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How 2003 decision helped lay foundations for the voice

Kat Wong -

A decision to wind down a peak Aboriginal and Indigenous advisory body by the Howard government laid the foundations for the voice referendum two decades later.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was established in 1990 under Bob Hawke's Labor government with the intention to represent First Nations people and offer them an effective voice within government.

But in the early 2000s, the efficacy of the body came into question as allegations of rape swirled around then chairperson Geoff Clark.

Allegations of rape swirled around then ATSIC chairperson Geoff Clark (left) in the early 2000s. (Image: Julian Smith/AAP PHOTOS)

The election of John Howard's conservative government spelt the beginning of the end for ATSIC.

Cabinet records from 2003, released on Monday by the National Archives of Australia, proposed a restructure of ATSIC that could reallocate its funding elsewhere in accordance with a review into the body that would be released later that year.

It suggested separating the spending and policy-making roles of ATSIC and transferring some of its powers to an agency made up of the body's CEO and most of its staff that would manage programs ATSIC previously administered.

By 2004, the government - with agreement from the Labor opposition - would introduce legislation to abolish ATSIC.

Mr Howard then claimed ATSIC floundered because it was not focused enough on issues of importance to indigenous people.

"We believe very strongly that the experiment in separate representation, elected representation, for indigenous people has been a failure," he told reporters in 2004.

The election of John Howard's conservative government spelt the beginning of the end for ATSIC. (Image: HANDOUT/NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF AUSTRALIA)

The same government also decided not to issue an apology for the treatment of Indigenous people nor pursue a treaty or hold a referendum for a new preamble to the constitution, the National Archives' cabinet historian David Lee said.

When the bill finally passed in 2005, Mr Clark said it was a "turning point for Aboriginal people".

"Labor has abandoned us," he told AAP at the time.

"That just goes to show white people will stick together when it comes to protecting their interests against Aboriginal people.

"We have got to decide now that we have to act independently in this country."

In 2007, Mr Howard put the issue of Constitutional recognition on the table to "(set) Australia on the path to the voice referendum this year".

Protesters railed against the dissembling of ATSIC and lack of Indigenous representation. (Image: Alan Porritt/AAP PHOTOS)

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocacy would spend most of 2023 campaigning for an Indigenous advisory body to be enshrined in the Constitution so it could represent the interests of First Nations people without being threatened with abolition by future governments.

To pass, the proposal needed a majority of 'yes' votes in at least six states and nationally.

But in October, Australians emphatically rejected the proposal with 60 per cent voting 'no' and 40 per cent in favour nationally and no state achieving a majority of 'yes' votes.

Kat Wong - AAP

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