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Tuesday, 26 May 1998
Page: 3710

Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (4:52 PM) —First, in a personal sense, may I say that of course I very much regret what has occurred. The nature of this debate, essentially, has been constrained, and this is welcome in an area of great difficulty and complexity. The history of this country led to a situation in which our first migrants—or original inhabitants—were left very marginalised in a community that expected an assimilationist approach. It was an approach that has occasioned a great deal of difficulty.

The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley), in his comments, wanted to make it appear as if this was a profoundly different issue to children being removed from parents. I do not wish to make it a debating point, save to say that I think there are, in our history, numbers of situations in which, for cultural reasons and for other reasons, children have been removed from parents and placed in institutional care. As a society, we still have to grapple with many of those questions. There are organisations in my own state that are particularly anxious about the situation of young people who have been placed in institutional care and subjected to abuse. There is very much an awareness of these issues emerging today.

Equally, in the portfolio area for which I have responsibility, we fund an organisation that deals with young people who were removed from family situations. Many of these young people believed they were orphans but, as we now find out, this may not have been the case. Well-meaning organisations supported these actions, believing they were providing appropriate care and support. These young people were given admission under migration programs supported by governments over a long period of time. We look back on this and we say that if we were to judge it by today's standards and what we now know, we would have treated it very differently.

The outcome of policies and programs that were pursued by our forebears has had quite a significant impact upon this nation but a far greater impact upon the people concerned and their descendants. It is well known that Aboriginals suffer very significant disadvantage within our community. That is the reason why we have so many programs that are trying to address what we recognise as that significant disadvantage. These programs are not new. Programs have been developed for as long as I have been in public life. I served on Aboriginal affairs committees where we agonised about the way in which those programs would be implemented and the extent to which they would be successful. We saw a number of approaches which people suggested at different times would have an impact. I can remember moving to the situation of giving Aboriginals the right of self-determination and self-management in the way moneys were spent on their behalf. That has developed to its greatest extent now, where most of the moneys are handed over to the Aboriginal managed and controlled organisation, ATSIC.

We have seen an emphasis upon land rights—first recognised in the Northern Territory—in legislation put through by the Liberal government of the 1970s under Malcolm Fraser. There was an expectation that with land rights the situation would change remarkably. Now we see the emphasis is on apology and reconciliation. People generously want to support an approach which involves reconciliation. The government also puts a great deal of emphasis upon it. It does so in the context of mutual acceptance of the importance of working together to ensure that differences do not prevent us from sharing equally in a common future for this nation.

There needs to be an honest and realistic acknowledgment of injustices of the past. There needs to be a shared commitment to overcoming indigenous disadvantage and providing equality of opportunity for all Australians. It is that socioeconomic disadvantage suffered by our indigenous Australians that the government believes is its key priority. We target expenditure to identified areas of greatest need—health, housing, education and employment. If you go through each of these areas you can see—coming from very difficult and very significant disadvantage—that there have been, over time, some changes.

I sometimes feel emboldened by the extent to which Aboriginals are so much more articulate today in putting their views about what should happen. I can remember earlier points in time when I felt that Aboriginals were, in a real sense, sometimes deprived of the capacity, courage, or perseverance to argue in their own cause. I now sometimes feel I will not say embarrassed but almost as one feels when somebody has abused one with a very strong and convincing argument. I feel very taken aback at the extent to which Aboriginals can now articulate their case and what they are seeking. I think the reason for this has a lot to do with what we have been able to achieve in education.

It is important, in the context of the motion and the amendment that we are putting today, to recognise that Commonwealth funding for indigenous-specific programs has not only continued to increase but also now represents something of the order of $1.9 billion.

When we look at ATSIC, we see an increase in 1997-98 of some $60 million over four years, with its level of funding guaranteed in all of that time. In the health area, we have seen in this year's budget something like $168 million is to be allocated to indigenous specific health programs. That represents a real increase of 37 per cent since 1995-96. Extra funding was provided in the 1996-97 budget over three years for the establishment of 35 new or expanded health services, with priority for remote and rural areas. In this budget, an additional $73 million over the next four years has been allocated to improve indigenous primary health care.

In the housing area, in this budget $387 million will be spent on indigenous specific housing and infrastructure programs. In November 1996 the government announced an initiative involving the army providing urgently needed housing and infrastructure developments, including water and sewerage systems, in seven remote indigenous communities. Of course, that is also helping to ensure that skills in construction and ongoing maintenance are transferred to the communities involved. Interestingly, I gather those communities involved have been very responsive to those initiatives with our armed forces.

In the area of education, funding for indigenous education programs will be $333 million this year. I was astounded to learn that today there are some 7,461 indigenous students in higher education. In 1998-99, $21.8 million will be provided under indigenous support funding programs to provide academic preparation, counselling and study centres within our universities. This recognises that sometimes, without lowering standards, there needs to be the capacity to help young people through their courses of study with peer support and special counselling. My own daughter is at the Australian National University. For a time she tutored students in courses of study that she was undertaking or had previously undertaken.

I know that most of our universities are now providing those special arrangements to help Aboriginals through our educational system. That will lead to a very significant change in the future. When I think back to the time I was at university, you could perhaps count on two hands the number of students who would come through with university degrees. We have relied very heavily upon some of those people, such as Charles Perkins and so on, who obtained a university degree many years ago. But they were singular examples. Today, we have 7,461 potential Aboriginal graduates.

In the area of employment and economic development, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation, which facilitates and promotes joint venture arrangements between industry, the Commercial Development Corporation and indigenous people, is to be allocated an additional $10 million to top up its capital base. The government's other indigenous specific programs include new indigenous business incentive programs which provide seed funding, training and other support for newly established businesses for indigenous Australians. Of the order of $33 million will be provided for these in 1998-99.

One area about which I have always been impressed—I think it was, probably, if you wanted to use the term, the first work for the dole arrangement in Australia—is the community development employment program. With indigenous people there is an unemployment rate that is four times that of the general population, but this scheme enables our indigenous people to forgo rights to unemployment benefits and undertake work on community projects which will benefit them.

Those community projects have been protected from any form of expenditure reduction. In fact, they were expanded to a total funding, in 1998-99, of $402 million for 33,083 participants. That scheme is one which I know gives Aboriginals an opportunity to be involved in maintaining their homes, the environment in which they are living and their communities, and it provides them with self-esteem. Rather than getting what I think was often colloquially referred to as `sit down' money, they are able to say, `I have worked for these particular funds that I am being paid.'

We have put these arrangements in place in the context of ensuring that Aboriginal programs will be free from criticism. In the past, one has been prepared, perhaps, to forgo the opportunity to effectively audit and ensure that accountability arrangements are in place. One way of ensuring that these programs are well supported is to ensure that the community recognises that they are accountable and, especially, worked.

My colleague the Minister for Family Services (Mr Warwick Smith) fully supported the Commonwealth initiatives when he outlined them in relation to the response to the Bringing them home report. I am pleased that this debate has not been acrimonious but has been positive. We look forward to support for our amendment from the opposition. (Time expired)