Cabinet Papers 1988-89 The Treaty, ATSIC, Deaths in Custody

Cabinet papers 1988-89: lost in the space race; Aboriginal treaty; body searching; tax file numbersDate

SMH January 1, 2015

Damien Murphy


The treaty that never came

Bob Hawke attended the Barunga festival in the Northern Territory in June 1988 and promised an historic treaty with the Aboriginal people.

The Hawke government had been promising to improve representation of Aboriginal interests and issues, but by 1985 attempts to frame a “national model” for land rights had stalled in compromise, amid farmer and miner opposition and distrust from Aboriginal groups. So Hawke’s treaty had more than a touch of the sun about it.

In 1987 the new minister for Aboriginal affairs, Gerry Hand, had proposed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established.

The commission’s workload had first been estimated as 44 reported deaths requiring investigation, but already that number had increased to 120 (99 cases were finally selected for investigation). But in February 1988, Hand and the Minister for Justice, Michael Tate, told cabinet that it would be “unacceptable” to limit the set limits to thenumber of cases to be investigated, just as it was similarly politically unwise to significantly delay the release of the commission’s findings.

The expense of additional commissioners and staff was justified by the imperative of concluding a full report as soon possible. Cabinet agreed to four commissioners; a fifth was appointed in November 1988. The terms of reference were widened.

In April 1989, when Commissioner Hal WoottonWootten had weighed whether the practices he was examining amounted to “genocide”, the cabinet was persuaded that thehandling of “public perceptions” must be a particular focus.

Whatever the prospects of a treaty, various issues were brought to the cabinet’s attention, including ranging from mining on traditional lands; the lack of any progress since the 1970s in excising “living areas” from Northern Territory stock routes; and through to the basic, entrenched and widespread social disadvantage of Aboriginal people, were brought to cabinet’s attention.

The 1988-89 budget included a 23 per cent increase in spending on within the Aboriginal affairs portfolio, with a focus on in the provision of essential services for communities.

Hand argued strenuously against the Expenditure Review Committee’s concerns that the Community Development Employment Projects scheme – by then reaching urban communities in New South Wales and Victoria – enabled recipients to “double-dip” into Family Assistance Supplements.

Hand insisted CDEP was a labour market program, not a welfare oneprogram. Though he won While winning his case on the day, Hand was on the losing side of the scheme’s longer-term assessment of the scheme.

He also Meanwhile Hand argued also for more money for ATSIC. “If ATSIC starts its life under-resourcedHand advised cabinet, we doom it to failure,” he warned the cabinet.

ATSIC finally first met the following April. John Howard closed what opponents called “the experiment with indigenous self-government” in 2004.
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