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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2213

Senator BURNS(12.06 p.m.) —I have long had an interest in the development of the capacity of Aboriginal people to raise their standards to that of the rest of the community in Australia. I am very well aware, from reading many documents and talking to people who are experienced in what occurred in the earlier years, of the years of paternalism when the local police sergeant, for instance, in Queensland would have the authority to decide whether an Aboriginal person could operate their bank account. The police sergeant would be the one who would sign the withdrawal form.

Senator Herron —They did that with women, too.

Senator BURNS —True. Wherever that occurred at all was wrong. We have gone away from that. Right across politics there has been an aversion to that sort of thing and there is now support for a much more enlightened view. We all know about the removal of children from their families. We all abhor what happened in those days and wish we could do something to redress it. However, that is very difficult. But, again, they were things that the community in those days accepted as being the norm, even though there were individuals who opposed it generally in the community, not only Aboriginal people but also others.

We had a situation where Aboriginal people did not get the unemployment benefit, where they were not counted in the census, where they were not given a vote. All of those things are now behind us. Nobody, regardless of what party they may belong to or whether they are independent people in the political community, would want to go back to any of those things. We see them as having been wrong at the time. Now that they have been righted we should go on to other ways of making things even better for Aboriginal people.

I want to concentrate on the question of the election or appointment of the chairperson. I do not believe that the Aboriginal people should have any less stringent test put on their accountability in terms of auditing and inspecting the way they do business. I believe they should have people in their midst trained to the highest possible level to ensure accountability to the community and to provide a good service to their own people. I recognise that originally the legislation introduced by the Labor government was to appoint the chairperson, but we have moved on from that.

I certainly have had experience in talking with people and I have been at meetings with people from ATSIC who have expressed views and whom I think are highly competent. We now have Aboriginal people who have gone through university and who are displaying a capacity for negotiating on behalf of their people. I mention, for instance, Noel Pearson, who was one of the people who moved in Queensland, up in the Gulf on Cape York, to get an agreement between the cattle people who leased that land for cattle raising, the Aboriginal people and the conservationists. It did not require any arbitrated decision. They came to conclusions themselves where they could all accommodate what they thought was important. Noel Pearson is an Aboriginal person who was in that instance, among others, very important to that process. We have Mick Dodson, the commissioner, who does an excellent job. We have Pat O'Shane, who is a magistrate in New South Wales. We are not lacking in people in the Aboriginal community who can do that job and do it well.

Some people might talk about the lack of capacity of people in the Aboriginal community to understand the needs of Aboriginal people, to understand how the administration of ATSIC should be carried out so that they get the best benefit. Some people might say that they might not know how to make an assessment and vote for the best and most suitable person for chairman or chairwoman. However, if we look at our own process and progress in these matters I do not think anyone would have suggested, say, 80 or 90 years ago that everyone who voted in the general community in this country really understood the issues, economic and social. But more and more people are able to understand those things and vote in a careful and understanding way.

If we go back to the idea of appointing a chairperson—and I have no problem with stringent legislation that requires them to behave in a certain way, as every person with responsibilities in the community should—I think we turn our back on all of the other areas where we have progressed and made the Aboriginal community a better community, better able to look after its own interests and better able to make a contribution to the general community in Australia.

I am surprised that the minister, Senator Herron, would support such a proposal because I am convinced that, though we may be somewhat critical of some of things that he might have done or has not done, he does care about the interests of the Aboriginal people and does want to see them prosper, does want to see them progress, does want to see them have a right to maintain their own culture and their own history while at the same time becoming more and more a part of this nation, making a contribution and getting some return for their effort, equal to that of other people in the community.