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Wednesday, 3 May 1961

Mr HASLUCK (Curtin,) (Minister for Territories) .- 1 think that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) and the honorable member for Bonython (Mr. Makin) have raised an issue which is not really the issue before the committee. Judging from the way in which they have spoken, they have tried to give the impression that, in some way or other, opinion in this chamber is divided along party lines as to whether aborigines should have the vote. There is no such division. On both sides of the chamber wilt be found members who would speak with equal enthusiasm to the proposition that all aborigines in Australia should have the vote if they are capable of exercising it. That is not a matter upon which this committee is divided along party lines.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition is as well aware as any one in this chamber that only a few days ago the Government introduced, and the Opposition supported, a proposal to appoint a select committee of the House to examine this particular problem. The fact that the House agreed to the proposal for the appointment of the select committee surely implies very clearly two facts: First, it implies that the House, as part of the Parliament, is conscious of the fact that there is a problem here to be examined; that the present conditions of the law are not wholly satisfactory, and that this is something to which the Parliament should give its attention. Parliament has already given a clear expression of opinion that this is a question to which it wants to give attention and a question in respect of which some amendment should be made.

The second proposition which is quite clearly implied by the action which the

House has already taken in appointing a select committee is that the giving of a vote to aborigines, without any restriction at all, will be attended by some problems which need careful examination. A select committee was appointed so that the problems of applying any reform could be examined and so that any reform that might eventually be decided upon by the House would be suited to the conditions of the people concerned and, above all, would lead to the effective exercise of a vote by those who received it.

Let us assume that the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) and supported by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition were adopted by the committee. That would not be an immediate solution of our difficulties. It would not enable us immediately to cut through all the problems. In view of the recognition by the House that problems exist which need investigation by a select committee, the carrying of the Opposition's proposed amendment would mean only that we would then, with less deliberation and perhaps with less expertness, have to try to cut our way through all these problems. The method which the House itself has already chosen, with the support of both sides, is to appoint a select committee so that these problems can be examined and so that we can see all the implications of extending the franchise to all aborigines. The Opposition now proposes to do this and many members of the Government would not resist doing it, but we both want it to be an effective action which would lead to a happy result for all concerned. So this amendment is out of place. The issue which the Opposition is trying to raise does not exist at this time.

If members of the Opposition are trying to create the impression that they want votes for all aborigines and that the Government does not want votes for all aborigines, they are trying to create a totally false impression. There are members on both sides of the chamber who would speak with enthusiasm on the question of giving votes to aborigines. There are members on both sides of the chamber who would speak with caution about giving votes to aborigines. The attempt to turn this issue into a party issue, I think, does no service to this committee and is not likely to do much service to the aborigines themselves. We have to keep in mind the principle that merely giving a right is of much less importance than giving it under conditions which will lead to its effective political exercise. If you give votes under conditions in which they will be thrown away, not used, or under which they can be misused and exploited, you will confer no benefit on any one. We will not truly be serving the interests of the aboriginal people and of Australian democracy if we make an extension of the franchise but take no measures which will lead to the effective use of that franchise.

Another point that I would make is this: We often overlook the fact that a very large number of aborigines in Australia already do vote. They are already on the rolls and already exercise the franchise. It is true that in certain parts of Australia - mostly in those parts in which a large proportion of the natives are living under tribal conditions - they have no vote either under State or Federal laws. It is to that problem that I think we are addressing our minds. Do not let us deceive ourselves or give a false impression to other people by suggesting that, for the first time, we are giving the vote to aborigines. Thousands of aborigines already have a vote. They exercise it intelligently and are not differentiated from any other voters because they are aborigines. The whole assumption the Deputy Leader of the Opposition made about excluding people solely because they are aborigines falls down because there are thousands of people who, being aborigines, do vote and are not excluded on that ground.

The exclusion of some people of aboriginal blood is on grounds other than that they are aborigines. It is their particular circumstances that the select committee wants to investigate and on which it will report. I feel confident that, for the aborigines themselves and for Australian political democracy, a far happier result is likely to ensue by allowing the select committee to go ahead with its work, to examine all facets of this problem and present, without party division, what I hope will be a unanimous report regarding the extension of the franchise to more of the aboriginal population than enjoy it at present.

Mr Uren - We have chosen our members of the committee. Why have you not chosen yours?

Mr HASLUCK - That is purely a matter of machinery. There is no going back on the appointment of the select committee nor on the functions of that committee. My final word is that it seems to me that this surely is one of the issues on which parties should not be divided. It is an issue on which members of the committee can speak their minds as one. It looks very much like a silly political manoeuvre that this amendment should have been introduced at all.

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