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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 814


Senator IAN MACDONALD (4.04 p.m.) —It is my privilege today to make a few comments in relation to the government's response to the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report on South Sea Islanders and their position in Australia. The report is entitled The Call for Recognition.

  The 15,000 to 20,000 Australian South Sea Islanders are descendants of over 60,000 South Sea Islanders recruited mainly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in the latter half of the 19th century. They were recruited to work on the farms in the then emerging sugar industry in the North Queensland area. Although since that time they have spread throughout north and central Queensland and into the capital cities, a great many of them still live in the regions which their descendants settled over 100 years ago.

  Australian South Sea Islanders are a distinct ethnic group, but until now they have not been officially recognised in Australia. South Sea Islanders in Australia have suffered from a century of discrimination and harsh treatment, and this treatment and discrimination is detailed very well in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report.

  Many South Sea Islanders, or kanakas as they were called, were originally brought to Australia in most instances against their will. They were contracted at very low remuneration for two or three years. Although they were referred to as `indentured' workers, they were often treated little better than slaves. In fact, many South Sea Islander descendants today refer to their ancestors as having been slaves. The Queensland Legislative Assembly was in fact told in 1884:

The evil of coloured labour was that it placed the servile labourer too much under the control of the white man. They might not call it slavery, but it was akin to it—cousin to it; and unless they were very careful—indentured service would soon denigrate to slavery.

South Sea Islanders lived under extreme hardship where physical punishment was common. Typical of the attitude of the day was a statement in the Charters Towers Herald, in its edition of 29 December 1883, which warned that:

Kanakas, like other dark races, cannot understand too much kindness and will be much more obedient if inspired by a sense of fear than if pampered.

Unfortunately, that was the attitude of that time to the South Sea Islander indentured workers.

  In spite of the hardships of these indentured labourers, many of them signed up again. They did so because it gave them an opportunity to earn more money than the new recruits were getting and, as well, some of them found it quite difficult to return to their own villages in the Pacific where they no longer fitted in. Between 1904 and 1906 many of them were deported under what was then a white Australia policy. The history books contain many details of attempts by South Sea Islanders to escape deportation back to what was at one stage their homeland.

  But the South Sea Islanders did suffer tremendously in those times from deprivation and very harsh conditions. Some, however, were well treated. Those who remained in Australia adapted to European customs. They had lived for so long away from their native islands that North Queensland became their home. Of course, for many of their descendants North Queensland has been and continues to be their home.

  The commission report says that the labour movement, particularly the AWU, was a vehement opponent of South Sea Islanders, and they were actually refused membership of the union. The AWU applied to have only union members working in the sugar industry to prevent kanakas working in the industry. It required that a worker be a union member to work in the industry, but it would not let the South Sea Islanders join the union. In fact, in 1919 the Queensland Industrial Court's sugar award banned what it called `coloured people' from canecutting after June of that year.

  In spite of that, it is true to say that the great Queensland sugar industry was built on the backs of the forebears of today's Australian South Sea Islanders. I remember that when I first went to the Burdekin district in North Queensland in 1957 there were canecutters from many different walks of life. It was interesting to see how the district prospered from the influence of the very many different racial groups that had moved into the area to cut the cane by hand. There were a lot of Italians, Spanish and South Sea Islanders. It became a very prosperous area. In those days a lot of the canecutters were making big money cutting cane by hand and became wealthy. Some of them bought farms. Most of them had good houses in the towns and prospered in our district.

  There was not a lot of discrimination. There were so many different racial groups that there was little room for or interest in discrimination. I remember that a lot of the South Sea Islander kids who went to school with me, who were friends of mine and played a lot of sport with me, lived in houses in the towns and were treated as part of the community, along with the Italians, Spanish, Greeks and many other people who came to the cane fields in those days.

  As the commission's report says, the hardship and racial discrimination faced by South Sea Islanders in Australia over the last century are major factors contributing to the state of disadvantage they are in today. It is interesting to note a comment made by a recently elected councillor on the Burdekin Shire Council who is also a member of the Burdekin South Sea Islander community, Mrs Marlene Henaway, that South Sea Islanders had been discriminated against for a long time. She goes on to make the quite interesting comment that they were also discriminated against by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

  These South Sea Islanders in the north are a very proud and decent people who look after their own, help each other and are very fine citizens of the communities they live in. Many of them are very Christian, not only in name but in deed as well. They are people who have not wanted a lot and in many cases have not wanted government assistance.

  I remember an incident when I was practising law with a firm in the Burdekin that involved some longstanding clients of South Sea Islander origin who used to do a lot of work with us. Legal service had been granted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by the Queensland government without charge; another firm of solicitors in town had the government contract for the work. At one stage I said to our clients, perhaps rather insensitively, that while I was very keen to accept their work and take their money, it might be in their own interest to go down and receive free legal aid. They were quite offended by that and said that they were prepared to pay for their legal work, just as they paid for everything else. They wanted to be treated as ordinary members of the community and did not want to be singled out. That incident has always remained in my mind.

  However, as a general rule, South Sea Islanders in Australia have been discriminated against and disadvantaged. A recent census taken as part of a Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission investigation showed that they are amongst one of the poorest groups in Australia and face below average employment, health and education. Some of the findings of that census were that the unemployment rate for South Sea Islanders was around 28.5 per cent—about three times the national average; only about one-half of the South Sea Islanders who were working had been employed for all of the preceding year; more than 80 per cent of South Sea Islanders who had left school received less than the average weekly earning of around $500 a week; health within the group is poor, showing a lower average age of death than mainstream Australians; and, notably, the rate of diabetes was more than three times the Australian average.

  South Sea Islanders are an ethnic group which obviously warrants special assistance from the government. But the government has never had any programs to address the special problems of the descendants of the South Sea Islanders. While the South Sea Islanders have in the past had some access to government programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, this access has been actually denied to them in recent years.

  I digress just briefly to speak again about the contribution of South Sea Islanders to my own community. As I mentioned previously, I am very proud of my own rural community. It is a very progressive rural community where so many Australians of different racial origin work together in harmony and for a common purpose. I was particularly proud that at the council elections held on 26 March this year Marlene Henaway, a South Sea Islander descendant who I earlier mentioned, won a position on the Burdekin Shire Council, a council that I was on for 11 years. It was tremendous to see Marlene elected and bringing her vision and energy to our community.

  Marlene relates—our community knows all about it—a problem that my town of Ayr had with a crime wave by young black children. I regret to say that that problem was plastered across the pages of some of the tabloid newspapers in the south. But Marlene Henaway and her people did not ask the government to do anything and did not stand around blaming someone else. They got together, went out on the streets at night, rounded up these kids and dealt with them in their own way.

  It was not very long before what was a very serious problem in our community was completely obliterated. It was all done by the parents and relatives of the kids involved. Marlene Henaway was one of those who organised and took a major part in that. She deserves the congratulations of not only our community but also the whole of Australia. As I say, it was pleasing to see Councillor Henaway elected to our shire council at the last local authority election.

  As an aside, I should also mention that Councillor Henaway is yet another Australian of non-Anglo-Saxon background who genuinely believes in the current Australian constitution, and she is prepared to say so publicly. She is also very proud of our flag, which, as she points out, has the sign of the cross on it.

  The campaign for recognition by the South Sea Islanders has been going on for some time. This campaign has been contributed to and enhanced very greatly by my colleague the honourable member for Dawson, Mr Ray Braithwaite, who, on a number of occasions in this parliament and in very many other ways, has raised the plight, the difficulties, the disadvantage and discrimination suffered by South Sea Islanders.

  Earlier this year, seven Liberal senators who happened to be in Mackay as part of a fact-finding tour of North Queensland had the honour and opportunity of meeting with a group of South Sea Islanders to talk about this campaign for recognition of their race as a group within Australia and to ensure that the government responded to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission report, a response which would give recognition to Australian South Sea Islanders.

  The government's response to the commission's report which is before the Senate today supports a number of recommendations and is the first step towards formal recognition of South Sea Islanders. The government has promised that the South Sea Islanders will be formally acknowledged as having their own history and culture in Australia. They will be acknowledged as an ethnic group, and the employment, education, health and housing needs of Australian South Sea Islanders will be taken into account by government agency programs.

  The mainstream services which the group can currently access will be analysed to ensure that their needs are being met. This will involve liaising with the group as well as extensive gathering of data on the group. Australia's South Sea Islanders will be given an opportunity to work in government departments which deal directly with their communities, much in the same way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can access employment positions relating to their people. As well, other educational and cultural provisions and community development assistance will be offered.

  The government has supported these promises with financial assistance which includes funding of $80,000 per annum over three years for two community liaison officers and a total of $75,000 over two years under AIDAB's development education special projects scheme for development of a special curriculum package for Australian South Sea Islanders in Queensland. As well, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is funding a photographic public exhibition depicting the history of South Sea Islanders in Australia.

  The coalition is pleased to see the government's response, and the provision it has made in the response, to this report. The coalition wholeheartedly supports those moves taken by the government. The problems which have been created in the Australian South Sea Islander communities from a century of racial discrimination and hardship will not be cured overnight; it will take many years. But this is a first step which is a positive initiative by the government and, as I say, one which we wholeheartedly support. We hope that it is only the first of many initiatives to come in relation to the productive development of Australian South Sea Islander people.

  In conclusion, I indicate that there were a number of my colleagues—including my leader, Senator Parer and Senator Reid in particular—who wished to make comments on this report and the government's response. I associate all coalition senators with my remarks on behalf of the coalition to the government's response to that commission's report.