A leading Yes campaigner has revealed Anthony Albanese wasn’t taken seriously on Indigenous issues when an elected Aboriginal body was abolished decades ago.
Mr Albanese was a Labor frontbencher in 2004 when then Opposition Leader Mark Latham led the push to scrap the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
Former Northern Territory Labor senator Trish Crossin, a Left faction member who supported keeping ATSIC, told Daily Mail Australia Mr Albanese was regarded as an inner-city MP without a strong knowledge of Indigenous issues at the time.
‘There were probably people in the caucus at the time who had a better, working knowledge of ATSIC and what it was doing rather than Albo who was in an inner-Sydney suburb seat and was junior,’ she said.
Mr Albanese’s gentrified Sydney inner-west electorate of Grayndler covers Balmain on Sydney Harbour where the median house price is $2.7million.
Former Northern Territory Labor senator Trish Crossin, a Left faction member who supported keeping the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, told Daily Mail Australia Mr Albanese two decades ago was regarded as an inner-city MP without a strong knowledge of Indigenous issues (she is pictured in 2013)
A leading Yes campaigner has revealed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (pictured in 2004) wasn’t taken seriously on Indigenous issues when an elected Aboriginal body was abolished
Its millionaire residents are far removed from the poverty Indigenous Australians endure in very remote parts of the Northern Territory.
Just 0.8 per cent of Balmain residents are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, which is well below the national average of 3.2 per cent and the Northern Territory level of 26.3 per cent.
Ms Crossin has since moved back to Melbourne and is actively campaigning for the Yes case ahead of the October 14 referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
She lost her Labor Senate preselection in 2013 when then prime minister Julia Gillard insisted Aboriginal Olympian Nova Peris top the ticket.
A decade before her political career ended, she said most of her Labor colleagues had wanted ATSIC scrapped.
‘I do recall an overwhelmingly majority of the caucus at the time agreed to have it abolished,’ she said.
‘I don’t recall a solid reason for abolishing it.’
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney in 2021 slammed Labor’s plan to get rid of ATSIC by 2005, which occurred 11 years before she was elected to federal Parliament.
‘Worse was to come. There was the dismantling of ATSIC in 2005 – and, shame on Mark Latham for backing that,’ she told the Tom Uren Memorial Lecture when she was an Opposition frontbencher.
Mr Albanese provided the introduction for Ms Burney on that night in June 2021, as a protégé of the late Mr Uren, a leading member of Labor’s Left faction who served as a minister under prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke.
On March 30, 2004, Mr Latham announced that should Labor win that year’s election, a government led by him would abolish ATSIC – a forerunner to the current Voice proposal.
This followed a scathing review into ATSIC by an Indigenous academic and a former Northern Territory Labor senator married to an Aboriginal woman.
‘ATSIC is no longer capable of addressing endemic problems in Indigenous communities,’ Mr Latham said in a statement.
‘It has lost the confidence of much of its own constituency and the wider community.’
Two weeks later, on April 15, 2004, then Liberal prime minister John Howard announced his Coalition government would introduce legislation to abolish ATSIC by June 30, 2005.
‘We believe very strongly that the experiment in separate representation, elected representation, for Indigenous people has been a failure,’ he told reporters.
‘I do believe that it has become too preoccupied with what might loosely be called symbolic issues and too little concern with delivering real outcomes for indigenous people.’
At the time, Mr Albanese was in the shadow ministry holding the employment services and training portfolios.
As a frontbencher, he was bound to support the party’s position, having less freedom than a backbencher to publicly speak out.
But he would have been able to confidentially raise concerns in the shadow ministry or in the Labor caucus.
Ms Crossin said it would have been unusual for a Labor frontbencher to speak up outside their portfolio.
‘I can tell you, even now, portfolio ministers or shadow ministers or assistant ministers don’t usually speak up in caucus against another cabinet colleague,’ she said.
‘Not then, not now. It’s not something you would do quite frankly.’
Another former Labor MP from Mr Albanese’s Left faction, in New South Wales, told Daily Mail Australia that Mr Albanese did not object at the time to ATSIC being abolished in 2004.
‘He raised some issues but he didn’t raise issues like you’re suggesting – I have no recollection of him on the ATSIC stuff,’ he said.
‘I don’t recall him having a view on ATSIC.’
Mr Latham took over the Labor leadership in December 2003 and was instantly popular in the opinion polls, making MPs reluctant to challenge him on policy, even if they didn’t want ATSIC scrapped.
‘Get real here: once Latham raised an issue that Howard agreed with, it was all over, red rover,’ the former MP said.
‘I supported ATSIC – that didn’t mean that I had to resign.
Then Opposition Leader Mark Latham on March 30, 2004 announced that should Labor win that year’s election, a government led by him would abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (he is pictured left with former AFL player Michael Long who walked to Canberra to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues)
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is now leading the push to embed an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution (he is pictured right at Parliament House with former AFL player Michael Long)
‘I’m also very respectful of the party’s processes and when Latham says we’re going to do this, Howard says it, how do you protest?
‘You can. You get a couple of votes in the caucus but it’s unrealistic to think that Latham should have been rolled.
‘Latham was wrong. I think ATSIC was a reasonable organisation but they used a number of individuals as an excuse.’
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill had been initially introduced in May 2004 by then Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone.
Ms Burney recalled that media conference in April 2004, delivering that speech in 2021 on behalf of Indigenous West Australian Labor senator Patrick Dodson during an era of Covid border closures.
‘I remember it so well – Howard and Amanda Vanstone doing that press conference,’ she said, ad-libbing this line.
Two weeks later, on April 15, 2004, then Liberal prime minister John Howard (pictured with former Liberal MP for Parramatta Ross Cameron) announced his Coalition government would introduce legislation to abolish ATSIC by June 30, 2005
The dismantling of ATSIC followed a year-long review, co-authored by former federal Labor minister Bob Collins, Indigenous academic Dr Jackie Huggins and former NSW Liberal attorney-general John Hannaford.
‘ATSIC has reached a crisis point in respect of its public credibility and with its Indigenous constituency,’ an earlier discussion paper in 2003 said.
READ MORE: How a Constitutional referendum to recognise Aboriginal people failed in 1999
Australians voted on two referendum questions 24 years ago, the last time there was a vote to amend the Constitution.
The question asking voters if they wanted a preamble added to the Constitution, acknowledging Indigenous Australians, was even less popular than the rejected proposal about whether Australia should become a republic.
Mr Collins was a Labor senator for the Northern Territory when the Hawke government established ATSIC in 1989 to begin the following year.
The late Mr Collins was married to Rosemary Tipiloura, a Tiwi Islander who is the mother to their surviving three children including Robbie Collins, an actor who starred in ABC drama series Total Control with Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths.
Dr Huggins became a Member of the Order of Australia in 2001 for services to the Indigenous community and co-chaired Reconciliation Australia.
She had previously been the deputy director of the University of Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit.
The bill to abolish ATSIC and transfer its assets to other government agencies didn’t pass the Parliament until after the October 2004 election and was renamed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005.
It was given royal assent in March 2005, leading to ATSIC being disbanded on June 30, 2005.
A referendum is now being held on October 14 to vote on a proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and the executive government embedded in the Constitution.
Unlike ATSIC, which was a service delivery body, the Voice would just be an advisory group but one which could only be abolished via a referendum.
More than a quarter of the Northern Territory population is Indigenous but under the Constitution, a referendum only passes with the support of four of the six states and a national majority.
The NT and the Australian Capital Territory get a say on the national vote but not with regard to a majority vote in a majority of states.
Daily Mail Australia contacted Mr Albanese for a comment.