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Wednesday, 22 August 1984
Page: 154

Senator COLEMAN(4.40) —It would be hard for anyone who might be listening to this debate to believe that they were not hearing a rehash of the debate in which we all participated on 14 and 15 June. On the last two days of sitting in the autumn session we debated the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Interim Protection) Bill, and all that we are getting today is a rehash of that debate. One can only assume that Senator Ryan as Minister representing the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, when making her response to Senator Chaney's urgency motion, was correct when she assumed that the Opposition had this matter of urgency already drawn up prior to the end of that session and had been unable to think of anything else that it might be able to put before this chamber today. It is certainly not an up-to-date matter of urgency. I put it into the record again:

The need for the Government to repeal the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Interim Protection) Act because it is the wrong way to protect Aboriginal sacred sites and because of the conflict it is causing between Aboriginals and governments and between State and Federal governments.

This is an exercise which is designed to set Australian against Australian, black Australian against white Australian. Senator Chaney referred to it in his speech. He said that the legislation is bad for Australia, is bad for Australian people and is creating bad relations between Aboriginals and other Australians. The only bad relations that exist between Aboriginals and other Australians is that relationship which has developed as a result of the controversy between the Liberal Party of Australia here in the Federal Parliament and the Liberal Party in Western Australia.

This exercise is designed to get the headlines in the West Australian tomorrow and to endeavour in some way to prop up the Leader of the Opposition in that State. The Liberal Party has somehow read headlines such as that in today's Australian, which I understand suggest that the Budget brought down last night was an election Budget-no one has denied that there will be an election in the near future-and this is one of the areas that the Liberal Party sees as being ' the issue'. The Liberal Party tried to make an issue out of immigration, but it discovered that the Australian people were not prepared to accept that as 'the' election issue. The Liberals are now endeavouring to create this racist situation in Australia and make that the issue. The Australian people are adult and they will recognise it for what it is-an exercise in futility.

However, a moment ago we heard Senator Kilgariff say that it was not a requirement of the Act that there be consultation between the Federal Minister and the State Government. I suggest to him that he read the Act in totality and recognise that it is set down in the Act in a specific manner that nothing can happen under the heritage Act unless there has been that prior consultation. Let me refer him to a news release by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Hon. Clyde Holding, in which he says:

This Bill is a response to requests from Aboriginals for priority to be given to enacting legislation which can counter the real, and at times sudden, threats to significant Aboriginal sites and objects.

Senator Chaney, Senator Kilgariff and, I have no doubt, Senator Messner-although I must admit that I was not available to listen to his speech; I was downstairs discussing other matters with Aboriginal people-questioned whether in actual fact the Federal Government knows the meaning of the phrase 'sacred sites or sites of significance'. That was another exercise that we went through during the original debate on the Bill.

Senator Kilgariff —That is not the point.

Senator COLEMAN —It is quite clearly defined in the Act, Senator Kilgariff. If Senator Kilgariff had read it, he would recognise that it is defined there for all to see. If he cannot read words of more than two syllables, I am sorry for him; but surely it must be possible for someone to interpret for him the meaning of the phrase 'sites of significance or Aboriginal sacred sites'. Mr Holding, in his news release, went on:

It will enable protection to be granted where State laws do not apply, or are ineffective, and provides a means whereby parties can be brought together to work out a solution when all other avenues have failed . . .

The Minister will need to be satisfied that the area or object for which protection is sought is significant in accordance with Aboriginal tradition . . .

Before making a declaration, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs will be obliged to consult with his State or Territory counterpart to ascertain whether the law of that State or Territory offers effective protection. If it does, a declaration will not be necessary.

I should have thought that that was quite clear to anyone who bothered to read it. It was issued on 9 May, after the legislation had been introduced into the House of Representatives; but obviously the members of the Opposition did not bother to read it then, and they are not bothering to read it now.

The matter of urgency that has come before us is, as I said, a purely political exercise. It is designed to fan the fires of what might be seen as a racist attitude which could be developed in the Australian community. It is an exercise designed to ensure that if there is a racist attitude to be adopted, the Liberal Party wants to be right in there adopting that attitude. These prophets of doom who saw what the legislation was designed to do when it was introduced should have been doing exactly what Senator Macklin suggested. Let us not fail to recognise that those prophets of doom on the Opposition benches were the people who were saying: 'It will work only in the interests of Aboriginal people. The mining companies will be distraught, and they will be disadvantaged. Oh, horror of horrors, all of these things will happen'. That has just not been the result. What has happened is that there have been only five applications-not the 750,000 that I think was the figure that Senator Bjelke-Petersen, on the advice of the Premier of Queensland, one presumes, suggested would be coming before the Minister at some stage. Really, Senator, 750,000 applications; even you must have realised that someone had added more than three zeros. But there have been five applications. Three of them have been heard, two are pending.

It is time that we looked at the other reasons for this matter of urgency being brought in today. It is obvious that the Liberal Party has no confidence in its Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr James Porter, because, if it had, it would have brought it into the House in which the Minister sits, and not in the upper chamber.

Senator Kilgariff —Mr Porter is going well.

Senator COLEMAN —Why bring it in here? It is because the Liberals know that he could not stand the heat. I will tell Senator Kilgariff why he could not stand the heat in just a minute. The honourable senator should not get his knickers in a twist. I shall explain why it is not difficult to understand why the Liberals have no confidence in their Shadow Minister. I refer to his very own words, put out on his own letterhead, with his face at the top and making the statement that he is, indeed, the Federal Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. I do not know whether he will stay that way. He will certainly stay 'Shadow', but whether he will be the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs after the next election or subsequent elections is another matter.

Senator Kilgariff —He will not; he will be the Minister.

Senator COLEMAN —No, he probably will not even be in the Parliament, so we will not worry too much about his future. Let me tell the Senate what he had to say on 5 August. His media release said:

Fears regarding the future of a $1m tourist venture involving Aboriginal employment have been raised with James Porter, Federal Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

The media release quotes him as saying:

Development of a new National Park in North West Queensland involving the expenditure of nearly $1m will be thrown into jeopardy if the powers of the Federal Heritage Act are used.

On 5 August, he was saying: 'For goodness' sake, Federal Government, please do not use your powers under this legislation'. But what did he say on 7 August? It was still under his letterhead, still with his smiling face at the top. He said:

The Federal Government's rejection of the Harding Dam application under the Heritage Act adds to Aboriginal disillusionment with the Canberra Labor Government. The Labor Party has unrealistically raised Aboriginal expectations only to repeatedly let them down. The Federal Government promised to develop effective heritage legislation in co-operation with the States but when the Heritage Act was proposed, the Western Australian Government admitted it was taken by surprise.

On 5 August Mr Porter was saying 'Please do not use it' and on 7 August he was condemning us for not using it. He is a bit twisted in some way. One minute he wants it one way, and one minute he wants it the other way.

The Liberals must learn, and the National Party of Australia, too-Senator Bjelke-Petersen and Senator Boswell are sitting there smiling at me-that in this life there is no way one can have one's cake and eat it, too. There is no way that they can condemn legislation and then condemn the fact that it is not being used. If they are to be taken by the Aboriginal community and the Australian community as having some credibility, no matter how little, they should at least be consistent.

Let me look at the question of the Harding River Dam. As a Western Australian I have been involved in this area. It is a matter of great importance. The situation there was that an application was made by the Aboriginal people when the Liberal Government was still in office. Mr Ray O'Connor was then the Premier . That application was refused by the Liberal Government and nothing more was done. The agreement was made that the Harding River Dam would go ahead, even though it was perfectly obvious to anybody who visited the area that there were magnificent works of rock art at that site. The Aboriginals had already made their complaint to the State Government and it had been rejected, that is, the Liberal Government had rejected it. It was not until this legislation was brought in that the Aboriginal Legal Service decided to endeavour to have the project stopped, recognising that it was at a late stage. Whether or not it did it at the behest of the Aboriginal community concerned is not the issue. It was nevertheless an exercise to test the Federal legislation.

It is my view, and I have to say it quite sincerely to both the Aboriginal people and to the people who were constructing the dam, that I had some difficulty with the decision that was taken because I recognised the value of the cultural products that were there and the feeling of the Aboriginal people towards the land but I also had to recognise that a great deal of money had already been invested in that project and it was going to benefit all of the people in the area. Having taken that step myself and having acknowledged that, I made no contact whatsoever with the Minister's office or with the Acting Minister's office because I felt that it was a decision that had to be made by them. I would have been quite happy to do so had I been approached; I was not from either side.

But let me say that whilst there were sites of significance to Aboriginal people in that area, a great deal of money had been expended and 75 per cent of the project had already been completed before the Aboriginal Legal Service in Western Australia brought that matter to the attention of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Federal Parliament. I just point out that when the legislation came in it was not designed to be anything other than prospective. It was never designed to be retrospective. That was made quite clear during all of the debates that took place in the Parliament and in this chamber. I made mention of that fact in my speech at the second reading stage.

Senator Peter Baume —That the application was prospective.

Senator COLEMAN —The application was not retrospective.

Senator Peter Baume —Prospective.

Senator COLEMAN —The application was prospective, and the application of the Act had to be prospective. That was all it was ever intended to be. Senator Baume, as a former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, would be very conscious of the fact that Aboriginal matters are not easy for any government, of whichever political colour it might be. I think it is important for those people who may be listening, and certainly for those people who are participating in this debate, to recognise just what is happening. As I said, members of the Opposition have suddenly come to realise that there will be an election. They are devoid of leadership, they are devoid of issues and they are finding it extremely difficult to find something on which to hang their hat. They thought Aboriginal affairs might be that issue. It is a very small hat and it is a very small peg that the Opposition is trying to hang it on. The Australian people basically are not racist and honourable senators opposite are not going to engender that racism in them by bringing in a matter such as this matter of urgency. I move:

That the business of the day be called on.