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Tuesday, 4 April 2000
Page: 13286

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) (3:58 PM) —I have a great deal of respect for Senator Ridgeway. I certainly respect the motion that he has put forward as a matter of urgency. I can understand his motivation in doing so because it is an issue that tugs at the heart. It crosses our whole 210 years of history in this country. One cannot deny—neither I nor the government have ever attempted to do so—our past. Our past was a bloody one. That is not a word I usually use, but there is no question that it was—right from the time of transportation until the present time and our attitude towards the indigenous people of this country. I recall that initially Governor Phillip's instructions were `be kind to the natives'. We introduced diseases which decimated people, particularly smallpox. Senator Ridgeway and many people who are interested in this field would be aware that Bennelong was a person who was affected by alcohol. We introduced a lot of dreadful things to this country unknowingly because we did not understand Aboriginal culture. One of the great events that have occurred in the last 50 years or so is a general understanding, particularly by academics, of the culture of Aboriginal people and its great strengths.

One can do no more than admire the Aboriginal people who have survived this period which started with killings and massacres over land in various places across the country, through to a protection era and then an era of assimilation, which was official government policy of the day. Nobody denies any of that. One of the worst things that we have done—both sides of politics—in recent years has been to introduce welfare dependency. For the last 30 years, we have done that. As I mentioned in question time this afternoon, I think that has probably caused an enormous amount of trouble. I love this portfolio, quite frankly; in fact, I am a volunteer in it. I asked for it after the last election to continue the work that I saw could be done, because I think we are producing a seachange in this country.

Having said that, what we have done to our Aboriginal people, even today, is horrendous: the effects of alcohol, the effects of family violence, as I mentioned. I believe there is an enormous task within our community today to redress those wrongs of the past, as they are afflicting the people today. We see all those statistics—the lack of education, the incarceration that was mentioned previously today, and the other effects on the indigenous community of this country. It is a tribute to them that they have survived. I recall being told as an observer, perhaps 20 or 25 years ago, that the Aboriginal people would not survive because of disease and alcoholism that were rife in the community. It is a tribute that they have emerged as a people whom we do honour.

We have never tried to deny this. I see in the media that somehow or other we are denying children were forcibly removed from their families. All that I have done in the submission is to try to get those facts on the table. For example, the word `stolen' encompasses children who were removed from their families, often from one parent—because that is what occurred in that era—with consent. Since I was last in the chamber, and I have not had the opportunity to verify this categorically, I have been informed that, for example, between 1950 and 1957 in the Northern Territory 44 children were separated from their families, and in every case consent was given by the mother in that case because the father was absent. So over that eight-year period, the mothers of 44 children in the Northern Territory gave consent.

As I say, I have not been able to verify that. I have only just been told that by a patrol officer who was there at the time and who was responsible, so I accept his statement. All I am putting to you is that we need to verify all these things. It is a thing of the heart. I am not denying that. There is no question that there is an extraordinarily strong emotional element to it. I continually get asked by Aboriginal people who have succeeded in society and who are economically independent, `How can I help? What can I do as an individual to help the Aboriginal people?' I believe the overwhelming majority of Australians feel the same way. They want to help. They want to assist in one form or another. That was why the Australian parliament as a whole passed that motion of a sincere expression of regret on 26 August 1999. We represented the Australian public. We were all elected to represent them. We did that.

We responded to the Bringing them home report. The Bringing them home report was 535 oral and written submissions to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which was commented on again today by Sir Ronald Wilson. I questioned Sir Ronald Wilson. I can verify this; I can find the date in my diaries. I said, `Sir Ronald, why is it that nobody who was an administrator at that time appeared before your committee? I would have thought that as a judge there should have been somebody who hopefully was still alive.' One of the difficulties for him, which I acknowledge, is that most of the administrators of that era are deceased. Children were removed but adults, of course, were the administrators at the time. I said, `Why did nobody come forward or why didn't you request that they come forward?' He said, `We advertised and nobody responded.' It is a reality, of course, that elderly people do not wish to have the glare of exposure, but I have actually met one who did respond to it. He was the deputy administrator of the Northern Territory. He asked to be heard, and he tried a number of times, but somehow or another his request was never accepted. I accept Sir Ronald Wilson's statement that nobody came forward, but somewhere along the line this particular person could have added to it.

I have read Colin Macleod's book, which is mentioned in my submission as well. I think he is a magistrate in Victoria at the moment. He has written a book called Patrol in the dreamtime. I would recommend the book to anybody. He has in his book the criteria that were established when children were taken in the Northern Territory. Nobody is denying that that occurred. It is on the record. We responded to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report, of course. It was not a myth. I have seen that in a headline, which was just irresponsible. We responded to that. We responded honestly and truthfully to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report with a $63 million package to attempt to redress that. I do not think we will ever redress the emotional reaction of people or the descendants of those who were separated. Senator Ridgeway divulged today in the media about his own father. We are never going to cure that with money. I accept that. We are never going to redress those wrongs, the emotional hurt that that has caused and the ripple effect through the generations. That will always be on the record.

It is difficult to respond on a piece of paper and put your emotions into that piece of paper, but what I certainly did in relation to the submission to the legal and constitutional affairs committee was to put the facts on the table. I was not present, nor I suspect was anybody else. Senator Ridgeway has a unique experience. I respect him for that and for what he has achieved in his own life. But the facts have to be put on the table; they have to be acknowledged. It is all very well to pass an urgency motion in this chamber but it does not address the facts with respect to Senator Ridgeway.

Senator HERRON —We are addressing the legacy that has been left us from the past. We are tackling the fundamentals of health, housing, education and employment. I believe there is a sea change occurring in Aboriginal affairs in this country in relation to welfare dependency. Leaders are coming out. They are coming out not because we came to government but they have been saying that for so long and they were not listened to—

Senator Patterson —Madam Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I have been sitting listening to Senator Herron, who is speaking calmly and quietly, and Senator Faulkner has interjected over and over again in a most unacceptable way. I ask you to call him to order.

Senator Faulkner —On the point of order: I would make the point that of course it is disorderly to interject and any senator who does interject can be called to order. I did interject. I was just asking Senator Herron: is the government supporting the question before the chair? I just thought before the end of his contribution he could make it clear.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crowley) —As I think you said, Senator Faulkner, all interjections are disorderly.

Senator HERRON —We are addressing the legacy of the past, the legacy of disadvantage particularly in relation to health—there is no question. You would be aware, Madam Acting Deputy President, of the significant advances that have occurred just through immunisation programs alone. We are addressing the health aspects. We are addressing the education aspects. The Prime Minister announced the new education policy only last week. We are addressing the fundamentals. While recognising that there are matters of an emotional and significant nature that do affect the community, I have made my personal expressions of regret, as has the Prime Minister. The whole of the parliament has expressed its regret. I believe this motion of urgency is unnecessary. (Time expired)