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Thursday, 11 February 1999
Page: 2478

Mr SNOWDON (11:31 AM) —It gives me pleasure to speak in this debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Bill 1998 and to advocate a position opposed to that of the government. It gives me no pleasure to see that the government should be positing this legislation before this parliament. I say that for a number of reasons. I actually think this legislation is about our nation's soul. What it tells me is that, really, the question of our nation's soul is something of an irrelevancy to this government.

The shadow minister enunciated in a fairly erudite way some very important criticisms of the legislation. I want to start by going to a quote from an Aboriginal playwright, Robert Merritt, in which he said:

History teaches us that the way to genocide is to take a culture and destroy its credibility so it can no longer reflect itself.

They are very important words because, ultimately, the impact of this government's legislation could well be to cause Aboriginal people, indigenous Australians, to be divorced in many ways from their cultural heritage, from their law. Frankly, the concept of Aboriginal law, Aboriginal spirituality, is something I do not comprehend at all—I have a view about it, but I do not comprehend it; I do not pretend to understand it properly—but I respect it.

I respect the fact that indigenous Australians have their own system and body of law. I respect the fact that indigenous Australians have their own spiritual beliefs. I respect the fact that those beliefs involve places of significance, sacred places. I do not understand, nor do I pretend to understand, the relationships between those places. But I do acknowledge their existence. I do acknowledge that they are at the very heart of indigenous Australians' being. What worries me about this legislation is that it shows absolutely no comprehension at all as to those facts.

I was reading this morning the litany of submissions in relation to this bill. The litany I refer to is from Aboriginal Australians, indigenous Australians, bodies that represent their interests, and individuals. I did not see one submission that purports to represent the interests of indigenous Australians, either as individuals or as a group, that supports the government's legislation. Indeed, the government's chief advisory body on this issue has made it very clear through its chair, Gatjil Djerrkura, that they are saying that this piece of legislation is a clear abdication of the government's responsibility.

When I was reading through these submissions, I came across a submission from Mr Michael Dodson, then the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner—he is no longer in that position—from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. We know that the government does not have great deal of respect for HREOC or for those people who work within it. We understand that. But, nevertheless, Mick Dodson is an important Australian, acknowledged as such by a wide spread across Australian society. What he says is, I think, important. I want to quote from the introduction to his submission. He said:

I appreciate the protection of Indigenous heritage may, at times, come into direct competition with development interests held by non-Indigenous people. I would nevertheless urge the Committee not to conceive of the protection of Indigenous heritage as a necessary site of conflict or to frame the issue in terms of Indigenous interests versus non-Indigenous interests. Ultimately, the sites that are significant to us, the areas which carry our history and our stories, are the significant sites of Australia's history and Australia's story. What may narrowly be conceived as cultural protection for Indigenous Australians will be seen, in the fullness of time, as cultural protection to the benefit of all those who identify as citizens of this country, and indeed all human beings. As such, to the extent that we as a nation are committed to our nation's culture and heritage, we must be mindful not to split Indigenous interests off as some type of minority or eccentric interest which is irrelevant, inconvenient, or a mere curiosity to non-Indigenous Australians.

That last sentence is very important, because that is how I believe members of this government see these issues. They do not want to understand. They see them as eccentric. They seem them as inconvenient.

In relation to sacred sites, I note from Hansard that the previous member for the Northern Territory said:

As soon as somebody wants to go and develop something, all of a sudden a sacred site is found that has not been known about by traditional owners for 10 or 15 years.

I think that is a clear illustration of the views of many people who support the coalition's bill—of that I have no doubt. There is a legion of examples of the way in which conservative state and territory governments have sought to override the interests of indigenous people for the purpose of development. Basically, they have said, `Accept the proposition put by the previous member—that these sacred sites are artificial constructs which have no meaning and which are put there effectively to obstruct development so that our indigenous Australians can negotiate some sort of payment as a result of it.' In effect, that is what he is saying and that, in effect, is what the government thinks.

In relation to the objections that we have to this legislation, it is worth while pointing out the recommendation from Elizabeth Evatt about the Commonwealth government being able to override the state government authorities or decisions. I will make this very clear and illustrate it with one particular example where the Northern Territory government, in the early 1980s, took it upon itself to develop a dam around Alice Springs. The Central Land Council, in its submission to the inquiry, made this a central example of the sorts of problems that emerge when, as in the words of the legislation, the particular social, cultural and legislative environment of a state or territory is taken into account and the political imperatives override those of Aboriginal people or indigenous Australians. I am talking about the Junction Waterhole site in Alice Springs—the Aranda word is Nyiltye.

What this example illustrates is the way in which the Northern Territory government sought, for its own purposes, to effectively bypass the interests of traditional owners—those with the prerogative to make decisions about sites around Alice Springs—to develop a waterhole, to develop a dam and, in doing so, they destroyed a site. This became the subject of an inquiry, and what was illustrated by that inquiry was the fact that the Northern Territory government refused to release the information to Mr Hal Wootton, the person appointed by the then minister, Robert Tickner, to undertake that inquiry. It refused to release information about the way in which they dealt with the Aboriginal people involved with this particular site because they knew that what they had done was attempt to manipulate the Aboriginal people for their own purposes, and they were found out.

The Northern Territory government issued a certificate for that particular development, and it was not until the previous Labor government—with Robert Tickner as a minister—prevented that desecration from proceeding, that that dam was stopped. The development of that dam would not have been prevented had it not been for the legislation that then existed, had it not been for the right of the minister to set out an order.

What we have here is a proposal by this government to give the power to destroy those sites to state and territory governments. No-one—apart from governments—who made a submission to the inquiry by Justice Elizabeth Evatt supported the proposition which is now being supported by the government. In relation to the issue of national interest, I note that the second reading speech states:

I am aware that the issue of `national interest' was raised in the debate on this bill in June. It was suggested that national interest be defined in such a way that it is the very act of protecting indigenous heritage that is in the national interest.

Well, it should be—of that there is no doubt—and those people involved with indigenous people in this country know that to be a fact. The speech continues:

Amending the bill in this way would potentially involve the Commonwealth in all indigenous heritage protection case.

I am told that there are about 11 or 12 cases where there has been intervention by the Commonwealth, where protection orders have been sent out. It continues:

This is contrary to the government's policy of providing a clear delineation of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and accredited states. Indeed, if the Commonwealth were in a position to review all state decisions, there would be no incentive for states or territories to seek accreditation.

Well, ho, hum—surprise, surprise! This is the same government that set up processes for accreditation under the native title legislation. This is the government that has had to tell the Northern Territory government to go back and redraft its bill, because we could see that what was being proposed by the Northern Territory government in relation to native title was the subjugation of the interests of the native title holders to the interests of the Northern Territory government. And that is exactly what they will do if they put in state based regimes. There is absolutely no doubt about it. The minister is saying:

The standards for accreditation will ensure that accredited state and territory regimes offer comprehensive and fair heritage protection processes. There should be no need for recourse to the Commonwealth in an accredited regime, except where it can be argued that a site has some special qualities that suggest its protection may be in the national interest.

Nyiltye may not have been seen in the national interest but it was sure as hell at the core of the beliefs of those people who own that site and who have relationships to it. We have no respect for that. This bill illustrates that lack of respect and the lack of understanding that this government has for these issues.

My friend the member for Banks—in his eloquent way, as always—talked about the issue of reconciliation. I think it is very important that we put this bill in the context of the reconciliation debate because, without question, there is now a systemic approach by this government, as pointed out by the member for Banks, to wind back the rights which indigenous Australians currently have under various pieces of legislation.

Already, we have heard the lengthy debate over the Native Title Bill and its amendment. We have seen the rights and interests of indigenous people being subjugated yet again. We see now the government seeking, in what I think is politically a very cynical exercise, to amend—at some time in the future—the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. We see the sorts of recommendations they want us to consider which effectively will take away rights that people currently have. Then we have the proposal to amend the environmental protection biodiversity legislation, designed to take away the rights of people who own Kakadu and Uluru national parks and subjugate them to the rights of the minister. They are of a piece. There can be no doubt of the intentions of this government. They are to wind back rights. Then we have the Prime Minister standing up in this House this week and saying, hand on heart, that he would support an amendment to the preamble to the Constitution to recognise indigenous Australians.

Let us be serious. Let us consider what is happening in this country. I remind you of what I said at the outset: this debate is about the soul of this nation. It may be esoteric and it may be difficult for us to comprehend, but the very fact of the matter is that we must attempt to come to terms with it and accept that Aboriginal people have religious beliefs which they hold dear and which, while we may not comprehend, nevertheless are true.

I am a Catholic. I go to confession. Well, I don't—perhaps I ought. But when I did go I could go with absolute confidence that whatever happened, whatever I said in the confessional, would never be divulged to anyone. It was secret and sacred. Yet we are asked by this government, and by those who support the sorts of proposals being put forward by it, not to trust Aboriginal people to define what they see as secret and sacred; that what we have got to do is make a judgment about it. But what if we got one of those traditional leaders—those law men—to sit in the confessional and make a judgment about whether or not what was being said to the priest was in fact secret or sacred? How do you think they would judge it? Yet we feel as if we should appropriate to ourselves the responsibility to make judgments about what is secret and sacred to the being of indigenous Australians. I do not think we have that right. The international community says we do not have that right. But this government believes it wants to take that right to itself and subjugate the interests of indigenous Australians.

We must understand—we must appreciate—that the political and social context in which this debate is being held is one in which Aboriginal people are being suppressed. Their interests are being suppressed. We had the minister responsible for Aboriginal reconciliation sitting at this table some while ago. I wish he were here to be able to respond to these accusations. How can he tell us that this government is concerned about reconciliation when at each and every turn it does everything it possibly can to undermine the interests and rights of indigenous Australians and wind back what those rights have been legislated for—as the previous speaker, the member for Banks, has said—often in a bipartisan way? There is no right. They assert a right, but there is not one. We are dealing with human beings here. We are dealing with their feelings. We are dealing with their essence. We are dealing with their soul. But this Prime Minister treats it as if it is some piece of dross. I do not believe that he has any real feeling for these issues at all. I know his government has no feeling for these issues at all. Individuals within it may. I note the shadow minister sitting at the table.

Dr Wooldridge —That is minister, mate.

Mr SNOWDON —I beg your pardon, I was on the other side. The minister at the table—the Minister for Health and Aged Care—I know has got a feeling for these issues. I am sure he is embarrassed by the way in which this government, this Prime Minister and the minister who is responsible for indigenous affairs in this country—the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs—and the cabinet are seeking to take away these rights.

They are asking indigenous Australians to bare their souls and then for the minister at a state and territory level to decide whether or not they choose to take upon themselves the prerogative of deciding whether or not they should take some action which might destroy a site without recourse to the Commonwealth government saying they cannot unless it was in the national interest. They want to define national interest in another way because, as sure as hell, they would not have preserved the sorts of sites that are protected under this legislation previously in the context of the national interest. (Time expired)