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Monday, 30 November 1998
Page: 939

Senator CROSSIN (9:14 PM) —I rise to speak tonight in the address-in-reply and seek to put on the public record my response to a number of issues that were raised in the Governor-General's speech. I want to highlight the implications for the federal government from the result of the recent election as seen from the Northern Territory's point of view. One thing is evident about the result on 3 October, and that is that the people of the Northern Territory have clearly rejected the policies of the Liberal and National parties. Voters returned the Northern Territory electorate to the Australian Labor Party representative. For those who may not know, Northern Territory voters had the opportunity in the recent election to elect two senators and one member for the House of Representatives. Out of three parliamentary representatives, Territory voters have sent two ALP members, one senator and one House of Representatives member, to represent their interests.

So let me place on record that I am very pleased that my ALP colleague Warren Snowdon has once again been returned to Canberra. Voters for both houses realised that the coalition policies offered nothing for people living in the Northern Territory. My colleagues opposite stand up and talk about having won back the heart of rural and regional Australia. They did not win back people in the Northern Territory. They could not convince people in the Northern Territory that what they had to offer was going to provide them with any substantial benefits. The outcome proves that people living in rural and remote Australia have little faith in the policies of this government.

It has to be said that the Northern Territory is an expensive place to live. Voters rejected the coalition's proposed GST. They know that the high prices they already pay for essentials will increase. There was nothing offered by the coalition during the election campaign which was going to reassure them. For example, we know that in the last quarter the cost of an average basket of goods in the Northern Territory, particularly in places like Darwin and Alice Springs, was 40 per cent higher than what you would pay for a similar shopping basket of goods if you shopped in Melbourne or Sydney.

When you consider the 40 per cent higher cost of goods in the rural and remote Territory, people did not have any of their concerns allayed by coalition counterparts campaigning in the Territory that Territorians were going to be better off under these policies. A lot of people, many of whom would probably have normally been supporters of the coalition's policies, indicated that while they may well have voted for the coalition in the House of Representatives they certainly were not going to vote that way in the Senate, because they wanted to ensure that the Senate conducted an inquiry into the impact of the GST, particularly as it affected them.

In the last seven days we have seen the GST Senate committees established. In the coming weeks we will develop their itinerary to travel around this country to talk to, consult with and hear from people. I have a concern, which the Labor Party will be addressing, and it is the so-called `northern line'—the line that you might draw from the top of Brisbane to the top of Perth. The Labor Party will guarantee to the people of Australia that this will not be an eastern seaboard inquiry. It will be an inquiry that endeavours to send the committees around the country, out to rural and regional Australia, so that those people can also have their voices heard and their concerns addressed.

The full privatisation of Telstra is another issue of concern to the people of the Northern Territory. It is no secret that access to reliable and affordable telecommunications services is becoming increasingly important in overcoming some of the tyrannies of distance faced by people living in remote and regional areas of Australia. This access to technology in the information age is vital for education, business and often health purposes. During the Territory's wet season many people in remote communities are cut off for weeks at a time by flood or stormwaters, making them even more reliant on telecommunications services. In places like Port Keats, there are limited telephone lines into houses. We still have places in this country where people are waiting for telephones to be put into their homes. We still have places in this country where it takes 20 minutes to download a page from the Internet. Telstra's community service obligation is essential to ensure that people in regional Australia have access to telecommunications at an affordable price.

Telstra is also an important employer in communities outside Darwin. The reduction of Telstra staff now living in small communities will have a major economic impact on those communities. People living in remote parts of Australia have already noticed a drop in the quality of service delivery. The Territory is no different. Proper provision for the ongoing maintenance of telecommunications services is essential if people are to have reliable service delivery.

In referring to our future generation, the government has said that it will support a quality teacher program to improve teacher skills and lift the status of teaching in schools. In part of his speech, the Governor-General made specific reference to the quality teacher program and to improving the quality of teachers in our schools. Is the response in the Governor-General's speech finally the government's response to the inquiry into the status of the teaching profession, A Class Act? Is there finally recognition that the status of teachers needs improving, although only given a cursory mention in the address? The Northern Territory government has recently acknowledged the low morale of teachers and the need for the bureaucracy to change to support better teaching and learning.

But this commitment is just not good enough, and still does not address the crisis facing the education system in this country—the crucial shortage of teachers for our education system. This government needs to give a commitment to recognise this and to fund a national recruitment campaign designed to attract high quality applicants to the teaching profession, but more importantly to ensure that they stay there and that there are adequate incentives to keep them in the profession. The government statement does not go far enough and still implies that the low status amongst the profession is linked to the skills of these people rather than to the inadequacies of the system and its lack of recognition to address related problems.

The most important area in reply to the Governor-General's speech relates to the issue of our indigenous Australians, in particular our Aboriginal people. The election result in the Northern Territory sends an important and vital message that the coalition government needs to come to terms with and recognise. It is important that this comment is put on the public record: Aboriginal people living in remote communities in the Northern Territory overwhelmingly oppose the coalition's policies on Aboriginal issues. In the Senate, Aboriginal voters in Northern Territory remote communities voted eight to one for the Australian Labor Party. Of 11,790 votes that were cast in remote communities where the population is overwhelmingly Aboriginal, 8,056 gave their first preference vote to the Australian Labor Party. The coalition received only 1,891 votes. Aboriginal people voted overwhelmingly for the Australian Labor Party.

In an article in the Australian on Wednesday, 4 November, Maria Ceresa explains:

. . . results in the seats of the Northern Territory, Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, Leichhardt on Queensland's Cape York and Grey in South Australia provide some indication of how bush Aborigines feel.

Taking in isolation the remote booths with a high percentage of indigenous voters, this is what happened:

In the Territory, successful ALP candidate Warren Snowdon won an 8 per cent swing—

this is out bush—

and 80 per cent of the vote on a two-party preferred basis.

. . . . . . . . .

In his new spirit of reconciliation, John Howard claims that Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron has the support of "grassroots" indigenous people.

. . . . . . . . .

However, there is little evidence to support the claim of broad-based support for the Government from ordinary Aborigines. Indeed, the election result graphically demonstrates the shallowness of such a contention.

Who can blame Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory for not trusting this federal government? The Reeves review of the land rights act is perceived by many Aboriginal people as being a means of undermining the power of the two mainland councils. The proposal to break up the land councils by establishing 18 regional land councils is seen by many to be the land councils' punishment for being too effective an opposition to the federal and territory governments on a wide range of issues of concern to their constituents. It is not unexpected that the CLP government has waged war against the land councils; they have proven themselves to be a vindictive lot.

It should be remembered that land councils are statutory authorities given their powers under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. Section 23 of the act lists the functions of the land councils. Under the act, the land councils have a legal responsibility to protect the interests of Aboriginal traditional owners. They should not be punished for doing their job properly.

In fact, in the weeks leading up to the election I travelled out bush to remote communities. As you would be aware, voting started one week before 3 October, the date of the federal election. When we went to remote booths, particularly along the top of north-east Arnhem Land, we saw signs that had been put up by the Country Liberal Party that said, `If you vote for Nick Dondas, we will give you your own land council.' That was absolutely deceptive and misleading, but Aboriginal people knew that. Aboriginal people were not to be deceived; they understood exactly what this government was on about and they did not fall for it.

I should turn to the matter of reconciliation. The Prime Minister has nominated this as one of the priorities for his second term. On that Tuesday, the day of the Governor-General's speech, there was little more than two sentences on the matter and only an undertaking that the government would work to achieve the goal of reconciliation over the next two years. Where is the apology to the stolen generation, evidence that this government has really changed? Where is that one word from the Prime Minister that would usher in an apology to the many Aboriginal people in this country who have been emotionally affected and hurt by the policies of previous governments? All the Prime Minister needs to do is apologise and move on, but it seems to be too big an ask.

It is true that David Buckingham, the Executive Director of the Business Council of Australia, has recently delivered a statement about reconciliation that goes much further than any member of the government has committed to. I refer to a summary of his article in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday, 10 November. He said it was vital to understand what reconciliation was, that it was not just a matter of granting Aborigines full citizenship rights such as adequate health, education and other services, and that, ultimately, reconciliation was about indigenous rights and issues of indigenous laws and customs. Until the community embraced the meaning and existence of indigenous rights, the reconciliation process would not be complete.

Gatjil Djerrkura, a personal friend and somebody whom I lived with on the Gove Peninsula, went on to declare that he cannot see how the government will advance the Prime Minister's agenda if it has Minister Ruddock moving around the country, talking about reconciliation, with Senator Herron travelling behind him preaching recrimination. We should remember that Senator Herron recently said that a generation of indigenous leaders `who had been around forever' should hand on leadership to people more interested in getting on with promoting the future. That is the greatest indictment I have heard coming from a minister for Aboriginal affairs.

You must understand that the traditional owners and indigenous leaders hold the knowledge and hold the power in their communities. They do not, in fact, move on when they get tired to make way for people who are more interested in getting on with promoting the future. That is not Aboriginal custom, that is not Aboriginal law, and it is a sad indictment that the federal minister for Aboriginal affairs does not understand that basic tenet of the way in which Aboriginal people operate. The Executive Director of the Kimberley Land Council, Peter Yu, called for the Prime Minister to give an indication of direction on indigenous affairs policies. He went on to say that reconciliation must be about maintaining their law and their culture.

It is clear that the election result has sent a message to the federal government that it has much work to do if reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia is to move beyond simple platitudes. Constantly trying to undermine the work of the land councils is not the way to go about the change that is needed. Nor is changing the joint management arrangements for the Kakadu and Uluru Kata Tjuta national parks without the support of Aboriginal traditional owners the way to develop good relationships between the federal government and Aboriginal Territorians. The way in which the government intends to do that has yet to be announced.

Territory voters in the recent federal election made an informed choice in returning the territory to the Australian Labor Party. In doing so, they sent a very clear message to the federal government. But the statements and sentiments mentioned in the Governor-General's speech on that Tuesday show that the government has really not got it, and that very little is likely to change in the next few years.

In closing, I would like to make a few remarks about the proposed 30 per cent health rebate system. Something that I have not heard espoused by the federal government in the last week in either the House of Representatives or this chamber is a knowledge and understanding of private health in relation to people who live in rural, regional and, more particularly, remote Australia. There are 51,000 people in the Northern Territory who take out private health insurance. I do not know the figures as to how many are Aboriginal people, but I guess there would not be too many. In fact, I would say there are probably none.

If you live in any of the five regional centres outside of Darwin, there is no private hospital. There is no access to private doctors or to private services. In Darwin there is one private hospital, which offers a limited range of specialist services and a limited range of facilities. Most times you find that if you need any elective surgery or you need emergency surgery, despite the fact that you pay private health insurance, the private hospital does not provide it. So you have no choice; you end up in the public hospital anyway.

The Governor-General's speech talks about addressing the huge disparity in the health of our indigenous people and how it will continue to be a priority for the government. Where is the disparity in offering people a 30 per cent Medicare rebate? If you are an Aboriginal person living at Milingimbi, the disparity is widened. This government should be looking at putting that money into providing better services in those communities and providing those people with better primary health care services at a level that is more commensurate with their high level of health need. There will be very few Aboriginal people in the Territory—probably none—who will benefit from this proposal. If the proposal were not successful and if it were not pursued by this federal government, there would be many Aboriginal people in the Territory who would benefit from an injection of over $1 billion worth of funds into the health system.

Most people in the Northern Territory that I speak to about their private health insurance say that it is not that they want more of a tax rebate; they want the problems in the system fixed up. They do not want to go to a physiotherapist and pay $40 and only get $15 back. They do not want to be told that they can only claim $600 a year back for orthodontist fees for their kids' teeth when it cost them $2,000. They want to be told that the gap is lessened and that they are not wasting their money on private health insurance. I think many people in the Territory do a few basic sums and work out that the money they could save on private health insurance would be better put in their own pocket, and they could just pay for whatever services they could not get in the public system.

There are many disadvantages in terms of a 30 per cent rebate in the tax system for people in the Northern Territory. In particular this government has failed to recognise that there is probably little access to private services in the Territory when it comes to health. There is little benefit in having private health insurance in the Northern Territory and there is little that these policies will do for people who live in the Northern Territory.

Even though this government has been returned, people in the Northern Territory, in particular Aboriginal voters, have overwhelmingly not supported this government. The result clearly shows that. I do not think this government can stand on a mandate of having won back rural and regional Australia, certainly not when it comes to the Northern Territory. If the policies and legislation that we have seen in the last couple of weeks continue to unfold in the next three years, we are certain to enjoy the return of Warren Snowdon after the next election as well.