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Wednesday, 11 March 1998
Page: 950


Mr HOLDING (11:44 PM) —The Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] before the House today is an important issue. I would like to start by going back to the history of settlement of this nation. If there has been one group of people in the history of Australia who have been the subject of continual and historic discrimination and abuse it is the Aboriginal people. All that can be said for us as a result of our colonial history is that we were not as bad as some other colonial powers. But now we have arrived in 1998.

I go to naturalisation ceremonies. I agree with my Liberal colleagues when they say that this is a community which abhors any form of discrimination, but I find it odd that the one group in society which is still, in many parts of Australia, the continuing object of discrimination in the daily routine of their lives—and I am speaking of our indigenous people, and my colleagues from both sides of the House know it—on an issue of great importance, namely, the future development of native title and how it will operate (and it will be complex and it will be difficult) is being told by this government and this Prime Minister that, if it is ever to emerge to exercise the kind of freedoms and rights which have become part of our community, in respect of this legislation it will be deprived of the benefits of the Racial Discrimination Act. I find that a major step backwards.

I find it a step backwards from the history of the Liberal Party where, after all, the land rights act was a product of the Fraser government, implemented with the support of people like Bill Wentworth, Fred Chaney and Ian Viner—distinguished ministers. I am also bound to say, on the basis of my own experience in respect of state governments, one cannot trust state governments in this area. The Burke government introduced its own form of land rights legislation. As federal minister at that time in Aboriginal Affairs, I did not think it went far enough. But what happened? It was vetoed by the state Legislative Council. I have been to Tasmania where areas of Aboriginal land—Aboriginal cemeteries—are used as grazing paddocks for cows. This story can be repeated.

I come to the principal point that I want to make: if there is one group of Australian citizens who need the protection of the Racial Discrimination Act, it is Aboriginal people. I am not going to deny, as no-one who has had any experience in Aboriginal affairs can deny, that when you come to deal with issues of native title there will be some try-ons and there will be some claims made by people. The legitimacy of those claims will be, in some cases, very doubtful. That is to be expected when you have had a group living outside the broad framework of Australian society and treated as a marginalised people. The temptation to make a claim of any sort, no matter how silly, might in many cases be overwhelming. We need a process to deal with that. In other areas of our law, there exist processes that can do that. I would not have any problem about that, nor would Aboriginal leadership.

Then there is the question of the mining industry. They have a very chequered career in this area, but one is bound to say in fairness to that industry that in the course of the last 10 or 15 years there have been significant changes in the attitude of principal mining companies.

I would like to quote some words of wisdom which seem to me to go to the heart of this debate. The first person I would like to quote is Pope John Paul II when I was privileged to welcome him at what then was the biggest and largest gathering of Aboriginal people in Australia at the time of his visit. This is what he said at Alice Springs on 29 November 1986:

Let it not be said that fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal rights to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgment of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination. Certainly what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.

The establishment of a new society for Aboriginal people cannot go forward without just and mutually recognised agreements with regard to these human problems, even though their causes lie in the past.

They are the words of a great spiritual leader, in my view, which pinpoint the nature of the problem that today confronts Australian society.

Let us turn to the mining industry. On 14 August 1996, Australia's most senior mining company executive, Mr Leon Davis, the Chief Operating Officer of RTZ-CRA, gave an address to the Australian Business in Europe group and he said:

There is no doubt that our current Native Title legislation is complex and parts of it will need to be improved. But, as I have said before, the sentiments behind the Native Title Act are a credit to its architects and its core tenets deserve to stand, even though translating them into workable legislation has been difficult.

RTZ-CRA's experience of negotiating with Aboriginal communities has taught us that Aboriginal leaders face a herculean task. It is very difficult to represent others in a society which has for thousands of years practised collective leadership.

I understand this difficulty. It is the greatest challenge facing the current generation of Aboriginal leaders. I commend both those statements—one from one of the world's great spiritual leaders, the other from a practical leader of the mining industry.

If we look at this legislation before the House and the attitudes that have been exposed in this House on a whole range of issues dealing with Aboriginal people, we see the Liberal Party, which has a very important history in this area, going backwards at a rate of knots. It is not living up to the promises of the Fraser government and some of his very excellent ministers.


Mr Dondas —Where didn't they?


Mr HOLDING —First of all, in answer to the honourable member for the Northern Territory, in implementing the land rights legislation as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs I cannot recall a single occasion, having gone through processes, where in the Northern Territory every grant of land that was made under that legislation was not the subject of legislative challenge. The honourable member knows I am right. It became an exercise. As night follows day, Aboriginal people went through the process, the minister acted in accordance with the law and the next thing you were in the High Court or in some other jurisdiction.

I know the honourable member for the Northern Territory has some feeling and regard for Aboriginal people, but I also know that many of his colleagues, whenever an election is called, will have no problem calling out the racist card. That is the history not only of the Northern Territory government. It is much worse, I will say, in terms of Western Australia and Queensland. One should not approach this debate on the basis of forgetting our history.

I suppose by my training and legal background before I came to this place I have always had high regard for our judicial authorities. I thought that was a view that was shared. That was until the High Court came down with its decisions in Mabo. We were in government and I watched members of the Liberal Party and National Party go feral. All you have to do is look at the Hansard reports of that time. After Wik, it was not just an ignorant backbench applying itself: you had no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Tim Fischer) talking about political adventurism.

We have in this situation a political leadership who say they support law and order. They support the judicial system of this country so long as the decisions go the way they want. No apology; it is accepted. The Deputy Prime Minister talks about political conformity in relation to judges. In other words, he wants a politically conservative judge on the High Court. We do not want political conservatives or political radicals on the High Court; we need the best judicial brains we can get.


Mr Campbell —We certainly haven't got it.


Mr HOLDING —I would not want to rely on the legal judgment of the honourable member for Kalgoorlie. He has got enough problems of his own.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. N.B. Reid) —Order! The honourable member shall address his remarks through the chair.


Mr HOLDING —In looking at this legislation, in dealing with the important issues of native title, this government is saying, `We are going to abandon the RDA for that one group in Australian society for whom racial discrimination has been part of their lot from the day that many Aboriginal children were born.' You can talk about health, housing and education. They are all very important. I do not discount them. But this government needs to recognise that just because you do something about health, education and housing, which is the right of every Australian citizen, that is not going to make them think like a dominant white community. They are proud of their heritage. They are proud of their culture. You now have a level of leadership which has been produced over a period of time within their own communities, and on this issue of native title it ought to be the subject of compromise.

I do not have any problem with Aboriginal communities getting the same legal assistance as any pastoralist or farmer who finds himself with a claim that he needs to dispute and does not have the finances. I do not have any problem with him having access to the same legal rights and the same legal funding. Let there be equality of treatment. We need to approach this thing in the spirit of reconciliation because, if reconciliation means anything, it does not mean and cannot mean that you remove the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act from the one group of Australian citizens who need it more than any other group in this community.

If this were the Liberal Party that they were once, who had a sense of justice and a sense of compassion—and many Liberal Party members here still do—they would say to the Prime Minister, `Forget this approach. The only way you are going to solve these long-term problems for all the people who are important players is to negotiate and produce a result which produces fairness and equity for all.'