Silence. Aboriginal Defenders and the Nation State, 1905-1939 (Melbourne University Publishing, 2019) contested the notion of a ’great Australian silence’ about Indigenous-settler relations prior to the 1960s. Earlier this year she was a National Library of Australia Fellow for a project titled: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission: A History.
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