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Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Page: 15

Mr MELHAM (10:11 AM) —The previous speaker talked about the 1967 referendum. I think it is worth while pointing out that in that referendum there was bipartisan support for a yes vote. He voted yes but says he now regrets the way he voted in that referendum. The honourable member does not need to regret the way he voted. It is not the passing of the referendum that has been the problem; it is the way that both sides of politics have engaged in Aboriginal affairs since that time that has been the problem.

I am a great believer in the ideals of that referendum, which were to give the national parliament a say in and a responsibility for Indigenous affairs. I do not think we should make any apology for that. The problem is that the areas of Aboriginal affairs and immigration have not been bipartisan for a lot of the time since then. That has resulted in some real problems for long-term programs and long-term directions in both immigration and Indigenous affairs. It becomes a problem when there is a change of direction upon the election of a new government and the new government dismantles the former government’s programs.

In relation to the last 11 years, there is no doubt that there has been a different direction. Frankly, it is a direction that I think predates the 1967 referendum and encompasses the philosophies that existed prior to the 1967 referendum. I think that is a bad thing. In effect, governments have fought Indigenous people every inch of the way in relation to a number of successes that they have had in a number of court cases in the High Court where the High Court recognised what I think were some fundamental principles. Indigenous people found themselves fighting against a government that wanted to wind back those rights instead of embracing them when, in effect, those rights did not threaten other individuals in our society. But the court cases were misrepresented and that created a lot of problems in communities.

The member for O’Connor attacks people who ran the campaign regarding the stolen generation. The truth is that the policies of governments of both political persuasions of the past, even though they were well-intentioned, caused great damage within communities. Children who were not being improperly handled by their parents were taken away merely because of their colour—because they were half-castes or whatever—or so that they could have their Aboriginality bred out of them. Imagine the ramifications of the government just plucking a child from the midst of a family in any other community in Australia—the Lebanese community or the Jewish community, for example. We need to acknowledge and accept that.

That goes a long way in terms of the intervention in Cape York and other parts of Australia with regard to Aboriginal people. The key theme has to be that you have to do it with the community. We have to bring on Aboriginal people in terms of education and literacy, making them role models within their communities. The way forward is teaching Aboriginal communities in remote areas the skills that can help them maintain their community, rather than relying on whitefellas coming into the community. The $400 million-plus being spent on the Northern Territory is quite remarkable and another $100 million was announced yesterday, yet the costs to administer the programs are $200 million. Why? Because, in the lead-up to an election, the government sailed in without much thought and without consulting with the Northern Territory and basically tried to wedge the opposition. I wish the government well in terms of their goals. I just think they are making it so much harder for themselves, and they will be judged in due course.

I have risen today to make some remarks about measures in the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (Cape York Measures) Bill 2007, which we are debating. A number of such measures have been introduced by the government over the past few years. Each has patched up a glaring problem in relation to Indigenous education issues, but for too long Indigenous people in this country have lived in what can only be described as Third World conditions. Despite the government’s dramatic intervention in the Northern Territory, Third World conditions exist in many Indigenous communities. Labor did support the intervention and many of the other piecemeal efforts to address the glaring poverty trap that many of our Aboriginal Australians find themselves in. We are only scratching the surface in relation to the multitude of appalling conditions that the Indigenous population lives in. Mortality rates, for example, indicate that 24 per cent of Aboriginal men live to the age of 65 and 35 per cent of Aboriginal women live until the age of 65. Can you imagine what would happen if those statistics related to any other section of our community? There would be outrage; we would not accept it. But this situation has prevailed for some time, and we have not got to the root cause of the problem.

Before I move to the substance of the bill, I would like to make some comments to put the bill into the context of a broader framework. Whilst the bill deals with a national issue, which as a parliament we have a responsibility to address, the need for such a bill emanates from over 200 years of ignoring the living and working conditions of Indigenous Australians. I want to use this speech as an opportunity to put on the record some letters I received recently from students in my electorate which caused me to reflect on our obligations as a parliament in an international context. We have a national context and an international context in which I think we are also obliged to act. Social, economic and education inequities exist in other countries of the world too.

Two weeks ago I received 10 letters from students of De la Salle College at Revesby Heights—may I say that my old alma mater is a wonderful teaching institution—and the note from the teacher which accompanied the letters explained that the year 8 students had been studying a topic called ‘global change’ and, as a result of research and discussion about the changing nature of the world, the students had become passionate about global inequity issues. With the support of their teacher, the students decided to promote further discussion of the matter with their local member of parliament. Further, the students requested that I raise the matter with my colleagues to promote awareness of the issue. Even though we are dealing with a national issue, I think it is appropriate that we can look at it in an international context. That gives us some consistency in viewing it through this prism.

The specific matter the students are concerned about is the use of sweatshops overseas and also the global businesses which utilise such sweatshops to produce manufactured goods in particular. I would like to read into the record some of the comments the students made. I believe it is important that as parliamentarians we listen to the views of members of the youngest generation and hear what they have to tell us. One student, Alan, succinctly put the thoughts of all the students when he said:

The multinational corporations hire the poor people to work for them and make their products when the workers conditions are nowhere near up to the standards of other countries like the UK, Australia or the US.

Daniel said:

... the people in these sweatshops are treated very unfairly because of the long hours they work and the very small amounts that they are being paid ...

Adam enclosed some photos of people, including a young boy, working in sweatshop conditions. He went on to say:

But the worst thing is ... it’s mostly children of my age and under, working for a bit of money to buy food for his or her family.

Cameron made a plea for justice when he said:

They don’t know the experience of working in different countries, like Australia, so they expect what they get paid are normal and satisfactory. That is just plainly cruel to the workers.

As the workers work long hours, “the Company” makes the profit. Companies think they can “use” their employees and don’t care what they do, only if they notice that they have empty wallets.

To let you know, the workers’ wallets are empty, too. They might not even be able to feed their families for a week, even with their jobs.

Jordan spoke of the comparison with First World countries and said:

While we sit back and live our consumer lifestyles, they toil for trans-national corporations. Should we just sit on the sidelines ill-informed about these injustices? No, we should rein in these companies, they should be held accountable for the injustices they have enforced, we should fight for these poor people.

Matt wrote about the video he and his classmates had seen on conditions in these sweatshops. He said:

... there are people in other countries making nearly all our clothes and accessories for less than $2 an hour and working for around 18 hours a day.

Jimmy talked about the cheap labour in some Asian countries and the poor rates of pay, and concluded:

... so please Mr Melham, stop this immediately to make tomorrow a better day for these workers.

Beni wrote about the high mark-ups the manufacturers receive in using this type of labour and said:

... these workers have a type of merchandise and when these merchandises are sold they are sold up to very high prices and these workers only get 3 to 4 dollars an hour and this does not work out.

Raminda asked me whether people are classified as slaves. He said:

Well that is what people in the foreign countries are being treated like! They have no choice and no LIFE!!! They have to work, to feed their families BUT the main issue is that they are only at the age of 16+, they are only children!

We should put a stop to this! Children feeding their families!? At the age of 16! That is not right!

And, finally, Joshua said:

It is unfair that there are people working in these sweatshops for long hours and getting paid little money per hour. They should get paid a fair amount like we do in Australia.

And so they should. From these students, who on average would be about 14 years old, we have been told of conditions that are totally unacceptable in any country. As we have a moral obligation to deal with the issues of poverty, disease, education and living conditions of our Indigenous people, so we have a responsibility to take action about sweatshop conditions overseas.

John Donne famously said:

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Never were those 16th century words as true as they are today in this global age. We are all part of a whole. The diminishing of the life of another person diminishes all of us and diminishes Australia. We have been reminded by a class of 14-year-old students of that fact.

That is why I do not apologise for parliament’s intervention in relation to domestic issues with Indigenous people. I think it is required to assist them to allow true equality to permeate our society. True equality requires differential treatment. That is why I find it offensive that governments tend to intervene in relation to native title to back companies and to back everyone other than Indigenous people whose rights are being trampled on. We should be allowing Indigenous people to better themselves through partnerships with the mining companies to create employment, to create education and to assist in providing infrastructure and health in local communities. We should be engaging with and assisting Indigenous people in relation to other skills that they have to ensure that their literacy levels are improved and increased. You do that by working with the community. That way you raise their standards.

If we did not have infrastructure and assistance in parts of suburban Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and other places, there would be outrage. People cannot do it themselves. In regional Australia, it is hard enough as it is. We accept giving assistance to farmers, because we recognise that in terms of infrastructure and the difficulties of living in regional Australia people cannot do it on their own. It is a policy decision to assist our fellow Australians.

I understand that this particular intervention by the government is welcomed by the community in Cape York. It is welcomed and we should not apologise for it. Both sides of the House should be supporting it because it is about helping our fellow citizens. But too often we see the scratching of an underbelly that is a dark side within our society, because there is a political advantage to it.

I will never forgive the Prime Minister for his 7.30 Report interview—not when he was announcing that he was going to hand over the leadership sometime after the next election, but during the middle of a debate in response to the Wik High Court decision—when he reached for a map underneath the desk and raised a brown-stained map to make out to the Australian population that a large percentage of Australia was subject to native title claim and that their backyards were not safe. I will never forget that. It was beneath the Prime Minister. It was inappropriate; it was an abuse of his office. Prime ministers, in particular, in relation to Indigenous affairs need to support their Indigenous affairs spokesmen and women. Being the Aboriginal affairs spokesman in government or opposition is not easy, because there is not a lot of bravery on either side of the political divide when it comes to Indigenous affairs. Indigenous affairs spokesmen need the support of their leader in relation to policies such as this.

I note that this Prime Minister is very supportive of his Indigenous Affairs spokesman. For some of the policies that they are implementing, I think it is an important thing that the Prime Minister is there with his Indigenous Affairs spokesperson. I think the Indigenous Affairs spokesman has a lot to learn in relation to this area; he brings his army mentality to it. He needs to be a little bit more sensitive to the culture and to the elders within the community—but that is another matter for another day. He has managed to secure a bucketload of money for this area, which is deserved, but over time the government will be judged on the success of these programs and how appropriate they are. My caution is that a lot of them lack proper consultation with the community.

In researching for this speech, I remembered the work undertaken by the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union in the matter of sweatshops overseas. I refer specifically to the ‘FairWear’ and the ‘No Sweat Shop’ campaigns. Both these organisations are involved in activities which encourage manufacturers to take an ethical approach to manufacturing and to be responsible for staying informed about the production of their garments. The ‘No Sweat Shop’ campaign allows manufacturers to use labels on their goods which indicate that the item was produced by people being paid, as a minimum, award wage rates. It is important to remember that, within Australia, there are textile workers who do not earn even the most basic wage. These are often those who are classified as outworkers.

For over two centuries, Aboriginal Australians have been treated as second-class citizens. It is not well known that in 1946 an estimated 600 Aboriginal stockmen throughout the north of Western Australia went on strike. They refused to work until they had been guaranteed a minimum wage of thirty shillings a week. Some had previously been receiving food and clothing but no pay; others had been paid up to twelve shillings a week. The strike continued for a year. In the end the Aborigines won their demands. It was a landmark for Indigenous rights in this country.

We have all heard of the 1966 Wave Hill strike. Aboriginal stockmen went on strike at the Northern Territory Wave Hill station. Led by Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari, they walked off the job and set up a camp at a place called Wattie Creek. The dispute over wages and conditions turned into a demand for land rights. It dragged on for years before eventually being resolved by the Whitlam government.

Since European settlement, our Indigenous people have lived and worked in what are effectively Third World conditions. Today we are debating the merits of some specific measures for the children of Cape York and the Indigenous students in the communities of Coen, Hope Vale, Aurukun and Mossman Gorge. In previous speeches relating to the introduction of specific measures to assist education in Aboriginal communities, I have referred to the fact that, in trying to resolve these matters, it is important to work with the local communities. I trust that, in this case, it is actually happening. There have been successful trials.

What I have learned over my years of involvement with Indigenous communities is that, at its most fundamental, we must work with the communities in a respectful way. We must not charge in with well-intentioned policies and impose ‘white fella’ solutions. We must make a long-term commitment to the education of Indigenous young people. I know that there are no easy answers. No government—Labor or coalition—has ever found the magic solution to these profoundly difficult matters. There are specific measures we are considering today: the embedding of the MULTILIT—Making up for Lost Time in Literacy—teaching methodology in classrooms and tutorial centres and the implementation of special education trusts. The latter are individual trust accounts to enable families to save to support their children’s education costs. Both are no doubt worth while but in reality represent only a drop in the bucket of what is needed. Nonetheless, Labor will be supporting the bill, as it is yet another small step in the right direction.

As a society, we have finally accepted our responsibility to redress some of the damage inflicted on our own Third World conditions. The sign of a truly mature society is to take the next step—recognition of the appalling sweatshop conditions experienced by workers throughout the world and, having recognised that situation, then to do something about it. I am very proud of the students from De La Salle College at Revesby. They have taken the initiative, as 14-year-olds, to assist their brothers and sisters in other countries. They are looking beyond their own immediate environment to be proactive on an issue they did not create but which they want to solve. I suggest the students check out the websites for the ‘Fairwear’ and ‘No Sweat Shop’ campaigns. These sites provide some practical measures to take the next step in a most commendable effort. I commend the bill before the House.