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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 82

Mr LINDSAY (5:20 PM) —The shocking events of last Friday on Palm Island in North Queensland underscore a dysfunctional community in disarray, a community that has to be helped. In all of the words that have been said and written about the riot on Palm Island, I have not been able to find any talk about the real solution that has to be faced. This is a community of 42 different tribes that has lost its cultural heritage and will continue to spiral downwards if Indigenous leaders and governments do not face this core problem. With 86 years of experience, just how long is it going to take all Australians to conclude that Palm Island is not viable, and never will be, while it sits as an out of sight, out of mind, welfare-dependent community? It will remain a community where alcoholism, domestic violence, drugs, health problems, unemployment, housing, sense of self-worth and literacy standards may be the worst in the country.

The 42 tribes and their leaders on the island have had ample time to do something about the hopelessness that pervades the community. They have had more than enough money, yet nothing changes, year after year. Since 1998, when I came to understand Palm Island, I have been supporting an integrationist model—a model that has worked well on the mainland. There are 8,000 Indigenous Australians in my electorate of Lindsay, the majority living in the cities of Townsville and Thuringowa. Those on the mainland do not share the lack of self-esteem, the domestic violence, the lack of job opportunities, the lack of housing and the poor education that typify the Palm Island community.

Premier Beattie's five-point plan, announced yesterday when he went to the island, has to be seen for what is—a recipe for more of the same. The Indigenous people of Palm Island do aspire to be better, and I believe that the key to that is the current review of the Queensland government Aboriginal Land Act. I strongly support making changes to land tenure on Palm Island. It is the key to improving the self-esteem of islanders and to bringing about local integration. It will provide an opportunity for economic participation and home ownership; something islanders cannot even dream about under the deed of grant in trust tenure. Presently islanders cannot own their own home or their own land, so they do not have any equity and cannot get a business loan.

The Queensland government will say, `This is all too difficult,' and ask, `How would we ever handle freeholding the township areas? How would we ever handle the tenure on the balance of the island?' But I remind the Queensland government of two things: firstly, failure to act will see Palm Island stay the way it is and, secondly, Aboriginal people I talk to want this to happen. The most costly mistake that we could make now would be to continue to think that the provision of infrastructure and the introduction of a coordinated program delivery strategy on Palm Island will solve the social, political, cultural and economic issues impacting upon the residents there.

I remind the House of the history of Palm Island. The settlement was established in 1918 as a government reserve under the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. This enabled local police protectors throughout Queensland to remove Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reserves. Palm Island was established in the early days as an Aboriginal penal settlement. That is how representatives of some 42 tribes came to be taken to the island and to form the core of the problem that we have today.

Following last Friday's riots no-one misunderstands the need for the community to undertake a whole lot of healing, and the government cannot do that for the community. We understand that the islanders need to deal with their historical issues and that governments need to look differently at how we do business with the island community. For the government's part, we can get our systems operating better and our service systems sorted out, but the answer is not in plane loads of bureaucrats going to Palm Island trying to interfere with the rebuilding of the community. Unfortunately, Palm Island does not have the cultural authority of traditional owners that is found in other communities. This is the result of its history. It is an artificial community. People have lost their way. Young people these days have no idea where they have come from or what their culture is.

In the immediate term I am concerned about the influx of strangers who are now arriving daily on the island and what they will bring to the community. This is not a time for radicalism. Out of respect for Mr Doomadgee's family, I ask that people remain calm. I am encouraged that the Australian government's new arrangements for the disbandment of ATSIC will see many problems in Indigenous affairs sorted out. There has been a welcome response from Indigenous leaders, but governments can only do so much. In the end the community needs to do a lot more.

Over the years there have been many reports on the conditions of Palm Island and what to do about them. They reaffirm time and time again that the way forward must recognise the contemporary issues facing Aboriginal people, that they are linked to history and that any response needs to address that history. Residents of Palm Island have said on many occasions that the lack of an economic base and limited employment opportunities perpetuate the continued dependence on governments for funding of basic services. This results in residents who find themselves living below the poverty line in inadequate housing with minimal support services. Most residents resent this situation and see economic development as the only means of breaking the welfare cycle. This is why I believe that the integration model I have rearticulated today is the only way forward for islanders to be able to live a decent life free from the scourge of Third World conditions.

I have been travelling to Palm Island for nine years. I despair when I go there and I see the way that the people live: garbage strewn about the main town centre, homes that are destroyed, four families living in one home, alcoholism and domestic violence—and on it goes. We have to change it. We have a responsibility as community leaders to articulate the way to change. As much as many islanders will perhaps say that this is pretty radical, it is the only way it is going to change. Otherwise, we will be here in 100 years time and it will still be the same.

I certainly would like to see the integration of Palm Island into mainstream Australia as the way forward. I do not ever again want to see headlines such as the one we saw in Saturday's Townsville Bulletin which said, `Palm Island Explodes. Police station, courthouse torched'. I do not ever want to see headlines such as we have seen today on ABC News Online: `Angry scenes at Palm Is court hearing'. It was a disgraceful situation. The media tell me that even on the mainland in the court they were concerned for their safety. This is Australia. This is no place for the violence that has erupted in the north in the last few days. There is no place for future violence. I certainly hope that the Aboriginal leaders know and understand that.

The coalition government believe Indigenous Australians, wherever they live, should have the same opportunities as other Australians to make informed choices about their lives, to realise their full potential in whatever they choose to do and to take responsibility for managing their own affairs. In that sense, we will spend thousands of millions of dollars in the coming financial year on Indigenous specific programs. While much has been achieved, Australians all want better results. We can get better results. I encourage the Palm Island community to think deeply about a new land tenure model which will see an integration into mainstream Australia and stop the terrible dysfunctional community that currently exists 70 kilometres north-west of Townsville.