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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3189


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Youth Affairs)(6.13) —in reply-I rise to conclude the second reading debate on behalf of the Government. A number of issues and criticisms have been raised by the Opposition in the course of the debate which could be answered at this stage by me but the answers would be somewhat gratuitous since they would be repetitions of criticisms and objections that were raised in the House of Representatives and which were thoroughly dealt with by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding. So I will not delay the Senate by going over those criticisms.


Senator Withers —Rubbish.


Senator RYAN —It is interesting that Senator Withers has chosen to join the debate at this stage and by interjection starts to attack legislation of which he had no coherent or sensible criticism to raise at the proper time. Most of the criticisms and most of the reservations that have been expressed about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Interim Protection) Bill 1984 are unfounded and relate to the debate about land rights that is going on in the community generally, and in Western Australia in particular, and do not relate to this legislation. Let me address some of the major matters. This legislation, first of all, is interim legislation. It is legislation that has a two-year sunset clause. Thus we are admitting to the Aboriginal community, in the first instance, to the general public and to the Senate that there will be room at the end of those two years to review it and to move on to legislation which is appropriate to take a permanent form. So any predictions about land being locked up forever, or rights of other members of the community being violated forever, are totally ludicrous. We are dealing with short term legislation designed to give the Government power to act in emergency situations.

That is the other important character of this legislation to be stressed. It is emergency legislation. It will provide the Federal Government with the power to act in an emergency to protect Aboriginal sites or sacred objects or remains. It is not designed to introduce land rights by stealth, which has been claimed by many of the less informed more hysterical speakers on the Opposition side. It will not lead to a mapping of the whole of Australia to establish and protect sacred sites. Such legislation may come in the future-I hope it does-but this legislation certainly will not do that. The powers of this legislation will be initiated only when there is an emergency or a complaint, only when an Aboriginal community or person goes to the Minister and says that a site or a sacred object is about to be damaged or relics are about to be desecrated. Only in such an emergency situation will the powers of the legislation be instigated. It is totally misleading to do as many Opposition speakers in this debate have done; that is, to present the legislation as attempting to encompass the whole of the sacred sites throughout this land. It certainly does not do that. It is emergency legislation.

It has also been said in the course of the debate that this legislation ignores existing State legislation or will put us on a collision course with State governments, that it will override satisfactory legislation and things of that kind. It will do none of those things. Both the legislation itself and the second reading speech set out very clearly the way in which State governments will be consulted and the possibility of using State legislation will be examined in every case before this legislation is used. This legislation will be used where existing State legislation is defective for the purpose in hand. Where there cannot be an effective protection of a sacred site, object or relic under existing State legislation the Commonwealth legislation will be used.

The case at Noonkanbah has been discussed at great length in the course of this debate, particularly by Senator Chaney, who was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs when the trauma occurred. What was wrong there, as Senator Chaney himself has admitted in his remarks, was that the State heritage legislation was inadequate and ineffective and so trauma ocurred, a trauma which has been regretted by most people in Australia and by Senator Chaney himself. The legislation can sit happily with existing effective State legislation.

Another criticism of the legislation is that it places enormous powers and discretion in the hands of the Federal Minister and that that is wrong. That criticism was most ably rejected by Senator Macklin from the Australian Democrats when he spoke the other night. It will not do those things. In fact, this legislation, unlike a great deal of the legislation passed in the Parliament, places the onus back on this chamber or on the House of Representatives to disallow any determination made by the legislation with which the Parliament does not agree. Again, that period of disallowance, similar to what is provided for regulations passing through the Parliament, emphasises the emergency character of the legislation. If a decision is made under this legislation by the Minister to take steps to protect a site and it is afterwards decided by the Parliament or by this chamber that the decision is not justified and the threat is not there the decision can be disallowed. That is the greatest protection of the interests that will be involved in the decision made under the legislation.


Senator Crichton-Browne —Will those contemplations be made in respect of 750,000 identified sites in Western Australia alone?


Senator RYAN —In deference to honourable senators and because of the hour I will refrain from commenting on the interjection of Senator Crichton-Browne. His contribution to the debate was one of the worst in a series of very bad contributions made by many members of the Opposition.


Senator Chaney —Madam Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. The Minister seems to be under the misapprehension that she needs to be in a tearing hurry. The Government has put down a motion which has us sitting after dinner. It has indicated it is quite happy for us to sit on Saturday. As this is important legislation I think the Minister should give us a full and substantive reply.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Coleman) —That is not a point of order, Senator Chaney. I call the Minister.


Senator RYAN —The Opposition knows that its attempts to obstruct this legislation will fail. This legislation will pass, it will not be delayed any further. The Government will not permit it to be delayed any further. The Australian Democrats will support us in our commitment to the Aboriginal community of Australia to pass this legislation. There will be no further deferral on spurious grounds or even on some of the genuine grounds which Senator Chaney raised. There will be no further deferral as none is called for. All of the genuine points that have been raised in the debate on this legislation have been met time and time again. As I said, most of the criticisms that have been made are totally unfounded because they relate to things that will not happen under this legislation, that were never envisaged as happening. This is emergency legislation. The least we can do is give the Aboriginal community security for a two-year period during which time their sacred sites, their sacred objects and their remains will not be desecrated either deliberately or unknowingly by mining companies or any other agencies that constitute a threat to Aboriginal heritage.

Senator Chaney in his contribution to the debate took time to set out very clearly his interpretation of what occurred over Noonkanbah. In doing so he reminded the Senate that he had attempted to play a conciliatory role, that he had attempted to achieve a reconciliation which would have made unnecessary the ultimate trauma of the invasion of the land by mining companies at Noonkanbah. I am aware that Senator Chaney did sincerely seek a reconciliation of that issue, that he did make all of the efforts that he saw as being possible to avert the disaster that finally occurred. I have no criticism of his motives during that period. But the fact remains that he was unsuccessful. His attempts at reconciliation failed and a most regrettable event occurred.

We are going beyond that. It is not good enough for Senator Chaney at this stage of the debate to say that there are too many defects in this legislation, that he does not like it and that it is not the right way to solve the problem of the desecration of sacred sites. That is clearly his view. But he was the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and he had a genuine desire-I believe and accept that-to protect sacred sites from desecration. He failed to do so. So the methods that he advocated did not achieve his stated objective. We are taking a further step and legislating in response to extensive consultation with Aboriginal communities. We are legislating in a way which will provide the opportunity for further consultation and for an ultimate strengthening of the legislation.

I reply very specifically to one point raised by Senator Macklin. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has asked that I publicly clarify one aspect of this legislation which he understands is causing concern to some Aboriginals. The Australian Democrats have drawn to the Minister's attention the objection of those Aboriginals that the Bill does not require the Minister to consult the traditional owners of areas and objects being considered for declaration under the Act. In the Minister's opinion this objection is ill-founded. However, as some Aboriginals are genuinely concerned about this matter the Minister has asked that I give an assurance that where there are traditional Aboriginal owners or custodians of an area or object which is the subject of an application those people or their recognised representatives will be consulted before any declaration is made. The Government will amend the Act in the Budget sitting to give effect to this assurance.

In conclusion, it is to be regretted that the Opposition has seen fit to oppose this legislation, which is both unique and historical in that it is the first Commonwealth legislation dealing with important Aboriginal issues which will have application in all States and Territories of the Commonwealth. It is the first such legislation since the 1967 referendum. It is legislation drafted in direct response to and with the support of all Aboriginal communities in Australia. It is legislation that takes account of State and Territory interests . It is legislation that, for the first time, recognises the Commonwealth's ultimate constitutional responsibility for Aboriginal affairs in this country. It is legislation that not only will provide security for Aboriginal members of our society but also will enhance the cultural heritage of all Australians.

Senator Chaney, in his concluding remarks, made a very serious criticism of the Labor Government's performance in the area of Aboriginal affairs. It was a very wide-ranging criticism and a criticism which, I believe, embraced not only the Federal Government but also the State governments, and certainly the State Government of his State. He said that we have offered too much. Senator Chaney said that the Labor Party has offered too much to the Aboriginal people. He predicted that we will not be able to deliver and, as a result, that we were not acting in the interests of Aboriginal people. I would like to respond to that. What we have offered to the Aboriginal people we have offered genuinely and after years of consultation with Aboriginal people. We have not drawn offers out of the hat to attract votes or to provide short term solutions to immediate problems. We have made genuine offers. If they are a little idealistic, we do not resile from that. After all, we are a party of idealism. We are a party with a very deep philosophical commitment to restoring to Aboriginal people some of the things they were deprived of by the European colonisation of this country. We do not believe we have offered too much. We may not be able to deliver everything we have offered in our first term of government. However, we are intent on delivering as much as we can during the first term.

I believe that what we have offered is not too much for a determined reformist government to deliver. I certainly do not believe that it is too much to offer to the Aboriginal people of this country who have lost so much. I believe that this piece of legislation is a major step towards fulfilling what we have offered Aboriginal people. It is a step which will be followed by many others. But it is certainly an historic and important step towards fulfilling the commitments we have made to the Aboriginal communities of Australia. We will not delay the legislation further. We will deliver this part of what we have committed ourselves to deliver. I believe that Senator Chaney's predictions and pessimisms on this point will prove very quickly to be ill-founded. I commend the legislation to the Senate.