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Tuesday, 23 August 1988
Page: 144


Mr SNOWDON(2.42) —I am pleased to support this commendable, honourable and historic motion. It is with dismay that I read the Opposition's amendment which is a clear and unequivocal demonstration of an unfortunate repudiation of the shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the honourable member for Braddon (Mr Miles), by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) in his party room. It is an unprincipled desertion of the bipartisan approach desired by the Government and the people of Australia and articulated in the motion by a process of arduous consultation by church leaders throughout Australia. It is important to consider the historic motion and its history and development, where it originated, and the events which have led to this moment. The motion was first proposed by the 14 heads of the Christian churches in Australia as a bipartisan motion to be moved when the Queen opened the new Parliament House on 9 May this year. The original wording of this motion as proposed by the churches was first rejected by the Opposition because it talked about legal recognition of land rights and negotiating a compact. The churches agreed to modify the words in a bid to get Opposition support. In responding to the coalition Father Frank Brennan, adviser to the Australian Catholic bishops on Aboriginal affairs, wrote to the Leader of the Opposition and said:

I now propose a revised wording which substitutes ``suffered dispossession and dispersal'' for ``were denied legal recognition of their land rights'' and ``a charter of reconciliation'' for ``the terms of the compact''. The Aboriginal Development Commission Act introduced by your predecessor then in government mentioned ``recognition of the past dispossession and dispersal'' of Aboriginals and Islanders . . . Mr Miles' Australia Day statement pursues the theme of ``reconciliation''.

Speaking in the debate on a matter of public importance on 24 March 1988, the shadow Minister, the honourable member for Braddon, stated:

I make it clear that the coalition believes that an important step to promote reconciliation would be for the Australian community as a whole to come to terms with the history of Australia, both Aboriginal and post-1788.

In April of this year Father Brennan met with the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition spokesperson on Aboriginal affairs, Chris Miles, to discuss the new form of words, the words which the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has put before the House today. Father Brennan at that meeting received agreement in principle on the new motion. There was no suggestion at that meeting that the words `in common with all other Australians' be included in this motion. Again, Father Brennan wrote to the Leader of the Opposition on 22 April. He stated:

Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you yesterday. I have already informed Mr G. Hand, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, of your agreement in principle to a bipartisan resolution in the terms we discussed.

Later, he stated:

As the Government has precluded any possibility of the resolution's passage before 9 May 1988, I share your hope that an agreed resolution can be passed as the first item of substantive business in the new Parliament House.

It was the Leader of the Opposition's suggestion that the motion could be moved as the first item of business in this House. Feeling very optimistic about the Government's support, Father Brennan then had talks with the Government and also received our support in principle.

An article then appeared in the Melbourne Herald on 26 April quoting Chris Miles, the Opposition spokesperson, as saying that he wanted the motion moved in the new Parliament House as a symbolic gesture that might help bring Aboriginals and white Australians closer together. Mr Miles told the Herald:

If it aids the healing of the hurts of the past, no matter how we look at them, it would be a major step forward.

The Herald commented:

His initiative, which has the in-principle support of the Liberal leader, Mr Howard, and other Shadow Ministers, represents a dramatic breakthrough in the Opposition's handling of this sensitive issue. But it is known that members of the National Party will resist the motion. When it was discussed in the Party room last Thursday, the National Party's finance spokesperson, Senator Stone, expressed strong reservations. Mr Miles's move was developed in close consultation with Father Frank Brennan, who advises Australia's Catholic bishops on Aboriginal affairs.

Mr Miles in that article was also seen to take credit for the idea of the motion. It was going to be an Opposition initiative. However, his plans were thwarted because early in May the shadow Cabinet met to discuss the motion and, despite the fact that John Howard and Chris Miles argued in favour of supporting it, they were rolled, and rolled substantially.

On Thursday, 19 May, Chris Miles put out a Press release blaming the disruption of the Muirhead Commission, the protests at World Expo and the protests at the opening of the new Parliament House for the change in the coalition's support for the motion. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Miles stated:

The littering in the forecourt and the chanting during the Lord's Prayer were the last straw.

In his Press release, he said that these incidents damaged the `fragile feelings of trust and mutual respect that had been growing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians'. He stated:

Because of the negative community response to radical Aboriginal protests, the Coalition has decided not to proceed with initiating a parliamentary resolution on Aboriginal matters. We do not believe that it would be positively received in the community and hence would fail to promote reconciliation as we had hoped.

So, members of the Opposition blamed Aboriginal and Islander people for their turnabout on this motion. They did not look to their own ranks, to the disaffection and disruption that have been caused to them within the coalition. On 23 May this year, Senator John Stone said in an interview on the PM program that he opposed the motion because `it was a thoroughly bad idea'. The reason we have not got bipartisan support for this motion this afternoon is that the National Party Leader in the Senate has said that this is a thoroughly bad idea. There is no other reason. There is no sense of moral justice. In recent weeks we learned through the newspapers that the Opposition was considering an amendment to the motion. We have learned today what it is.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons why we should move such a motion. We ought to remind the Opposition and the members of the National Party, in whose electorates many Aboriginal people live, that the unemployment rate for Aboriginal people is six times the national rate. On average an Aboriginal person earns only half the income of other Australians. Aboriginal life expectancy at birth is 20 years less than for all Australians. Aboriginal child mortality is three times higher than the national rate. These shameful statistics mirror the lot of the colonised peoples of the Third World.

What Aboriginal people have been demanding and requesting of this Government, since it came to power in 1983, was demonstrated clearly and unequivocally at the start of this year by the support given to Aboriginal people in the rally held on 26 January in Sydney. There was a call throughout Australia for reconciliation, not from the Opposition benches but from people throughout Australia, which the churches, to their credit, took up. They proposed the form of a motion to put to the Parliament so that the Opposition and the Government could act in a bipartisan way to demonstrate clearly, on this historic day, that they recognise the legitimate claims and aspirations of Aboriginal people by recognising their rights as Australians in a bipartisan resolution.

We need to remind ourselves once again that the Aboriginal people have been in continuous occupation of this land for a period longer than any other people, past or present, have occupied any other land on earth. As my colleague the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs said in 1983:

The origins of Australia as the western nation we know today, are seen by indigenous people here as the end of the dreaming, not the birth of the nation. It was the beginning of dispossession, disease and death; in short, the destruction of Aboriginal society.

The desire of Aboriginal people for reconciliation with non-Aboriginal Australia has been at no time more evident than in this our bicentennial year which, incidentally, commemorates the occupation of this country by non-Aboriginal Australians. It was demonstrated this year by the massive march and the goodwill, vitality, and willingness to participate by Aboriginal people and their supporters from throughout Australia.

Previously the Leader of the Opposition referred to Wenten Rubuntja, a person for whom I have the greatest respect, truly a great Australian, truly a great human being and truly a great leader of Aboriginal people in any terms. Mr Wenten Rubuntja, in commenting on the 26 January rally and march in Sydney, said:

Aboriginal people living along the coast where the white people took over first might not know their language anymore, but the Emu story and the Snake story go all over Australia, and we are all descended from those stories, they come across from the sea, through our country, all over Australia.

It is very difficult to explain to people who have had no experience of working and living with Aboriginal Australians their depth of feeling of spirituality, of belonging to the land, belonging to the country and belonging to one another. I am concerned that the shadow Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and his party colleagues seem to have missed the point about the question of reconciliation and the recognition of Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal culture. In a statement written after 26 January, a prominent Aboriginal leader said:

We have survived these and other fires-scarred but not downtrodden. Hope of liberation from oppression and the desire for freedom burnt within us on the streets of Sydney

. . .

We were able to glimpse the vision of how life and humanity could combine across nationalities and cultures.

We showed Australia, the world that we are not just another minority but a people with our own laws, rights, cultures and religion, which we have never ceded.

I will conclude with a short quote from a statement made by Father Frank Brennan:

It is important that this resolution be carried overwhelmingly as the nation's commitment to those whose place here in our history already shows 200 bicentenaries.