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Monday, 18 February 2008
Page: 649

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (7:03 PM) —I rise here in the Main Committee this afternoon to make my contribution in response to the formal apology that was moved by the Prime Minister in the main chamber at the opening of parliament. I want to comment on that and also on the Leader of the Opposition and his response on that day. I went to witness the welcoming ceremony to the parliament in the Members Hall. I guess for many of us, or probably anyone who saw it, it was a first, and it was very interesting from my point of view. It was a historic moment and I have to say the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are many and quite unique, as I could witness in those dance routines. I only wish we had a bit of an explanation of them. Probably it is a bit like going to the ballet—you have to interpret what they are dancing—and I am not a great one for having been to have been to many ballets! But I thought if we had had an interpretation of that it would certainly have helped us as well. I certainly went along. I made sure that I was in a good position to watch. It was interesting and I think it was a reflection also of the many cultures that make up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

I do support the Prime Minister and his right to bring forward the apology. After all, he did campaign on it during the election and the Labor Party has for many, many years campaigned on that issue. The Prime Minister has the absolute right to bring forward that motion at the time of his choosing, albeit in this case the opening of the 42nd Parliament. I commend the Prime Minister on his speech to the parliament. Likewise, I commend the Leader of the Opposition on his speech. Whilst there are some who said in commentary around this place that they did not believe all that the Leader of the Opposition said, I have to say that I did. I guess that is why our nation is so great. We believe in democracy. We also believe in freedom of speech and the right of people to express things in a different manner, and I thought Brendan Nelson’s speech was appropriate. At the end of the day, I think he had a responsibility to reflect some other views in the community that I believe would be more supportive of our side of the House than of the government’s side. I think that in a sense he was trying to balance both the support for the motion put by the Prime Minister in the apology and his own experiences throughout his life.

Certainly, while listening to the stories from both leaders, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, no-one could deny that children were forcibly removed and that, having heard the stories relayed and put on the public record, that could not be right in our day and age. It was not right. I have to say that at that time people, governments and government authorities believed that they were doing the right thing. We reflect on it from our time in history. I know there are many church organisations, missionaries—nuns and others—and government agencies who believed that they were doing the right thing. I think they were well-meaning people. But once you listen to the stories of those that were forcibly removed and of the impact of that removal on those children—and it was not universal that they were all forcibly removed—you note there is certainly a need for us to acknowledge that that was wrong. That is what we are doing in this parliament, in this place, at this time.

I was disappointed that the Leader of The Nationals was not given an opportunity at that moment in the House to make a contribution. I say that because the opposition is made up of two political parties.

Mr Albanese —Brendan asked for two speakers.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT —I acknowledge that. I just say that we are made up of two political parties, not one, and I think it would have been great if the Leader of The Nationals, Warren Truss, who is the member for Wide Bay, had been afforded an opportunity to stand and support the motion put forward by the Prime Minister and supported by Brendan Nelson. I say this because the National Party in Queensland has for a very long time acknowledged the contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have made to our community, their place in history and their place in communities. In fact, the National Party, back in 1974, endorsed the first Aboriginal member of the Queensland parliament, Eric Deeral. So we come to this debate with a commitment to the wellbeing and the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. That is why I would have liked to have seen our political leader, Warren Truss, being afforded the opportunity in the main chamber at that very historic moment.

This formal apology is important. It is a landmark and it has received overwhelming support across the nation. I think I could say quite safely, as I think Noel Pearson has said as well, that, if the apology leads to a raft of compensation claims, there will not be that same level of support within the Australian community that there has been and that I have witnessed and that we have all witnessed through the media reports that have come forward in relation to the offering of an apology.

It is important that we move on. I was interested in the Prime Minister’s offer to have a war cabinet, a bipartisan approach, to address the substantive issues that have been with us for decades and decades in relation to the situation in which many Aboriginal communities find themselves in remote parts of Australia. Our side of the House will support that, as we saw prior to the election the then opposition, the now government, supporting the coalition’s approach in the Northern Territory, where we had a constitutional power to intervene. It is absolutely vital that that program continues. If we are to do something that is more than just symbolic, albeit important, we must marshal all our resources and, with bipartisan support, address the other substantive issues of health, wellbeing, the opportunity for economic advancement and jobs, and life expectancy in Aboriginal communities, particularly in the remote parts of Australia.

I was interested to see the comments of Dr Bill Glasson, who is chairing the Northern Territory health task force. He is a very highly respected doctor. He does a lot of work in remote communities as an ophthalmologist. He said of the 8,000 children who have been given health checks so far that they are riddled with worms, scabies and dental decay. He said some of the skin infections caused by the scabies are so bad that they have caused renal disease, and many of the children have severe hearing problems. That health situation will be with these young children for life. We have to ask ourselves how on earth the children will be able to make the most of educational opportunities at a young age if they cannot hear a teacher and start to learn. That is why we have to work together to make sure that we give these children and their communities an opportunity for greater life expectancy and opportunity in life.

Having said that, this has taken more than a generation to manifest itself and I believe it will possibly take more than a generation to come out the other side, where we will see greater life expectancy, greater job opportunities and these communities being more a part of mainstream Australia. I can think of examples of so many Indigenous Australians who have been given that opportunity. I can think of one person in my own town who I grew up with who had the opportunity. That is Artie Beetson. He had an opportunity. As an Aboriginal growing up in Roma he found rugby league was where he could excel. He went on to be captain of Australia and led our rugby league team overseas. He is a great Australian, a great person. He is an example, and in many ways a role model, that I think we ought to use in this debate to bring awareness to the Aboriginal people of what can happen when Aboriginal children and communities are given an opportunity.

There would not be an Australian who was not proud of Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics, when she won the 400 metres for Australia. There were tears of joy. I was in Sydney at the time. That is another example of where an opportunity was given. I know that Cathy went to a Presbyterian girls school in Toowoomba—possibly on a scholarship—and that gave her an opportunity. It did not separate her from her family and her culture, which are both important to Cathy. I have to commend her on the work she is doing now. Weren’t we as a nation all so proud to see her win that 400 metres? She beat the best in the world, and she is the best in the world. So we know that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are given this opportunity in life they can rise to be the best—not all of them, of course, but many can become the best at what they do in life.

I have many Indigenous communities in my electorate. In fact, I have them from the Northern Territory border and the remote community of Cunnamulla to the border between New South Wales and Queensland to my main office in Dalby. I have quite a lot of contact with the Aboriginal community. Prior to coming to this place—in fact, prior to getting married—I spent time on cattle mustering camps. We had many Aboriginal stockmen in those camps and I learned a great deal from them. Their natural instincts about the land and the signs of nature made it just fascinating to talk to them. Often riding behind a mob of cattle when you were moving them along, I would ride over to one of the Aboriginal stockmen and quiz them, because you had to tease the information out. Some of these things were second nature to them; it was not second nature to me or to many of the other stockmen. But it was fascinating just listening to them; we can learn much from the Aboriginal people.

I have worked with Aboriginal people. I have them in my electorate. I went to school with Arthur Beetson in my home town of Roma. I admire the contribution that they have made. I admire the skills that they have. If we as a nation, at a state and Commonwealth level, can all work together to really do something out there in those communities where we have absolutely appalling conditions of life expectancy, health outcomes and opportunities in life then we just have to do it. I would like to think that, in relation to job opportunities, we might get some of our large corporations looking at how they could work with Aboriginal communities. We have seen in some parts of my electorate and over the border in Moree large corporations and industries start to work with the Aboriginal communities and bring them into the job opportunities that are in their community and to demonstrate—at least in the case of the agricultural sector—how we work the land and consider the agronomy before crops are planted. We have seen corporations bring them into our mainstream communities and work with them. I know that they will rise and be equal to anyone else in our community if we can give them that opportunity.

Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, I think we all—perhaps more my generation than yours—remember Bruce Woodley from the Seekers and Dobe Newton from the Bushwackers. They penned the words of that great song that has become so famous:

We are one, but we are many

And from all the lands on earth we come

We share a dream and sing with one voice:

I am, you are, we are Australian.

At the end of the day we have to reflect on those words as we try to work together to ensure we do the right thing to make a better life for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and address those appalling situations and circumstances that many of them find themselves in. The apology that the Prime Minister had every right to bring forward is the first step on that road. I know that the majority of Australians will be on that road with him, as well as the Leader of the Opposition, Brendan Nelson, and the National Party.