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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 146


Mr SNOWDON (4:46 PM) —I am pleased to be back in this chamber as the member for Northern Territory. I want to make some observations about my time out of this place, since 1996. I will be speaking to the honourable gentleman at the table—the Minister for Defence—at some future date about the inadequacies of the defence policy of the government. I will not do it this afternoon, but he can be sure that he will hear from me.

I was defeated at the election in 1996 and I left after that election and made a commitment to my friends who had supported me in the electorate and within the Labor Party that I would recontest and win the seat back for the Labor Party at this last election. I spent 2½ years in a campaign to win the seat back for Labor—and I did so. I have to say that it came as a surprise to the conservative side of politics because they did not expect me to win. I won by dint of the support I was able to achieve throughout the community based on my own performance but, more importantly, on the performance of many people within the community.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you are aware, this is not my first speech. I gave my first address to this parliament on 17 September 1987. I will allude to that first speech because some of the issues that I raised in it are still relevant today. It saddens me that they are so relevant.

I was given the opportunity to speak today by my party colleagues because my family flew down from the Northern Territory for this happy occasion of my swearing in. I notice they have just ambled into the visitors gallery—a little late but, nevertheless, they are here. I would like to acknowledge their presence: Elizabeth and our four children, Frances, Tom, Tess and Jack; and our very good friend, Nyree Davis, who is accompanying us.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not have to tell you or members of this House how important family is in allowing you the opportunity to serve the Australian community. But I do not think people are generally aware of the sacrifice that families have to make for people who come from remote communities and have large electorates. The size of the Northern Territory electorate is about 1.3 million square kilometres. It is the largest electorate by population in Australia and geographically the most diverse. It includes both Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. During my previous period in the parliament, and particularly in the last six years, I was only home on average about six nights a month. I am not quite sure how we achieved it, but we were able to produce four children during that period. It may have been the magic of the communications systems that were available to us but, nevertheless, we now have a family of four children. I make the point that, without the support and love of the family, in this case Elizabeth and the kids, I could not have achieved the success that I have achieved at this recent election. I want to thank them for it.

I also want to thank those people in the electorate who obviously voted for me and the Northern Territory community generally. I note, in travelling around the Territory since the election, that there is somewhat of a relief as though a pall has been taken off the community. They realise now that there is someone back in the job who will do the work they have elected me to do. Sadly, that was not the case with my predecessor. I will not dwell on that, but the fact of the matter is that it is very important that, when representing a large and diverse electorate like the Northern Territory, you actually work hard and try to represent the interests of everyone and not just a select few. That is what I will endeavour to do.

I want to make some observations about the election campaign. Out of it I want to draw your attention to a couple of issues that I made known in the course of my initial speech in this place in 1987, which are still current issues and which became important in the context of the election campaign. The first of those is the issue of statehood. During my 1987 address I spoke about the issue of statehood and the importance of it to the Northern Territory. I said at that time that, if the Northern Territory were to achieve statehood, `It must be done with the support of all sections of the community.'

I would have thought that was a fairly simple observation. I am absolutely amazed that the Northern Territory government, under the chief ministership of Shane Stone, should put to the Northern Territory community a double-barrelled question at a referendum. It asked: `Since we have now had a constitutional convention and the legislative assembly has drafted a constitution, do you think we should now become a state?' That double-barrelled question caused people to react badly against the Northern Territory government. There is no doubt that the Northern Territory community wanted to become a state but they did not want to be hung with the constitution drafted by the CLP government. They did not want to be hung by a constitution that came out of a constitutional convention orchestrated by the Northern Territory government and that represented only two per cent of the population.

Yet Shane Stone, in his wisdom, wrote to the Prime Minister with his double-barrelled question saying, `This is a question I propose to ask in a referendum in the Northern Territory. Do you approve of it?' The Prime Minister said yes. Does that make him as silly as Shane Stone? What it does do is show how inept they are at gauging what the community feeling is and what it has been in the Northern Territory, because there is absolutely no doubt in the world that there is widespread support for the Northern Territory becoming a state—absolutely no doubt about it.

In the course of the election campaign our leader, Kim Beazley, came to the Northern Territory and very clearly articulated the Labor Party position. He said the Labor Party position on statehood is very simple. There will be, under Labor, a constitutional convention which is democratically elected, based on the principles of proportional representation. Out of that constitutional convention will come a process to draft a constitution. And that constitutional convention will determine the way ahead to achieve statehood, including the question of negotiations with the federal government.

I would have thought any reasonable person would have said that this approach, which has been drafted by Kim Beazley, is something which the whole community could support. It deserves bipartisan support. But was that to be the case, Mr Deputy Speaker? Not on your nelly. Shane Stone persisted with his malevolent attack on the ideas and opinions of the community of the Northern Territory with the way in which he drafted this constitutional convention question and then put it to the people of the Northern Territory. During the campaign, he had the gall to say, `If you don't like the constitution, don't vote for the referendum. Don't vote yes.'

The Northern Territory community took him at his word. They said, `We won't vote for it because we don't like the constitution. We won't vote for it because we don't like the process which you have imposed upon us. We won't vote for it because we don't like the fact that you haven't consulted with us and negotiated this with us as you properly should.' There was universal opposition within the Aboriginal community. I go back to my original statement of September 1987 in my first speech in this place. I repeat it:

If statehood is to be achieved in the Northern Territory it must be done with the support of all sections of the community.

It is a simple proposition which should be easy to achieve but, with the current Northern Territory government, it is highly unlikely.

I hope that we get statehood back on the federal agenda in this parliament. I will be driving for it on the basis of the policy propositions put forward by Kim Beazley prior to the election. That is, that there should be an elected constitutional convention using the principles of proportional representation which will determine how the constitution itself will be developed and the way ahead. I know that that will have the support of the community. I wonder if it will have the support of this government, because if an approach like that does not have the support of this government there is next to no hope of statehood being achieved in the Northern Territory.

We have already heard what the Democrats and the Independent Senator Harradine have said about the process thus far. There is no way in the world that a process which deviates markedly from my proposal will be accepted or agreed to by this parliament. It may be agreed to by Mr Howard, but it will not be agreed to by this parliament. What we have to understand is that statehood will not be achieved by a deal between John Howard and Shane Stone. Statehood will only be achieved with the support of the Northern Territory community and the support of this parliament.

The other issue which I raised in the context of my address in 1987 was the question of reconciliation. I want to raise it here this afternoon because it is totally appropriate to this election. In 1987 I said:

The year 1988 provides this nation with a unique opportunity to seek a reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians and recognise their calls for justice.

I would have thought, again, that was something which we as a community would have said is an objective we can all achieve.

The Labor government then instituted a whole host of initiatives designed to bring that process of reconciliation forward, including the appointment of a chair of the Council of Reconciliation in Pat Dodson, a dear friend of mine and godfather to our eldest child, Frances. His brother, Mick, coincidentally, another good friend of mine, has a godchild in our youngest son. These people made a massive contribution to the debate about reconciliation and advanced it properly—as it should have been.

You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that one of the issues which arose during the context of this debate was the stolen children. We have only very recently had the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator Herron, say that there is no way on earth that this government will apologise for the fact of the stolen children. I could understand it, perhaps, if it was something which happened aeons ago. I could understand it, perhaps, if it was something which happened a generation ago. But I cannot understand it, because John Howard was a member of a government at the time this practice was still taking place. He is as guilty as I am, as an adult Australian, for this process.

Let it be said here: he personally may not be guilty, but the fact that that policy was taking place was a product of decisions of governments and the failure of this parliament—this parliament—to act properly in the interests of all Australians and in the interests, particularly, of indigenous Australians. I would have thought that if you understood that basic concept, the product of the 1967 referendum, you would have said that this parliament is the proper institution to apolo gise to indigenous Australians for this practice which was, of itself, genocidal.

We have to ask the question of this Prime Minister: do you have a genuine desire for reconciliation? I fear the answer is no. We then only have to look at the track record of the current Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to understand why that answer is no.

In the past few months and, indeed, in the past few weeks, he has attacked the Aboriginal leadership of this country, he has vilified Aboriginal affairs' policies, and he has supported an approach by the Deputy Prime Minister on the issue of Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I have lived in the Northern Territory since 1975 and every election since 1975, territory and federal, has involved the issue of race. It has involved the issue of race because the conservative political parties of this nation—in this case in the Northern Territory and, more lately, the federal parties—have seen some electoral advantage in dividing the community on the basis of race, subtly sometimes and arrogantly subtly at other times.

In this instance the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Fischer, marched into the Northern Territory, romper stomper style, and put out a press release on 28 September in relation to the Aboriginal land councils in the Northern Territory.

You need to understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, that these organisations represent the interests of Aboriginal people on issues to do with land in the Northern Territory. Their representation is based on statute—a law passed by this parliament in 1976—which gives them responsibilities and functions which they must fulfil. One of them is to properly represent the interests of Aboriginal people in relation to land matters. The Deputy Prime Minister of this country, in the middle of an election campaign, marched into the Northern Territory and said these things:

The NLC based in Darwin and the CLC based in Alice Springs have become giant, bureaucratic, bloodsucking councils, which take away from smaller communities resources and flexible infra structure and leadership in such places like Alcoota, North East of Alice Springs.

He continued:

I am not satisfied with the structure of land councils. I think there is scope for smaller land councils more directly related to smaller communities and getting the job done on health, education and the like. I make no apologies for that.

Not only did he make an intervention which is ultimately racist—for which he later apologised after the election—but what he also did was get the facts wrong. He could not even get the story right. If he had understood the basic concept of a land council and what they do, he would have understood that they have absolutely no responsibility for health, education and other community services. These are rightly the responsibility of government and this parliament.

I ask the question: why is it that the Prime Minister later supported the statements by the Deputy Prime Minister? How could he do that? It got the exact reaction he wanted from Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. They said, `You are wrong.'

Senator Herron then came through the electorate parading the issue of breaking up the land council structures. The CLC candidate, the incumbent, went to the community saying, `If you want a smaller land council, vote for Nick Dondas.' Well, they voted for Nick Dondas—20 per cent of them. The result of the vote in the Northern Territory in relation to Aboriginal issues was that 80 per cent of communities outside the metropolitan areas voted for me, voted for the ALP. They rejected absolutely the divisive approach of Tim Fischer. They rejected absolutely the divisive approach of John Herron. They rejected absolutely the approach of Shane Stone on the issue of statehood and that of John Howard on the issue of Aboriginal affairs. They rejected that, yet we have still got the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs parading around the countryside as if they had not, bemoaning the fact that Aboriginal people do not support him.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I will conclude on what, to me, is a sombre note. I want to pay tribute to a great Australian. I want to pay tribute to an Australian for whom, 12 months ago in two or three days time, there was a service at St Marys Cathedral in Sydney. I speak of Nugget Coombs. Nugget was a great friend of my family and me, and a truly great Australian. I want to quote from the eulogy given that day by Pat Dodson. It epitomises, to me, what this country should be about. It epitomises, to me, what reconciliation is and what leadership should be. I quote:

Nugget had a great belief in the future of this country. He gave to Australia all his intelligence, energy, compassion and love. He dedicated his whole life to building the nation. And the last decades of his long life he dedicated to the Aboriginal people.

The big thing he understood was that recognising the rights of indigenous Australians and justice for indigenous Australians were essential to the future of this country, essential to the future of non-indigenous Australians.

He knew such injustice couldn't be ignored—not without damaging consequences to the whole democracy, to the whole notion that Australia was truly a fair and just society, to the whole white Australian legend of the fair go.

This is what Nugget understood and old age couldn't stop him living by that understanding and fighting for what he knew was right.

Nugget had a world view and a vision for what Australia could and should be.

Nugget had a special interest in the position of indigenous peoples within the world community. He concerned himself with all the social, economic and environmental issues confronting humanity.

He was, for example, particularly aware of the difficulties facing women and children, especially those who were abused or disadvantaged by social and political systems.

He was always critical of economic rationalism—when the world is so wide and complex how could anyone interpret it so narrowly?

Mr Deputy Speaker, my time is running out. I quote these words:

He was concerned that the creed of "profits at all costs" was undermining democracy and increasing inequality—re-creating a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, a world he had dedicated his life to eradicating.

`There are,' he wrote, `. . . serious questions of how far all governments . . . may become. . .

I conclude by quoting these words:

If the sage guide the people he must serve with humility.

That is from Lao Tsu, quoted in Trial Balance , one of Nugget's books. (Time expired)