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Thursday, 20 April 1961


Mr BROWNE (Kalgoorlie) .- I should like to thank the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck) for allowing this debate to take place. It is very commendable that debates on such serious subjects should be held and I hope that we will be granted similar opportunities more often in the future. It is a pity that we were not given more notice of this debate because I, for one, was unable to carry out the necessary research on this question which gives unlimited scope for discussion.

I find this problem of the future of Australia's native population to be a very difficult one. The more one knows about aborigines, their problems and their way of living, the less chance one has of finding a solution. The people who seem to have the greatest number of ideas for solving the problem invariably are those who have not the faintest idea of what the problem is. I understand that there are one or two associations for the betterment of aboriginal welfare centred mainly in Melbourne, of all places. I attended a conference recently which had representation from every State. On the agenda paper was a motion, originating from the Tasmanian delegation, to the effect that something should be done about our aborigines. Of course, all States could solve their aboriginal problem if they did what was done in Tasmania, but 1 do not advocate that as being the best solution. Most people who tell us what should be done about the aborigines invariably claim that the " poor aborigines " are expected to live in conditions in which we ourselves would not live. Naturally they live in conditions in which we ourselves would not live because circumstances have changed. Many centuries ago our stone age ancestors were living in conditions similar to those in which the stone age tribal aborigines of Australia now live.

Some people say that the natives should have houses. Anyone who knows anything about native people and their tribal customs and traditions knows that on every occasion when houses or quarters are provided for them, such as was done at Rosemont in the Northern Territory, they live in the houses until some one dies in one. An aboriginal will not live in a house in which some one has died. Some of the more superstitious tribes will not inhabit a house in which one of their dogs or anything else has died. One cannot provide European standards for people whose tribal customs do not fit in with those standards.

I suppose I should not say this, but the " do-gooders " claim that the aborigines should have all the privileges that Europeans enjoy. I do not think it is a matter of giving them privileges; it is a matter of not burdening them with responsibilities that they are not able to bear. That is the important consideration. When an aboriginal is dealt with by a court it is often said that the court was too hard on him and that it should have taken into account that his way of living did not fit him for the responsibility of obeying the law. But in many instances the law not only is written to fit in with those peculiarities but also is applied by the courts with them in mind. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot claim, on the one hand, that these people should be dealt with leniently by the court and, on the other hand, claim that they should have all the privileges of a white man. One must recognize that these are primitive people who must be treated as such.

It is admirable to talk of assimilation, but many years will elapse before the aboriginal population is brought up to our standard. If this is done hurriedly and with a sense of panic which international opinion may instil in us, it will be disastrous for our position in the world as well as for the aborigines with whose welfare we are concerned.

The honorable member for the Northern Territory (Mr. Nelson), who has a great interest in these matters, has stated that we must reassure our own people that we are doing something about the aborigines. That is correct, but it should be borne in mind that all Australians, not only members of Parliament, can do most by their attitude towards our native people. The Minister for Territories has brought out some very good publications about these people, but I do not think this is the sort of literature that would appeal to everybody.

The people must be made to realize that the problem of assimilation, which must be our ultimate goal, can be solved only when everybody is willing to assimilate these people into our way of living. The problem must be investigated by persons who know something about the subject. We must have native welfare officers in both Commonwealth and State spheres who understand the problems involved. I know that some of them in at least one State which has a native problem do not understand the problems of the aborigines. I have heard stories of a native welfare officer in Western Australia, who is not now in the service, who made a practice of going to the creek where aborigines were camped and playing poker with them. Anybody who knows anything about natives knows that they are suckers for a game of poker. I am not saying that this is the sort of person we have in the service, but it did occur and it should not have been allowed.

Another anomaly that should be cleared up one way or another concerns the State law which provides that a court may declare that an aboriginal is fitted to be granted citizenship rights. As the Minister has said, this is a loose term. It does not actually mean citizenship rights at all, but that is what is done in Western Australia. An aboriginal who is granted these rights is allowed all the privileges and accepts all the responsibilities of a white man; but if he happens to be a drover in the Kimberleys and he takes a mob of cattle to North Queensland, the Queensland authorities do not recognize him in that State. The same thing happens on the way back. A Queensland native who is recognized in Queensland and has these rights cannot mix with Europeans in Western Australia, but is forced by custom in that State to go to the creek and live with the natives.

I do not know whether this Parliament has the constitutional power to do anything about that but I am sure it is a problem that the States in concert could solve. The honorable member for the Northern Territory emphasized the position of the States which have differing laws and policies regarding aborigines. I agree that this is most unsatisfactory, especially at this time. Australia can no longer say in the forums of the world, "Of course, we have no power to make laws with respect to aborigines ". That story will not go over in international company. Something has to be done to make this a national matter. I know the Minister for Territories is to be commended for the way he has conducted his portfolio. He knows more about the tribal customs, traditions and anthropology of the Australian aborigines than any previous Minister, and he has taken great interest in this matter. I am sure that if his policies are enforced, assimilation will occur, and that the States will get together somehow and act in concert on this problem. I commend the delegates to the conference upon their intelligent deliberations on this most difficult problem.

Mr. BEAZLEY(Fremantle) [3.101. - When the Minister for Territories (Mr.

Hasluck) assumed office, he found that the expenditure upon aborigines in the Northern Territory was £16,000 a year. The expenditure on aborigines now is more than £1,000,000 a year. When the Minister assumed office, there was one school for aborigines; there are now 30. I believe there were fewer than 400 aboriginal children in the Northern Territory in schools; there are now something in excess of 2,500. These are very great achievements, and nothing can ever take the credit for them from the Minister. What is more, he has not only improved the position of the aborigines of the Northern Territory by his own exertions, but also by the force of his example and possibly through Commonwealth grants to the States he has caused a very large increase in State expenditure on aborigines. For example, in 1951, Western Australia was spending something like £70,000 a year. That was when the Minister turned his attention to these matters. The expenditure in that State is now something like £800,000.

I feel that that actually constitutes the answer to the honorable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr. Browne), who appeared to me to be asking the Australian community to take an interest in the Australian aborigines while saying at the same time that it would be quite useless if they did so because they would only become do-gooders and their ideas would be brushed aside. It is quite clear that the problem that the honorable member for Kalgoorlie was talking about and the problem which the Minister has moved a long way towards solving are really different problems, because the honorable member for Kalgoorlie was talking about aborigines in the tribal state. The people who have been coming into the schools of the Northern Territory and who have been the recipients of increased Commonwealth expenditure are, of course, detribalized fullbloods very largely, but not exclusively, and detribalized men, women and children of mixed European and aboriginal descent. The problem of the detribalized natives and the problem of the aborigines who are living in the tribal state are quite distinct. I take it that the Minister's officers have not pursued nomadic tribes through the bush with ballot-boxes, nor have they pursued them through the bush with child endowment money. You can always attack any suggestion that is made about Commonwealth expenditure on the aborigines by making the kind of estimation that the honorable member for Kalgoorlie has made and applying these things to the most primitive and the most remote aborigines. Of course, nobody is really doing that at all.

I find very great difficulty in accepting this word " assimilation " because it is an imprecise word. The Oxford Dictionary gives it six meanings, and the use of it is confusing the Australian community. In the Oxford Dictionary one meaning of " assimilation " is " to make similar to " and that is the usage of the Minister. But another meaning of assimilation is " to absorb ", and consequently I feel that every time the Minister says his policy is assimilation, there are large numbers of persons in the Australian community who believe that the Minister's policy is to breed the aborigines out by absorption by inter-marriage into the Australian community. That may take place, but it is not the meaning of the Minister. The word that would actually best meet his purpose is " civilization ". It is time we disposed of this word " assimilation " because it is leading to serious confusion.

I think that the objective of our policy ought to be, not the breeding out of the Australian aboriginal race, but its survival under conditions of health, employment, education, cultural and spiritual opportunities, vocational skills and home and land ownership comparable with Europeans of the Australian community. I found it strange, while the honorable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr. Browne) was speaking on housing, to think of a constitutency problem which I am at the moment handling. It is the problem of an aboriginal lady who has become widowed, and whose husband was buying their home from the State Housing Commission. He was killed in a road accident, and the widow is concerned at trying to make up, from a widow's pension, the instalment payments on the house. She does not wish to lose the house because she feels that the litigation she has directed against the man who killed her husband in the road accident may cause her to receive such a lump sum as will enable her to buy the house. She came and discussed all these problems with me in a mature way, and I find it quite impossible to reconcile that experience with the statement by the honorable member for Kalgoorlie that people question why these aborigines should own houses. Here is one woman struggling to pay her instalments and considering the effect of litigation. She is visualizing receipt of a lump sum which will enable her to pay the house right off, for she dearly wishes to hold on to the home as a rallying point for her family and her children. Any one who cares to move among the aborigines and part-aborigines of the great southern district of Western Australia will find that many of the women do monumental work in holding their families together, and that to own a home is one of their deepest longings. Therefore, I feel that the statements made by the honorable member for Kalgoorlie in this connexion were erroneous.

Now let me set aside for a moment the question of home ownership. I do feel that, as well as this question of the health of the aborigines who are detribalized and are living as part of the European community, there is room for the kind of massive attack on the problem of the general health of the nomad which the Minister has already caused to be made in connexion with the specific problems of yaws and leprosy. The massive attacks which the Commonwealth has made on these particular problems have been one of the causes of the cessation of the decline in the number of aborigines, and the reversal of that trend to the point where now the number of aborigines is growing. But I also believe that, in consultation with the States, the Commonwealth, which at the moment seems to be providing the main moral impulse because of the interest of the Minister (Mr. Hasluck), should also take a look at those things that were revealed in the Warburton Ranges. I refer to such diseases as the eye disease, trachoma. Here I, at least, believe that the representatives of the State of Western Australia are unduly complacent. It is my opinion that the health of nomads should be a Commonwealth concern everywhere, and the Commonwealth could help to end the complacency of the States in connexion with these matters, a complacency which is often a defensive reaction, because the States lack the financial resources to make the kind of massive attacks which the Commonwealth has made. I understand that there is a vast difference between the leprosarium in the Northern Territory and the leprosarium in the north of Western Australia, due lo the failure or inability of the Western Australian Government to bring the standards of the State up to the Commonwealth.

I believe also that in the matter of education we need to look at the conditions for teachers in the remoter areas. I am thinking in particular of the Forrest River, where the aborigines are being educated to a very high standard, where they have a great deal of pride and self-respect and where, in fact, they objected to the teacher's method of teaching Australian history. When he asked why they objected, they said he taught about Australian explorers, but never mentioned the aborigines who guided them. Naturally, he had to go into a whole welter of research to discover the aborigines who had led John Forrest, Alexander Forrest, Sturt and some of the early explorers and give them the credit that was their due. That story makes me very happy, because it shows growing self-respect in the aborigines of the north of Western Australia, who are not prepared to have their people's achievements brushed aside. But the housing of the teachers in these mission areas, and the inducements to skilled teachers to go there, seem to me to be matters in which the Commonwealth could support the States. I am impressed by the fact that the teachers who actually go there usually do not want to leave, and ask for extensions of their periods of teaching in those areas.

I believe also that we have got to look at another question, that the aboriginal community lack capital. When we speak about the contribution made by aborigines to the cattle industry in the north of Western Australia, we always assume that they must occupy positions as wage-earners who work for somebody else who owns or leases the land. They have not the capital ever to own the land themselves, and if we are at all sensitive we ought to recognize that there is surely some place for aboriginal farmers and aboriginal pastoralists. We are all the time undertaking such settlement projects as soldier settlement schemes for Europeans. Even at the moment, in Western Australia, we are opening up a large area at Esperance for the settlement of Europeans. We also know that in the great southern district there are aborigines, and part-aborigines who are skilled in agriculture, and we ought to see that they are given some share in land ownership, that their communities are given some capital backing in that respect. There is a great deal of Crown land unalienated in States like Western Australia, and it might be a good objective for the Minister to have in future to induce the governments of that State and of Queensland to set aside some of the Crown land, or some of the farming land which comes under their control in other ways, for aborigines who have shown that they have the skill and management experience in the industry necessary to make them good settlers.


Mr Chaney - They would need a fair amount of supervision, would they not?







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