Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) (19902005) was the Australian Government body through which Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were formally involved in the processes of government affecting their lives. A number of Indigenous programs and organisations fell under the overall umbrella of ATSIC.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
Agency overview
Formed5 March 1990[1]
Preceding Agency
Dissolved30 June 2005[1]
Superseding agency
JurisdictionCommonwealth of Australia
Agency executives

The agency was dismantled in 2004 in the aftermath of corruption allegations and litigation.[2]


ATSIC was established by Bob Hawke's Labor government through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 (the ATSIC Act), which took effect on 5 March 1990.

While ATSIC's existence was always subject to the oversight of governments, who represent all Australians, ATSIC was a group of elected individuals whose main goal was the oversights that happened to Indigenous Australians. This included people from the many Aboriginal communities on the Australian mainland, Tasmania and other off-shore islands, and the ethnically distinct people from the many Melanesian communities inhabiting the islands of the Torres Strait, collectively known as Torres Strait Islanders. Later the Torres Strait Regional Authority took over responsibility for programs in the Torres Strait Islands.

The chairs of ATSIC were Lowitja O'Donoghue (1990-1996), Gatjil Djerrkura (1996-2000), Geoff Clark (2000-2004) and Lionel Quartermaine (2003-2004). ATSIC'S Deputy chairs included Ray Robinson. Mick Gooda was its final Chief Executive Officer.[3]

Corruption investigations

A review of ATSIC was commissioned in 2003.[4] The report was titled In the Hands of the Regions: A New ATSIC and it recommended reforms which gave greater control of ATSIC to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at a regional level. At the time, Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone stated that the review had concluded that ATSIC has not connected well with the indigenous Australians and was not serving them well.[4]

In 2003, ATSIC became embroiled in controversy over litigation surrounding its chairperson Geoff Clark, relating to his alleged participation in a number of pack rapes in the 1970s and 1980s. ATSIC was also investigated for financial corruption, and the embezzlement of ATSIC's funds, that were originally intended for service delivery to help Aboriginal peoples.

Soon after this the Howard government began to remove some of ATSIC's fiscal powers, which were transferred to a new independent organisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS).

The government ultimately suspended Geoff Clark as Chairperson of ATSIC in 2003 (Lionel Quartermaine was acting Chairperson). After a court appeal Clark was briefly reinstated. In the same year, Clark was arrested for brawling in a Victorian bar.


For some time after Geoff Clark's appointment, the Howard Government had been expressing doubts as to the value of continuing to have ATSIC at all. Following Mark Latham's election to the leadership of the (Labor) Opposition in December 2003, Labor also accepted that ATSIC had not worked. In March of election year 2004, both parties pledged to introduce alternative arrangements for indigenous affairs.

The government's plan was to abolish ATSIC and all its regional and state structures, and return funding for indigenous programs to the relevant line departments. Labor's view was that ATSIC itself should be abolished, but many of the regional and state sub-organisations should be retained, to continue to give Indigenous people a voice in their own affairs and within their own communities. It rejected the notion of merging indigenous funding into funding for Australians generally as 'tried and failed', but had not announced its alternative proposals.

John Howard announced the agency's abolishment on 15 April 2004 saying that "the experiment in elected representation for Indigenous people has been a failure".[4] On 28 May 2004 the Howard government introduced into the Federal Parliament legislation to abolish ATSIC. After a delay the Bill finally passed both houses of Parliament in 2005. ATSIC was formally abolished at midnight 24 March 2005.

The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination was created within the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs on 1 July 2004 "to coordinate and drive the Government's new arrangements in Indigenous affairs",[5] and took on ATSIC's responsibilities upon its abolition. Following machinery of government changes, that office was transferred to the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs on 27 January 2006.[6]

The dismantling of ATSIC was seen by many commentators as harmful to Aboriginal people in Australia.[7] In 2009, Lowitja O'Donoghue expressed her opinion that reform of the agency would have been better than establishing a new agency which has been costly and might suffer similar problems as its predecessor, such as nepotism.[2]

ATSIC was criticised by a government advisory panel in 2009 for having been dominated by males.[8]

See also


  1. CA 7080: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Central Office, National Archives of Australia, retrieved 15 December 2013
  2. Pia Akerman (22 October 2009). "We should have kept ATSIC: Lowitja O'Donoghue". The Australian. News Limited. Retrieved 18 January 2012.
  3. Misha Schubert (15 December 2009). "Mick Gooda wins top indigenous affairs post". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 14 September 2014.
  4. "Clark vows to fight as ATSIC scrapped". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. 15 April 2004. Retrieved 18 January 2012.
  5. "Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs 2004–05 Annual Report" (PDF). Department of Home Affairs, Australia. 7 October 2005. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  6. "Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Annual Report 2005–06" (PDF). 15 November 2006. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  7. United Nations. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004). Urban-rural linkages: an annotated bibliography, 1994-2004. UN-HABITAT. p. 75. ISBN 92-1-131713-4. Retrieved 18 January 2012.
  8. Misha Schubert (26 August 2009). "ATSIC wary of repeating past mistakes". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 18 January 2012.
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