ATSIC was created around 1990 by the Labour Govt, to give Aboriginals greater self-determination. The basic design of ATSIC was to have a bureaucratic arm, which DAA and ADC more or less folded into, and an elected, executive arm of regional councils of local Aboriginal people, arranged by areas, each under a Commissioner.
From inception, the ATSIC election system effectively disempowered the elders, because it ensured the literate and numerate would take priority over the wise and compassionate. The ATSIC system had no place for elders, as elders. This disenfranchisement has not been without repercussions. Over time, as elders became disenfranchised on many communities, many lost their standing among a younger generation who grew up without any experience of elders’ guidance. Then too often, elders, when trying to put a halt to substance abuse, were abused in reaction, and simply ignored.
Some governing councils came to regard themselves as the sole community leaders and decision makers, as if the council itself were far wiser than those who would be on the receiving end of their decisions. Some failed to see the benefit of taking more consultative approaches with the community as a whole, or with the elders, either individually or as a group, and some became quite secretive and autocratic. The bureaucratic committee representative model had over taken the traditional, participatory, consultative, community approach, and dominated community decision making. The new model was the bureaucratically controlled settlement.
Competitive Funding Bids
Aboriginal organisations would now put in their bids for funding, competing with each other for scarce funds, for regional councils to prioritise for funding allocation. Eventually, the bureaucratic arm was selecting and prioritising, and presenting for regional council approval. Before long, the elected arm was reduced to rubber-stamping whatever the bureaucracy put forward for acceptance. The roles had become reversed, while the blame for bad decisions was continually deflected onto regional councils.
Some of the greatest difficulties with which ATSIC had to contend, centred around reporting requirements, which needed to be sufficiently rigorous to pick up all errors and misappropriations, and which became increasingly band-aided, rigid and burdensome at a time when Aboriginal organisations needed to become more enterprising, requiring them to become more innovative, adaptable and flexible.
Much of the reporting did not assist the organisation to manage itself, which would be the primary objective in any other organisation or business, but was to satisfy bureaucracies, own internal requirements, and moved Aboriginal organisations towards becoming more bureaucratic, simply to be able to interface, constricting much growth towards autonomy.
Being able to master reporting requirements also became one of the greatest problems for remote Aboriginal settlements. When almost any aspect of reporting falls behind schedule, or is not done, or not done correctly, it will eventually lead to a breach and delayed funding, and beyond that, to a measure of de-funding.
- ATSIC’s reaction to instances of misuse or misappropriation of funds, or other forms of serious dysfunction was to increase the amount of reporting requirements to all communities, instead of designing smarter, leaner, less time consuming reporting requirements. On remote communities, the CEO may wear several hats, be chronically exhausted, engaged in daily crisis management, and regards reporting as essentially after the fact, instead of being forward looking as in a business.
- Over time, reporting requirements themselves became increasingly overwhelming for many communities, causing many to fall into breach, have funding suspended, halting community activity and defeating the very purpose of the reporting requirements.
- Where reporting requirements were being met, it was often at the expense of Coordinators spending time outside, involved in actual outcomes, which resulted in more time in the office to report the consequences of not being outside getting outcomes.
- In attempting to raise the level of the poorer performing communities, the blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to reporting severely curtailed the proactive capacity of better performing communities, reducing their outcomes.
The paper jungle was never streamlined to give settlements a tight, taut, lean and mean reporting system, to nail down the money, while encouraging outcomes. As patches were added, what began as a simple, straightforward work, became a paper jungle of reporting, most of which were irrelevant to the communities own, self-feedback needs of managing and improving itself.
Accounting has always been a huge issue for ATSIC from the beginning. A simple, elegant, bookkeeping program that would enable clear tracking would have gone a long way to solving problems. This, however was not done.
At one time ATSIC required a separate bank account for each grant in each financial year, to make their own record keeping clearer. One organisation ran 15 separate bank accounts, and often wrote cheques from, or made postings to, wrong accounts, creating severe confusion for the community.
One organisation used a well-known, ATSIC-recommended program, which had multiple levels of security codes and passwords. When a relieving bookkeeper was passed over for the permanent position, she altered passwords, which rendered the program un-accessible. The distributor of the program was unable to assist, stating that passwords were unbreakable and could not be circumvented. This caused the organisation much difficulty and loss of financial control, culminating in it going into breach. The problem was eventually solved by a complete re-entering of all data on a newly purchased program, which took several weeks to complete.
The regional office interfaced with communities. A field officer was usually assigned a number of remote organisations, and would monitor through reporting requirements, and occasional visits.
One regional office effectively office-bound its field officers, and severely restricted their amount of community contact to a visit every several months, while they put their time into keeping their files in impeccable order. Head office awarded this regional office for being one of the top regional offices, and commended it as a role model for the others, on the basis of their file keeping diligence.
As reporting requirements increased, and became more difficult to fulfil, the regional office response was to completely restrict all visits to any failing communities, and instead remain office bound and ensure their files on the community were up to scratch, which they considered exonerated them of any complicity and blame.
Reporting breaches, and therefore funding breaches, throughout the region increased significantly, through lack of vitally needed assistance, advice and guidance about how to complete reporting requirements, and created a far greater workload for ATSIC field officers, which made the hands-off approach seriously self-defeating.
As communities’ reporting breaches increased, the regional office field officers became more loaded up with the extra work that breaches generate. This resulted in reduced office moral, and an extremely high turnover of field officers servicing remote communities. Files were then re-assigned to already-overloaded remaining FOs, further increasing the turnover of field officers, and making any community servicing even less likely, ensuring a continuing downward spiral of office moral, and communities declining and being breached. Within two years, most remote communities had suffered funding cessations and the regional office had intractable problems
This was a self-defeating dynamic, created by an ill thought out award system, that generated serious problems, not only for the office, but also for a large number of Aboriginal organisations, and was very damaging to many remote Aboriginal settlements.
Funding at the beginning of one financial year was 8 weeks late and temporarily collapsed almost all CDEPs. This was made worse by ATSICs refusal to allow unspent funds to be carried over and the demand they be all expended before the end of the financial year.
When serious breaches resulted in de-funding, the time elapse between the breach and de-funding would take several months, and in many instances the problem would be already being rectified when delayed de-funding was applied. Where the fault lay in the CEO, the organisation could fire the person, and then advertise, interview, select, and employ another CEO, who could be engaged in intense repair work, and be well on the way to redressing the problem. Then all of the effort could come to nil while time-lapse de-funding punishments were applied, for what many local people and the new CEO had no knowledge about. In many cases, de-funding was a very blunt instrument that punished all community members and set back any sense of community development by several months, until the CDEP was eventually reformed.
Did Not Play Supportive Role
Although ATSIC was the peak support organisation for Aboriginal people, it was under no illusion about being supportive, regarding itself as a funding organisation. This was fine in settlements with highly capable CEOs, which on average was improbable. Many remote settlements had no one else to consult with, and often felt adrift. The real problems for most communities were the barrage of shock waves of changed funding arrangements, cancelled programs, new rules, late funds releases, etc, that had many communities dizzy through no fault of their own.
Despite having few levels of hierarchy, ATSIC was always a highly rigid, un-consultative bureaucracy, both with respect to not consulting its own staff at the interface with remote organisations, and not consulting with traditional Aboriginal people and their organisations. Instead, it functioned from a highly top-down authority model, within its own bureaucracy. Many policies implemented from head office were found to be faulty in application and recalled, modified and re-installed and re-recalled and so on.
One policy that directly affected CDEP was implemented and then recalled and re-implemented four times before finally stabilising, creating much confusion and disorder. At no time did any consultation take place with the people at the coalface, who had to implement and use it, even though at lower echelons, problems with the program had been identified at the outset.
Field officers were essentially grant clerks, with few having any specialised knowledge of materials, vehicles, essential services, etc, all of which would be helpful to remote Aboriginal settlements, and enable a functional scrutiny of buget expenditure. They simply processed budget lines as an accounting exercise, ensuring that finances were in order. The bureaucracy itself did not think that specialised knowledge of remote living subsistence living, community functioning, etc. was required.
As an organisation, ATSIC had little understanding of modern professional management as an advanced profession, incorporating a battery of interactive disciplines, along with methods, techniques and principles, as had been developed all over the world over recent decades. All of the above problems reflect this particular lack, and would have assisted ATSIC to trouble-shoot problems, innovate and make proactive decisions, and assist all workers within the organisation to become more achieving, get real outcomes and ensure the efficient and effective use of all scarce resources. As matters degenerated ATSIC simply did not know what to do, but would try to bluff its way through, instead of being open to new ideas.
At a deeper level, it failed its traditional communities, probably because too many key high-level positions were occupied by non-Aboriginals of the ‘old paternalistic school’, many of whom had been imported from DAA and ADC staff at ATSIC’s inception, and occupied much of the higher echelons.
Older attitudes, with little or no understanding of community creation and development, or of modern management methods, including bureaucratic effectiveness, and who had always regarded traditional remote Aborigines as primitive and unevolved beings. This ensured that many historical attitudes prevailed, and were never updated. This also prevented a fresh start as existing negative attitudes towards under performing organisations were carried over too.
In such a tightly top-down organisation, it permeated through all levels of the organisation, influencing all policy and decision making, and obliged this same model on its own field officers, many of whom came to see remote, traditional people as strange and primitive, and not at all understandable, making giving assistance very difficult.
One regional manager wrote to ATSIC head office stating that one desert mob, because they had European contact for only the previous 50 years, would not be able to successfully integrate with mainstream society for another 200 years, knowing that this was in keeping with head office ‘reality perspective’.
This attitude was a major underlying reason for ATSIC’s comprehensive failure to empower remote communities, for which it was created, and instead to oversee a relentless decline in living standards of most remote communities over the entire life of ATSIC, and beyond.
Decline of Remote Settlements
The effect of the transition to the remote, Aboriginal bureaucratic settlement model over a few decades has been a general decline in all aspects of living, and an increase in serious problems, which many bureaucratic Aboriginal Councils today have little practical understanding of what to do about it.
During the same years that modern, life-affirming, sustainable communities were being created around the world, including in Australia, the now-failed bureaucratic settlement model was developed
As sustainable community living was blossoming and being fine-tuned, and went from experimentation to professional design, and from strength to strength, many successful Aboriginal missions went into a long, slow, painful demise to become impoverished settlements.
Remote bureaucratic settlements went into a long, slow, painful demise, without any Govt, NGO or Aboriginal bureaucracy being able to understand what was needed in order to ensure success, let alone how to provide it. Nor could they envisage how to address problems as they arose, or how to head off looming, impending, long-term future problems, which they apparently could not see coming.
ATSIC was dismantled against warnings and protests that without something else and better to take its place, the prospects for remote Aboriginal communities would be dire. Warnings were not heeded, and ATSIC was dismantled with no investigation, no recommendations for improved servicing, no explanation to the Aboriginal client base, or to the public. There has been no understanding of mistakes, and no opportunity to learn from mistakes to ensure they are not repeated. Even during the dismantling process, ATSIC still did not get it, and the internal rationalisation was that they had not explained themselves well enough.
The warnings proved to be true. The elimination of ATSIC and handing of their responsibilities to other bureaucracies, then only hastened the decline as support diminished, eventually giving rise to the claim for the need for the ‘Intervention’, which subsequently took place and remains in place as testimony of the current Govts’ ongoing inability to be of genuine benefit.
Legacy of ATSIC
The legacy of ATSIC was to deprive traditional people of their elders system of responsible oversite and maintaining good order, which is having a profoundly detrimental effect today; and then to comprehensively fail in its attempt to replace it with something else viable. Many remote settlements were in a worse situation at the end, than when ATSIC began.