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Thursday, 27 June 1996
Page: 3088

Mr HOLDING(8.44 p.m.) —I enter this debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1996 with some regret after listening to the level of contributions that have come from across the House.

Mr Randall —I hope you can do better.

Mr HOLDING —I tried to do better when I was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs; and I am the only former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs remaining in the parliament—I had this portfolio for something like six years.

Mr Randall —You should be ashamed of what you did last time.

Mr HOLDING —That is the sort of inane comment which does the honourable gentleman no credit at all. Let me talk about one of the things that happened when I became a minister. Within the first 24 hours, I was rung by two former ministers for Aboriginal affairs who were from the other side of politics, who not merely congratulated me upon my appointment but offered me the benefit of their knowledge and their experience. On at least several occasions I had occasion to call on that, and on several occasions they came to see me to draw my attention to matters which were within their knowledge and not mine.

If I am entering into this debate I want to do so, first of all, on behalf of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron). I assure members of this House that, having had a number of portfolios, I know that there is no more difficult or complex portfolio. It is a portfolio which deals with the lives of people, where you have problems that vary from one part of Australia to the next, from one part of the state to the next—

Mr Randall —It sounds like life.

Mr HOLDING —In many ways it is life. I say this to the honourable gentleman: please put your prejudices to one side.

An honourable member interjecting

Mr HOLDING —The problem for the honourable gentleman is not his prejudices; it is his tiny mind, and I cannot ask him to put that aside.

The reality is that, while the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Dondas) may speak on this legislation and give us the benefit of his knowledge, the problems in the Northern Territory are not the problems of Aboriginal communities in Fitzroy and Melbourne. The problems of Aboriginal people in Fitzroy and Melbourne are not even the problems of the Aboriginal people living on the Murray or in Shepparton.

This is what makes this portfolio so difficult to administrate. This is why, in my view, the government, with the best intentions in the world, should not be rushing this sort of legislation through the parliament. They should be giving the minister the time and opportunity to get across this portfolio and to meet more Aboriginal people and Aboriginal leaders in order to win their confidence; because there is no minister who has come into this portfolio who does not have a very difficult task.

I spent the first two years in my portfolio, because money was being taken, making a very simple proposition in every community I went to. It was to say very simply this: when money comes into the portfolio of Aboriginal affairs, it is not the government's money; it is your money. If for any reason you steal it, you are going to go to gaol. It is as simple as that. On several occasions that occurred.

I used to receive letters which were almost indecipherable from secretaries of Aboriginal people who had been elected by their own community. Why? Because they employed their daughters or a relative's daughter. Why? Because it would almost be a loss of face in that community if you did not employ one of your own. This is the pattern of indigenous people not just in Australia but in other parts of the world.

As a result of land rights and as a result of government programs, it is perfectly true that in some communities you have rich Aboriginals and you have poor ones. You have Aboriginal people who have hung onto the strength of their culture and their beliefs. You only have to go to certain parts of Australia and put your backside down in the dirt and it will take 20 minutes before a conversation starts. The first two people who will speak will not be the principal person, and then you will hear from the old man who is the acknowledged leader of that community. That is how it operates.

It would be of great value to the minister to go and sit down under a tree with perhaps Bill Neidjie—a man learned in the law, one of the older men who has written and committed his law to paper because he was so concerned to preserve Aboriginal culture. He was the first Aboriginal person to actually sit down and write his story to try to reproduce his culture so that his grandchildren would have something to hang onto.

There are many great people in Aboriginal society, but they are like the rest of us. There is good and bad in every community. In my profession, I am sad to see it when colleagues rort their trust funds and go to gaol. But there has been no government in any state parliament saying, `Look, solicitors are stealing trust funds. Perhaps what we had better do is have the Attorney-General appoint the president of the law council or the law institute.' This view in many ways, unfortunately, has permeated the culture of this parliament when it comes to dealing with Aboriginal affairs. Unfortunately, I think it was perpetrated in a book recently published and launched by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, and I hope he did that on the basis that he had not read it but thought he was doing the right thing.

One of the things I have learned—and it was a hard learning course—is the whole concept of assimilation. Governments decided that the best thing you could do for Aboriginal people was that, if they were going to die out, you could take their children, move them from their natural parents and put them in hospitals far away from home. They were not evil. They were not bad. They had a perception that everything would be all right if Aboriginal people would only be like us.

That is one of the reasons that so often in this parliament the conversation turns on money, housing and health. That is not to say that those things are not important. They are important. But I suspect that what is behind that is the view that if we fix up the health and housing side of things and there is a school they can go to, they will be like us—and that is a fallacy.

I wish that this minister could be given time to breathe, to move into the broader aspects of Aboriginal society. Perhaps he could visit the Northern Territory, where we have the finest rock art collection in the world. In France 200,000 tourists a year look at a rock art collection that does not compete. I wish the minister had time to walk through the bush with eight- and 10-year-old kids; they see things that we do not see. We can meet Aboriginal people who have made for themselves a significant lifestyle, but who have not abandoned their culture.

It is important that we in this parliament realise that we are dealing with people who have the oldest existing culture in the world. Many Aboriginal people have moved into high positions in our society and have become very successful in the things that they have done. They have also gone through traditional ceremonies. Some of them have done that at a fairly late stage in life. At the end of that experience, they say that it was the most significant thing that has happened to them in their lifetime. Despite all the things that have happened to Aboriginal people, that is a legacy which, in a spirit of generosity, they are happy to share with us. The day that this community is strong enough, brave enough and morally courageous enough to lift up our hands and pick that up is the day that we will be well on the way towards not only solving their problems but also a lot of ours.

This problem has bedevilled all governments. Some people might believe that passing this legislation in this way tonight will give this minister a quick fix. What it will do is place him in a position where he will have great difficulty in winning the confidence of Aboriginal people. Think about it.

Look at the various structures in our society that have made mistakes. There is no argument that ATSIC is less than perfect. But I do not know that it is any less perfect in its processes than this parliament or the state parliaments. But to move to a stage of saying, `This government is going to make the minister choose the chairman, whether he wants to or not' is to put Aboriginal groups around Australia in a position of saying, `They don't trust us. We're back to the old model. We're back to a situation where it is white fellas telling us which black fella is going to be our boss.' What will happen? There is bound to be some Aboriginal—a reasonable salary is attached to the position—who will face the problems. But that is wrapping around the neck of the minister concepts that he is going to have to live with in relation to every Aboriginal community in Australia. I do not believe that is fair to him. I do not even think it is fair to this government, to be candid. There are no quick fixes in this area.

Therefore, I believe that the government should pause—there is no great urgency to pass this legislation in the dying hours of this session of parliament—to give this minister time. It does not matter whether or not you dismiss what occurred in the Senate today as a political exercise. The real issue is what Aboriginal communities the length and breadth of Australia are going to think about that. Aboriginal communities are as politically divided as the rest of society. They are going to say, `We are dealing with a minister who wants to tell us what his solutions are instead of sitting down and listening to us and talking to us, addressing these problems together.'

Would it have made any real difference if Lois O'Donoghue had been left in her position for another 12 months? Would it have made any real difference to anybody except Aboriginal people, the present ATSIC commissioners and, most importantly, the minister? With the best intentions in the world, what the government has done here is to virtually place the minister on a crucifix. You are not giving him the time that he needs. Regardless of his skills and capacities in his own profession, he does not come to this portfolio with any great background or knowledge.

There is a major learning curve that he has a right to be across. What you are doing is placing a burden on him which will haunt him for the rest of his period as a minister. If there is any sensitivity and if there is any commonsense, I would say to the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and I would say to his cabinet colleagues: don't be in any hurry to pass this legislation. Give the minister time to establish the relationships he needs to have. Give the minister time to reach out and establish relationships not just with Aboriginal people but also with island people. They are also his responsibility.

I choose to finish where I started. There is a real difference within states. Urban and semi-urban Aboriginal people in Western Australia are a hell of a lot different from those living around Broome in the north-west of Western Australia and different again from those living in the desert areas straddling their tribal areas that cross the boundaries of South Australia and Western Australia.

There was a time, when I first came into this parliament, when members from various parts of Australia had a knowledge of and a relationship with Aboriginal people, but unfortunately such has been the nature and the development of our parliament that that is no longer the case. There are no quick fix solutions. There is no one single piece of legislation that is going to change the way Aboriginal people relate to the government, relate to each other and relate to a dominant white society. Some are emerging through that society who still want to retain their Aboriginal culture and tradition.

These are complex human issues. There is no point in entering this debate on the basis that the Labor government got it all wrong. We got a hell of a lot of it right and we also got some of it wrong. That has been the history of every federal government that has tried to tackle this problem. But you are doing your own government and your own minister grievous harm by whacking this legislation through the parliament in the dying hours of this sitting when there are all sorts of functions going on in this institution.

The Aboriginal people, whatever their shortcomings, whatever their problems, are worthy of a more sophisticated approach to their problems and to this issue than the one that is currently being displayed in this parliament. This approach of the government, in my view, will not do anything but put it in a situation that it does not have to be in. It will put the minister in a situation, if he has any background at all, if anyone can talk to him about it, which no minister should be in in the early days of his ministry.

To that extent, I hope I have pointed out, in a bipartisan way, that this is not the way to go, this is not the way to proceed. It is about building new relationships. The government is entitled to produce new concepts and try to make them work. This minister will make his mistakes, as every minister has made his mistakes, but at the end of the day I believe that on all sides of the House there are members who have a genuine concern to deal with the problems of our Aboriginal people, our indigenous people. They have much to benefit from a positive response and we as a community have a great deal to gain from reaching out and understanding that culture, its relationship to this great land of ours and, more importantly, its relationship to our children and the future of this country.

Debate (on motion by Mr Reith) adjourned.