ATSIC: Institutional Development of Indigenous Self-determination in Australia

Nagoya University of Commerce and Business Administration
Faculty of Commerce

In the last three decades, Australian governments have developed policies practising the principle of indigenous self-determination and self-management. Particularly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which was established in 1990 under the 'ATSIC Act 1989', made a major step in history by institutionalising participation of indigenous Australians into the nation-wide decision making processes. ATSIC was more than integration of its predecessors, Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Aboriginal Development Commission, and the National Aboriginal Conference. Its elected indigenous representatives are given power to allocate federal funding of around A$1billion to nearly 2000 indigenous organisations.

The Commission's main role is to formulate and implement programs for indigenous Australians. But in practice, allocation of funding to appropriate organisations that deliver services in the communities is the main concern especially of the Regional Councils. The administrative arm of ATSIC supports the activities of the representative arm (including the Board of Commissioners and the Regional Councils) and assists program administration.

ATSIC certainly has limits in its 'self-determination' power due to its institutional basis in the Commonwealth administration. One of the objectives of ATSIC is, in fact, to promote the development of self-management and self-sufficiency among indigenous Australians. The elected representatives of the ATSIC do not have power to negotiate the Budget, neither power to appoint its administrative staff. The Minister of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Affairs represents the ATSIC in the Federal Parliament and in the Cabinet. Furthermore, the financial resources are not sufficient enough for the Regional Councils and the Board of Commissioners to allocate funds to all applications of programs submitted by indigenous communities.

ATSIC is not, therefore, a complete form of indigenous self-determination. It is rather one of the institutions, which ensures indigenous voices within the Commonwealth government. Only when diverse regional interests and conditions are taken into account, and when various appropriate institutions are formed to meet the concerns of indigenous and non-indigenous residents, would the principle of self-determination be materialised as a sustainable political framework.