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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator BARNETT (5:22 PM) —I stand to speak in support of the report on the Stolen Generation Compensation Bill 2008, which has been tabled by Senator Crossin, and to commend Senator Bartlett for his objectives and his ambitions with respect to the stolen generations, as it were. The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee was commissioned to inquire into this bill on 12 March this year and it reported, obviously, today. The primary purpose of the report was to consider the bill put forward by Senator Andrew Bartlett from the Democrats. The bill, in essence, proposed a compensation model for ex gratia payments to be made to Indigenous Australians. It also established what was referred to as a Stolen Generations Fund from which ex gratia payments are to be made to eligible persons. It also provided for the establishment of other support services, including funding for healing centres and services of assistance for people in receipt of compensation.

We received 85 submissions and had hearings in Darwin and Sydney. I want to put on the record my thanks, on behalf of Liberal senators on the committee, for the efforts the witnesses made to take time out to present their views. I also wish to express our thanks to those who made submissions to the committee; it was very much appreciated. It was pretty full-on and, at this juncture, I would like to specifically thank, on behalf of the Liberal senators, the committee secretariat—specifically Peter Hallahan and Julie Dennett and their team—for their professionalism and the manner in which they pulled together not only the hearings and the report but also the entire program in such a way that our committee could deliberate and provide this report to the Senate today.

The Senate report is not inconsistent with the previous Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee report which was commissioned in 1999—the committee at the time being chaired by Senator Marise Payne—and delivered in November 2000. That particular report was looking at similar matters and, at the time, recommended the establishment of a reparations tribunal and an independent evaluation of the Bringing them home report. As I say, the report that we have presented today and the recommendations that have been made are, I think, not inconsistent with that report. I think that shows a good deal of depth and longevity with respect to the Senate and the working of its various committees. I want to note that right up-front.

I also want to note that Dr Brendan Nelson and, of course, the Prime Minister, on 13 February 2008, just a few months ago, made an unreserved apology to those Indigenous communities that have suffered. That is on the public record. I will return to that shortly. I spoke in the Senate the following day, in full support of that apology, to say sorry and to apologise for past injustices. I noted at the time that the passing of the motion had been received with great relief by many and I said that I hoped it would provide healing and reconciliation. That remains my view.

It is worth noting that it is not just the federal government that is responsible here but, indeed, both levels of government, state and federal, which had laws and policies in place which were based on race and were discriminatory. That position has been noted, I know, by the various state and territory governments around this nation and, indeed, since February, by the Australian parliament. In Tasmania on 13 August 1997, the state parliament passed a motion which was of the following accord. It was moved by Tony Rundle, the Premier at that time. It said:

That this Parliament, on behalf of all Tasmanians, expresses its deep and sincere regrets at the hurt and distress caused by past policies under which Aboriginal children were removed from their families and homes, [apologises] to the Aboriginal people for those past actions and reaffirms its support for reconciliation between all Australians.

I note and support the motion which was moved by Premier Rundle in the Tasmanian parliament. It had unanimous support and I support it wholeheartedly.

In terms of the report that we have delivered to the Senate today, I want to also note that the Prime Minister, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, is on the public record explicitly stating that the federal government will not be establishing any compensation arrangements or any compensation fund. Obviously, Senator Crossin and those in the Senate in this report have a different view. The report, on page 6, quotes the Prime Minister as saying that Aboriginal people affected should be engaged in their own legal actions through the courts of their state or territory. But during the hearing we heard witnesses who expressed difficulty in pursuing that particular option. We heard about the South Australian case by Dr Thalia Anthony from SCIL, in regard to Bruce Trevorrow, who was awarded $700,000 in, I think, the Supreme Court of South Australia.

We received evidence with respect to the Tasmanian arrangements, where the Tasmanian government has created a $5 million fund to provide payments to eligible members of the stolen generation and their children. I note that former Tasmanian Liberal Premier Ray Groom advised on that particular matter. The ex-gratia payments to 84 eligible living members of that group were $58,333.33 each. That again is noted in the report. There is a reference to the Western Australian government’s announcement of a $114 million redress scheme. So this clearly is not just a matter for the federal government; it is a matter for the states and territories as well. It is noted in the report that, by working together and perhaps through the COAG process, this matter may be advanced.

However, I do want to draw to the Senate’s attention the fact that the federal government has refused to provide legal advice with respect to the impact of the apology of the parliament. Why has it done that? I asked questions in the February estimates, as did Senator George Brandis, and again more recently in the May estimates of the Senate committees. Again, the government has refused to provide that legal advice. What has it got to hide? The advice we received from the various witnesses was that there was not any direct correlation and there was not any direct necessity to provide compensation as a result of that resolution of the parliament proceeding. So I want to draw that to the Senate’s attention and express concern about that.

The committee did conclude that the issue of reparations for what has been referred to as the stolen generation needs to be addressed. The committee agreed that the Commonwealth should engage with the state and territory governments through COAG to establish a cooperatively funded national scheme that provides specific services and assistance to surviving members and the Indigenous people affected.

I want to draw to the Senate’s attention specifically the additional comments of the Liberal senators. We noted that the use of the term ‘stolen generation’ is not only in the majority report but also in a broader context. We said that we queried the use of the term ‘stolen generation’, which we consider:

… implies that past policies of separation of Indigenous children from their families involved, in all cases, forcible removal undertaken with dubious motive.

That is clearly not the case, so we wanted to make that point. We referred specifically to the quote of the opposition leader, the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson, in his speech in support of the apology on 13 February, where he outlined his views about forcible separation and that it is not in all cases a stolen generation. So that needs to be put on the record. The bill is recommended not to proceed, but again I note this report and commend Senator Bartlett for his bill. (Time expired)