New Advisory Council triggers community debate

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(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Some critics claim more effort should have been put into bringing more Indigenous voices onto the panel.


The 12 person body has eight Indigenous members including its chairman, the former National Labor President, Warren Mundine.

As Michael Kenny reports, about 300 people applied to be on the council.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

Prime Minister Abbott says he wants the new Indigenous Advisory Council to be an important part of his government’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Mr Abbott says the council has brought together well-respected individuals with a broad range of skills and experience, including in business and the public sector.

The council includes the Chairman of the Cape York Land Council and Director of the Cape York Institute, Richard Ah Mat and Indigenous businessman Daniel Tucker from the WA company, Carey Mining.

Mr Ah Mat says he wants to use his position on the council to promote Indigenous welfare reforms long advocated by the founder of the Cape York Institute, Noel Pearson.

Under Mr Pearson’s Empowered Communities proposals, Indigenous communities who choose to sign up to welfare plans, would have to meet certain obligations to qualify for government funding, including boosting levels of school attendance and the number of adults in training or work.

Mr Ah Mat believes the proposals are a sensible approach to combating Indigenous disadvantage which could work in communities across the nation.

“Education is one of the keys, employment is another key, economic development is another key. Just to have input on this committee is fantastic for Cape York. To give first hand advice to the Prime Minister about our problems and possibly create policy solutions – it’s a fantastic initiative and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Mr Ah Mat says he believes Prime Minister Abbott has a genuine and sincere commitment to tackling Indigenous disadvantage and doing so in partnership with big business.

He says the appointment of Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly and Rio Tinto head David Pulver as two of the four non-Indigenous members of the Advisory Council makes sense because the mining and finance sectors are offering a lot of employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

Mr Ah Mat says he hopes the new council also focuses on tackling disadvantage at the primary school level, saying he believes that’s the best way to invest in future generations of Indigenous Australians.

“The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion has said he really wants education to play a key role and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in Cape York. Whether it’s in the first three months or the first term, every child should go to school because education is the key for all Australians – not only Indigenous Australians, but for all Australians. Policies have to be put in place to ensure that parents seriously have to think about sending their children to school.”

Another member of the Advisory Council is the Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia Leah Armstrong.

The Torres Strait Islander has worked in Indigenous businesses for over 20 years with a particular focus on the training sector.

She believes the new Advisory Council will benefit from the input of Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesspeople as it works towards closing the gap in areas like healthcare, education and employment.

“I think it’s important that there is a good representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But I believe it’s also important that we do have the engagement of business on the council as well because I think their contribution now and for the future is also vital.”

Ms Armstrong believes the Advisory Council will also benefit from the input of Professor Peter Shergold, the former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

She says Professor Shergold has a long interest in Indigenous policy under Labor and Coalition governments.

However a veteran academic and former bureaucrat believes Prime Minister Tony Abbott should only have appointed Indigenous Australians to the Advisory Council.

The Dean of Indigenous Scholarship, Engagement and Research at the University of South Australia, Professor Peter Buckskin says he respects the non-Indigenous panellists given their distinguished careers in business and academia.

However the Narungga man from the Yorke Peninsula believes it is critical that the Advisory Council acts as a mouthpiece for the Indigenous community around the government table.

“Well, they’re pretty eminent people, clearly, within the Australian business community and academic world. My strong advice is, to all of those people, is for them to know their place in our space. That they’ve got to remember they will never be Indigenous. They can never represent us. They can clearly provide advice from their world view, but a lot of their world view has been shaped by privilege, power and their own non-Indigenous background.”

That’s a view shared by veteran Darwin Indigenous activist and former Northern Territory Government policy advisor Eileen Cummings.

A member of the stolen generations, Ms Cummings unsuccessfully contested the Northern Territory seat of Solomon earlier this year for the First Nations Political Party.

She believes Prime Minister Abbott should have drawn upon advice from Indigenous businesspeople on the council instead of turning to the heads of companies like Westpac and Rio Tinto.

“There are a lot of our people working in the mining industry, there are a lot of our people working in businesses all around Australia – they are business managers for goodness sake! Who else is better to do this than one of us, ourselves and they’re not giving us that!”

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