ACT Voted Yes but Falling Short in Practice

The former Labor chief minister who established a local Indigenous voice more than a decade ago says Aboriginal people in the territory – the only jurisdiction that backed a national voice – are ironically among the most disadvantaged in Australia. There are also dismal results on several closing the gap targets in the nation’s capital and one of the highest Indigenous incarceration rates in the country, despite the ACT having its own voice to parliament for 15 years. Jon Stanhope, the chief minister of the territory’s last majority Labor government, set up the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body through legislation in 2008. He said the body had been plagued by problems that reduced its effectiveness, arguing its lack of impact suited the Labor-Greens Barr government. “The ACT voice has, unfortunately, a very low profile and in a recent report the ACT Auditor-General (Michael Harris) was very critical of its structure and efficacy,” Mr. Stanhope said.

“He noted for example that the entire membership was ACT public servants and hence compromised in their ability to hold the ACT government to account, and that at the last election for membership of the voice less than five per cent of eligible Aboriginal voters bothered to vote. “A cynic might be excused, heaven forbid, for thinking that this arrangement suits the ACT government just fine.” More than 60 per cent of ACT residents voted in favour of a voice to parliament at the October 14 referendum, compared with 40 per cent of voters nationally. Mr. Stanhope said the voice succeeded in Canberra while it was rejected in every other state and territory because of the territory’s high education rate and proportion of workers in professional industries. But he said the territory had failed to address the problems facing its own Indigenous people. “Canberra is a solidly middle-class community with high levels of tertiary-educated citizens and approximately half of the local workforce employed by either the commonwealth or ACT governments or local universities,” he said.

Stanhope went on “Ironically, however, Aboriginal residents of Canberra endure among the worst outcomes in Australia, across almost all indicators, including for example the highest incarceration rate in Australia.” The ACT has the highest crude imprisonment rate for Indigenous Australians at 20.5 per 100,000 people, meaning that a First Nations person in Canberra is 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Indigenous person, Productivity Commission data reveals. This is higher than any other jurisdiction, including Western Australia on 19.3 per 100,000 people and the Northern Territory on 15.5 per 100,000 people. Closing the Gap data also reflects a high Indigenous incarceration rate in the ACT, with 1543.8 First Nations prisoners per 100,000 in contrast to 78.8 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous people. However, the territory was below the national rate of 2151.1 per 100,000. The ACT lags behind the national average on several targets including childhood development, with only 27.3% of Indigenous kids developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census. This is below the goal of 55% and the national average of 34.3%.

The territory’s rate of children in out-of-homecare is also higher than the national average, with 70.8 per 1000 children in the system in Canberra, compared with 56.8 per 1000 nationally. The ACT Indigenous elected body, which encompasses seven members elected by Canberra’s Indigenous community, has helped to drive infrastructure projects and services for Aboriginal people. But it has been plagued with a high attrition rate, infighting stemming from tribal tensions and a low voter turnout, with just 2.8 per cent of Canberra’s 9500 Indigenous population voting in the last election. The body came under fire after an ACT Audit Office report found key risk factors reducing its effectiveness included the high proportion of current and former public servants and the part-time nature of the membership. It also found the ACT government had not addressed 24 of 99 priority actions. ATSIEB’s members said last month that its greatest achievements included advocating for three public housing developments to house 15 older Indigenous people, pushing for bus routes to an Indigenous health clinic and restoration of Boomanulla Oval as a community hub.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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