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Wednesday, 22 August 1984
Page: 148


Senator MESSNER(4.03) —In this debate we need to address ourselves to the very basis of Senator Chaney's motion, which is clearly set down, that the legislation that was enacted by the Parliament in June on the protection of Aboriginal heritage is in fact the wrong way in which to protect Aboriginal sacred sites. I would like to explain that because I do believe that in the course of this debate we have left the main thrust of that motion. It is fairly clear from the reaction of the Government and indeed of the Australian Democrats that they misunderstand the true motives of the Opposition in bringing this matter forward. All of us on this side of the House have very grave concern for the relationships between black and white and between Federal and State with the background to this particular draconian legislation which we have debated on another occasion.

This legislation empowers the Government with enormous mantles of power in order to take over land against the interests of Australians other than Aboriginals. In that way it debases and degrades relationships between all Australians. For that reason we take the stand that we have. We see the degrading, and debasing of the relationships between Australians as being the core of the difficulty in trying to address ourselves to the problem of the Aboriginal people. From discussions with Aboriginal people all over Australia in recent times on this very matter it is clear that they feel that this legislation by its very existence threatens their ability to put forward their arguments for raising up their own interests as against and in relation to all other Australians. There can be no nobler motive on the part of any government or of any parliament than to seek to alleviate poverty and certainly the deepest poverty that exists amongst the Aboriginal people. The core of the Opposition's concern is that we do get it right when we seek to elevate, as much as possible, the circumstances of the Aboriginal people. We believe that by focusing Australians' attention on legislation which this Government brought forward two months ago with its draconian provisions does indeed bring into question in the Australian mind the rightness of that particular motive. For that reason we express our concern today in this matter of urgency.

I think Senator Ryan will regret having said earlier that Senator Chaney, in bringing forward this motion, displayed neither sincerity nor moderation. Indeed , I thought his speech was remarkably moderate and sincere for a man of such known credentials in assisting and working with, and for, the Aboriginal people. There was no sense of trying to stir up this issue in the public mind. Quite the contrary. It was seeking to lay before the Government the important concerns of the people of Australia about the directions of its policies with regard to Aborigines.

Senator Ryan sought to introduce emotional arguments into the matter by displaying pamphlets which she claimed were produced by the Liberal Party in Western Australia with regard to Aboriginal land rights. Those pamphlets draw attention to some difficulties that could arise in circumstances with particular legislation unless it follows the models which we know have been set down by this Parliament with regard to the Northern Territory. Those pamphlets are one way of drawing attention to the problem and are, in a sense, valid to a certain side of the argument at this particular time. It is in no way an attempt to stir up a debate on the issue, but rather bringing attention to the very real concerns of the people in Australia. Again, I make the point that in doing so it focuses attention on a matter which, unfortunately, is at the core of the Opposition's concern; that is, trying to ensure that the problems of poverty amongst Aboriginals and their very circumstances are addressed in the best possible way.

Senator Macklin has drawn our attention to his position on the legislation. He claimed that the legislation does not go far enough. In fact I think he made the point clear in responding to the recent Government decision on the Harding River Dam case by saying that he would be consulting with Aboriginal groups to see what amendments could be brought forward in order to extend the powers of the Government in this way. If that is so I would be very interested to see his justification for it because I fear that this legislation is so draconian and that the Government itself perceives that in its heart of hearts that it has, therefore, chosen not to exercise the powers that it provides in the cases that have already been before us. The reason that it has chosen not to exercise those powers are both practical and pragmatic. But, to give the Government some credit in this matter, obviously it has some concern to the very point that I make which is that this legislation in the hearts and the minds of all other Australians may well rebound against the Aboriginal people. I do hope that the Government perceives that. Certainly it has had plenty of opportunities to consider that in the light of the attention that has been drawn to the matter by the Western Australian Government. We have had numerous quotes from Senator Chaney, including quotes from the Acting Premier of Western Australia who reacted very strongly in opposition to the Federal Government on the question of the Harding River Dam and of course earlier comments from the Western Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Wilson, who drew our attention to the legislation and claimed that it was unnecessary.

Senator Macklin during his speech drew our attention to the fact that this is unnecessary legislation. As he said, a great part of the legislation is covered by State legislation already. In fact, Queensland is reviewing its legislation on sacred sites at the very moment. Indeed, there is the example of the resolution of the conflict at the Cane Grass Swamp near Roxby Downs between the Aboriginal people and the State Government. This was brought about not under Federal legislation, not under any coercion on the part of the Federal Government, but by and with the full co-operation of the State Government under State legislation. All the State Labor Premiers and Ministers in Western Australia were attempting to do was to draw attention to the fact that the powers do exist for proper protection of sacred sites.

What was the Government's intention in bringing forward this legislation some two months ago? Clearly, it has become impracticable and unworkable and for that reason alone should be repealed. The original purpose was simply political. We have been promised by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) an election some time this year. The Minister who has performed worst-he promised so much before the election but has made no attempt to get any runs on the board-is none other than the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding). In the dying days of the autumn session of Parliament, the Minister rushed in a piece of legislation containing the draconian powers that we debated on the very last day of our sittings in June.

We all remember the disgraceful way in which the House of Representatives was forced to ram through the legislation by the use of numbers and the guillotine. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs perceived that he had to get some runs on the board so that the Government could go for an election on the claim that it had done something for Aborigines. Therefore, the Minister pushed through this legislation against all considerations and even the wisdom in his own Party, particularly the State Labor Premiers, including the Premier of Western Australia and his own back bench colleagues in that State, as Senator Giles knows. This legislation certainly did not receive the consideration it deserved within the Labor Party. For that reason alone it deserves to be withdrawn. I hope the Government will take note of this motion when it is carried in a few minutes time and will act urgently to introduce a Bill to repeal this horrendous legislation.