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Thursday, 11 February 1999
Page: 2481


Ms JANN McFARLANE (11:52 AM) —I am pleased to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Bill 1998 for a number of reasons. First, in support of my belief that indigenous people have a right to self-determination, land rights and involvement in the processes and decision making about issues, including heritage protection; second, in support of my belief that non-indigenous people have a responsibility, as the colonial oppressors and displacers from the land of indigenous people, to put in place laws and processes that provide self-determination to indigenous people, including heritage protection; third, in support of my belief that non-indigenous people need to have an attitude of goodwill, open-mindedness, inclusiveness and a willingness to work in a consultative way with indigenous people until resolution is reached on an issue, including heritage protection.

The heritage act is of great importance to indigenous people and the non-indigenous community as it puts a national focus on indigenous heritage protection. The bill contains some important new steps, including the establishment of a director of indigenous heritage protection; a process of resolution by negotiation and mediation; that heritage significance be assessed according to indigenous traditions, observance, customs and beliefs; protection for culturally sensitive information; and accreditation of state and territory regimes that meet specific standards. This model is a positive step in addressing gaps within and between Commonwealth and state governments to ensure indigenous heritage protection.

I am pleased to see that after the original bill, passed on 4 June 1998, had lapsed, the government took the opportunity to consider the second report of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund and then made some changes to the bill now before the House—changes which have strengthened the bill.

However, there are some aspects of the bill that could be strengthened, and these include: further consultation with the indigenous community, as there has been insufficient consultation and exposure to the current bill; ensuring that the Commonwealth maintains a central role in the protection of indigenous heritage so that the Commonwealth will be able to discharge its constitutional responsibility for the protection of the interests of indigenous Australians; ensuring that the legislation provides for the Commonwealth regime to be a last resort mechanism; including a mechanism for ensuring indigenous people's involvement in the selection of the director; ensuring the right for indigenous people, groups and communities to initiate the recourse process to the Commonwealth in relation to a site or information being defined as of national interest; providing a mechanism for consultation between a state government and indigenous people, groups and communities in relation to the development of accreditation regimes and standards; ensuring that minimum standards require protection to be blanket protection; ensuring that significant decisions are made by indigenous people; ensuring that the office of the director has a majority indigenous membership; ensuring protection of confidential cultural information is specifically stipulated; ensuring that decisions under part 3 include consultation with relevant indigenous organisations; increasing the period under clause 33 from 30 days to 60 days between advertising for and acceptance of applications so that indigenous groups have time to respond; and ensuring there is a compulsory advance clearance procedure.

I would like to be able to stand here and say that I understand the concept of indigenous spirituality and the relationship with the land. However, after 25 years in community work and some experience of working with and for Aboriginal peoples and groups, I am humble enough to say I only have a glimmer of understanding. What I do understand and respect is that indigenous people do have a spiritual connection or bond with the land. I understand and respect that indigenous people's wellbeing and sense of self and community is underpinned by their relationship with the land and by the strong relationship between law, land and people.

I have observed and experienced that when this connection to the land is broken, or when that relationship between law, land and people is broken, the impact and outcomes can be negative and in many cases destructive. This can be evidenced by the cycles of poverty, ill-health, family disruption, community breakdown and disadvantage experienced or suffered by many indigenous people, groups and communities as well as towns, areas and cities where significant populations of indigenous people live.

The report on the stolen generation, Bringing them home, clearly and tragically brings out the negative consequences of laws and policies that enabled state governments, departments and organisations to remove children, adults and families from their families, their communities and their land. The report also demonstrates the negative impact of lack of or loss of self-determination and how destructive this is to the self-esteem of indigenous people, families and communities.

I have experienced in my community work the positive effects on indigenous people and communities who have achieved self-determination. I have seen the positive changes in individual and family attitudes and the beneficial effect on the communities or areas in which they live. I have seen a rise in self-esteem, the development of services and programs of benefit to their needs and an increase in participation in their own organisations and in the broader community. I have seen the impact within the broader community of these changes brought by self-determination, including a rise in respect by non-indigenous people, a decrease in negative attitudes and discriminatory practices towards indigenous people and cooperation between indigenous and non-indigenous people to address local issues and to develop services and programs of benefit to all.

In passing this bill I believe that we have a responsibility to address concerns raised by indigenous people, groups and communities about its weaknesses. We need to ensure indigenous people's need for self-determination is expressed in the process and structures outlined in the bill. We cannot assume that all states will develop accreditation regimes that involve indigenous people, groups and communities in their development, design, implementation and related processes. Two states that I observed are particularly negative and hostile towards these issues are my own state, the state of Western Australia, and the state of the Northern Territory. Or should I say `the territory of the Northern Territory'.

Honourable member interjecting


Ms JANN McFARLANE —They wish they were a state, but they missed out by that much. We must ensure that if indigenous people, groups and communities cannot convince a state government that a site needs protection, then they have the capacity to request Commonwealth intervention because they have defined the site or issue as being in the national interest. The processes must be simple and expedient.

In his speech in the second reading debate on 12 November 1998, the member for Banks pointed out the need to ensure that this bill had a fair and transparent process to ensure the protection of indigenous heritage at both the Commonwealth and the state level. To ensure that this is so, the concerns about the gaps and weaknesses raised by indigenous people, groups and communities need to be addressed before this bill is finalised.

I am proud to say that I was involved as a committee member in the founding and running of the Women's Legal Service in Western Australia from 1992 until last year. The Commonwealth gave that committee the responsibility for the indigenous women's program money. It was not a large grant but it would have made a big difference to how indigenous women received help and assistance when dealing or impacting with the law. For 18 months we negotiated with the Commonwealth and met with the Commonwealth funding officer to discuss our request—the request of a group of non-indigenous women—that the money be transferred to a committee of indigenous women in the interests of self-determination and their desire for self-determination, and considering that they were the culturally appropriate people to develop the service and program.

I am sad to say that the Commonwealth said no. It was not the department that was saying no; the problem was a technical thing. The cabinet had made a decision about how this program money would be handled and unless the cabinet rethought its decision and allowed a process whereby in different states the money could be handled differently—and in the state of Western Australia the money could be given to a committee of indigenous women—the money would remain in the care and control of a group of non-indigenous women. As a community worker and long-time advocate for social justice, I was not comfortable with that situation.

It was a decision which led to a lot of conflict and hostility towards the Women's Legal Service committee from the broader community as well as from the indigenous community. It also led to great strife within my family. My teenage children challenged me over my social justice principles—if I had been working on this issue for two years how come we had not achieved self-determination for Aboriginals? Were we talking through our hats?

We were also challenged by other community groups who saw that we were really manipulating to keep our hands on the money and that we really did not have a great commitment to self-determination for indigenous women. It is a situation that meeting with the funding officer in late 1998 still saw unresolved—a situation I draw to the attention of the cabinet in the hope that they will look at it to see what a barrier they have created and how this decision has added to conflict in a community sector in Western Australia. This decision cannot be undone unless there is some goodwill, open mindedness and inclusiveness on the part of the coalition cabinet.

There is another story I want to tell. My first job in the field of community work in 1972 was as an Aboriginal welfare worker for the child welfare department in New South Wales. I had responsibility on the north coast for the communities of Purfleet, Forster, the area out the back of Sawtell and the lower area of Port Macquarie where there were four separate indigenous communities. I took the job with goodwill and a belief that there was goodwill in both the state government department that employed me with Commonwealth money and the Australian community about helping Aboriginals overcome the disadvantages they had suffered.

The school on the Aboriginal reserve had closed down in 1969. By 1972 the attendance of Aboriginal children in the local primary and high schools was very low. The state government sent me there to help the local Aboriginal people access three areas, local education, housing and services.

I discovered the wonderful world of hypocrisy, bureaucracy and racist stereotypes about Aboriginals. The Commonwealth government and state government devised this program and with goodwill employed people like me. From the townspeople I met incredible barriers. They did not want the Aboriginal people in town, they did not want them in their local schools, they did not want them using their local services and they did not want them employed in the jobs in town. I knew even then that the key to self-determination for Aboriginals was jobs. They wanted jobs in town. They tended to have the seasonal jobs out in the surrounding countryside—doing the pea picking, the corn picking and working as labourers on the prawn trawlers. Not one Aboriginal person in 1972 worked in any of those four or five towns where I had responsibility for the Aboriginal community.

Because of heritage protection the Aboriginals were denied access to the state forests there. The local police and rangers charged the indigenous community with trespass or theft for taking native fruits from the state forests and from the surrounding lands. I have always viewed the police and the rangers as my colleagues—we as the non-indigenous community are supposed to work together—so I tried to sit down to work with them. I found incredible racist attitudes and incredible blocking. My protestations about their treatment of the local Aboriginal community resulted not only in me being given a hard time, but also in their upgrading and escalating the number of times they arrested and charged indigenous people for what were offences that had nearly fallen off the statute books.

The local Aboriginal people had a great love for their area and a strong connection with the land. Despite being on a Christian mission, they had kept up their cultural practices and services. They were continually interfered with by the local bureaucrats who were trying to break their connections with their cultural practices and their connection with the land.

The member for Banks will be pleased to hear that after I had spoken at a local services club one businessman did come forward and say that he would employ an Aboriginal person as an apprentice in his hairdressing salon. This local resident was of Lebanese background so he had experienced himself the issue of racism and discrimination, having a fairly dark skin and complexion.

In goodwill he interviewed a number of Aboriginal young people and he agreed to sign up one as an apprentice and to get the papers from the apprenticeship board. Did this ever happen? It certainly did not. As soon as the local townspeople heard that this was going to take place, he had phone calls of hostility, people walking into his shop and abusing him, threats against himself, his wife and his young family and threats that his shop would be boycotted or that it would be burnt down. The local people did not want to have their hair done by an Aboriginal person because of the negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people.

To this day I commend that man for his bravery and his courage, because in the end he could not proceed with that course—and rightly so because, as a small businessman, he had to protect his business, his livelihood and his family. But he did try to speak to some of the people who were being so aggressive and hostile to him, saying that giving jobs to Aboriginals and getting to know them might help overcome some of the other problems that the townspeople felt were being caused by the Aboriginal community.

A couple of months later, the matron of the Manning River District Hospital was prepared to sit down with me and discuss taking up a Commonwealth program to employ Aboriginal people under an enrolled nurses program. To her credit, that woman suffered the same hostility, threats and attacks—personally and professionally—but she managed to convince the board to proceed with seeking this money from the Commonwealth in subsidies so that three young Aboriginal people could be put through an enrolled nurses program.

She did it, and to this day she is one of my heroes and one of my role models. I had seen this woman sit quietly across a table while people screamed and yelled that they did not want this. The local media had come out and addressed the issue through a story which had alerted the whole town to what was happening. That led to her receiving an incredible amount of hostility, but she proceeded to interview six people and employ three as enrolled aids. I am proud to say that program continued year by year at Manning River District Hospital for many years. I have not been back to the Manning for a while, but I think it is still in place today—and that was the breakthrough.

There are many aspects to self-determination. I could tell many stories about my work and life experiences, but those experiences never made me negative about Aboriginal issues or towards Aboriginal people. I had great respect for the humble way in which the Aboriginal people did not spit the dummy, did not become hostile and did not cause problems. They quietly faded into the background but they would still come to you to say they appreciated your work and efforts of support. With this heritage bill, I feel the same thing. I feel that this parliament really needs to look at the gaps and the weaknesses raised by indigenous people, communities and groups—not by me because they are not my concerns; they are concerns that have been conveyed to me. I think that this bill needs some work done on it before it is finalised.