New Year’s Eve 2007 marks the end of the term of the current membership of the Howard Government’s hand-picked National Indigenous Council. This fortuitous piece of timing may allow the Rudd government to finesse the NIC out of business.
The Council began life shrouded in a controversy from which it never escaped. NIC staggered from the ashes of ATSIC, which had been fingered by Labor leader Mark Latham during the 2004 election campaign and then executed by the returned Howard Government.
A raft of leaked Cabinet documents which found their way into the hands of National Indigenous Times editor Chris Graham, lent the lie to the government’s spin that the new organisation was not intended to be a replacement for ATSIC. The official papers indicted that this was precisely the intention.
Former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Amanda Vanstone, announced the membership of the new body in November 2004. Chaired by Perth magistrate, Sue Gordon, and including Indigenous Australians from a range of backgrounds, the NIC was charged with “providing policy, program and service delivery advice to government on issues affecting Aboriginal people.”
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However, the creation of the new body provoked a storm of outrage across the spectrum of Indigenous leadership.
Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson – surely at the top of the government’s shopping list – rejected the idea out of hand. Pearson described the idea as a “step backwards”, and told NIT unequivocally that “I did not – and do not – support a non-elected structure”.
“Father of reconciliation” Patrick Dodson, said that the government had “copped out” on giving Aboriginal people a “real say” in their future, and he described the composition of the Council as “terribly conservative”.
Democrats spokesperson Aden Ridgeway suggested the body was “just another example of Howard Government window dressing to hide its lack of action and achievement in Indigenous Affairs”.
Football legend Michael Long refused an invitation to sit on the Council: “I don’t sell out,” he said pointedly.
Over time, the NIC’s progress was patchy at best, as the body maintained – by chance or design – a remarkably low profile. A report in The Australian of 30 November 2006 suggested that members of the NIC had considered a mass resignation because they felt their submissions were not being seriously considered by the Howard Government.
Now their time is at hand.
Don’t be surprised if the new year brings NIC members a “don’t come Monday” from the new minister, thanking them for their services and advising them that their assistance is no longer required.