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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1650


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.03) —This debate has been brought forward by the Opposition because of our concern about the Government's total failure to come to grips with this important area of policy. I think the first thing I should comment on is that the speakers' list which has been put up by the Government does not include the Acting Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Ryan. It is fascinating that in 1981, only a few years ago, Senator Ryan pontificated in this place about the great moral responsibility that faced the then Government in not resuming land in Queensland. I will quote from a few of Senator Ryan's better contributions to debate when she had no responsibility and when she was part of the Australian Labor Party's raising of Aboriginal expectations which have now been so grossly dashed. Her total failure to live up to her responsibility is simply evidenced by her scurrying out of the chamber now when she should be meeting her responsibilities as the Minister who is responsible for Aboriginal affairs in this Government.

In 1981, Senator Ryan brought forward all sorts of arguments about the failure of the then Federal Government to carry out its constitutional responsibility to ensure fair and just conditions for Aboriginal Australians. That was her view in 1981. Let me quote Senator Ryan when she reminded the Senate that the Federal Government 'can secure land for Aboriginal people and this is the first and foremost obligation that it has'. She went on to talk about what ought to be done by the Government with respect to Queensland. She said:

. . . and in the view of my party-the Australian Labor Party-

that great friend to Aboriginals, I interpolate--

the Federal Government inarguably has the moral responsibility to do it.

That was the high moral tone of Senator Susan 'runout' Ryan when she was not the Minister responsible. That is the position she adopted when she was the Opposition shadow Minister and that is not the position she adopts today. A few months later, in May 1982, good old Senator Ryan went on with the same sort of thing. She talked about this outstanding moral question.


Senator Reynolds —I raise a point of order. I was under the impression that the matter of public importance to be debated related to the Government's Aboriginal Affairs policy. Senator Chaney is referring to Senator Ryan when she was in opposition. I would say that he is out of order.


Senator Grimes —I support the point of order. I believe that Senator Reynolds has a point. If we are going to range as broadly as this, I think we should range over the matters in the Western Australian election when Senator Chaney's colleagues and relatives were sent up to prevent Aboriginals voting. Fair is fair. If we are going to throw around words like that, I think we should swap it around.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order. Senator Chaney's remarks are relevant to the debate.


Senator CHANEY —Senator Reynolds has been chosen to speak in this debate for the simple reason that she, like all the other speakers, has been a member of the Senate since only 1983. The honourable senators to speak today were not party to the lies and misrepresentations that were made consistently by the Labor Party when in opposition to the Aboriginal people of Australia. Not one Government senator is game to enter this debate. They sat in the Opposition benches and told a series of lies to the Aboriginal people of Australia which are now quite apparent.


Senator Colston —Mr Deputy President, I take a point of order. I can remember some years ago when an honourable senator was suspended from this place for quoting the word 'lies' from a newspaper. The current speaker has used this word twice. Through you, Mr Deputy President, I ask that the word be either withdrawn or that we get an undertaking that it will not be used in this chamber again.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I listened with care to the way in which Senator Chaney used the word. If it had been applied to an individual it would have been out of order. Applied to a party-there are previous rulings by this chamber on this-it is not out of order.


Senator CHANEY —Just a couple of years ago, this was a great moral issue. There was a clear obligation and a clear ability on the part of the then Federal Government to take the land of Queensland. Honourable senators opposite have had two years in government. They know, as I know, that that was cant and nonsense and that it will not happen.


Senator Reynolds —We believe in consensus.


Senator CHANEY —We are now told that they believe in consensus. How far is that from the views which were put forward as the views of the Labor Party prior to its coming into government? In October 1982, Senator Ryan again brought into this Parliament a matter of public importance in the following terms:

The continuing failure of the Federal Government to grant freehold title to Aboriginal and Islander people to their reserve lands in Queensland.

What a laugh! The fact of the matter is that there has been more dishonesty in this area and more vote buying by the Labor Party on the basis of promises which will not be met than bears examination. I am not surprised that Senator Ryan scurried from this place so that she did not have to face the facts of her history. That brings me to one of the points of confusion in the present Government's policy. Senator Ryan's contribution, as the Acting Minister, has been to cut off the funds for the National Aboriginal Conference, a body which the Labor Party, when in opposition, supported as the spokesmen for the Aboriginal people and a body which it has now disbanded. It is a classic example of the confusion, the doubts and the uncertainties of Labor policies.

When the Labor Party was elected to government only a couple of years ago it was a firm supporter of the National Aboriginal Conference. When the Labor Party was elected to government its first Budget increased expenditure for the National Aboriginal Conference by 87 per cent. In other words, it thought enough of the National Aboriginal Conference to want to increase its expenditure by nearly doubling it. I suppose the members of the NAC thought that was a clear indication that the pre-election words of the Labor Party meant something. I suppose they thought: 'This is putting value on us and giving us the resources that we need'. We find, of course, that two years later the National Aboriginal Conference is to be abolished. The Government doubles the NAC's Budget in year 1 and abolishes it in year 2. It is no wonder that the Aboriginal people are confused. It is no wonder the people of Australia wonder what the policies of this Government are in respect of Aboriginal matters.

The matter is serious. I speak with some heat because I think it is serious. There is a growing disaffection among Aboriginals themselves and, critically, among the wider community. The fundamental, grievous error of this Government-the grievous error that will live with the Australian community for a long time-was the creation of expectations when in Opposition, expectations which cannot be met, and many of which should not be met. The reality is that the Australian Labor Party raised expectations and the Aboriginal people responded to those. In the process of doing so, the Aboriginal people have managed to offend and estrange many other sections of the community. It has been a disastrous situation. The burden of that is carried by the members of the present Government. We will be reaping the legacy of that for many years. Either it was irresponsibility on the part of the Labor Party or it was dishonesty, or it was both.

The record of the Australian Labor Party in opposition is consistently that. It is a record of going too far, of promising what will not be achieved and what cannot be delivered. This policy has been most evident and most damaging in the area of land rights. The NAC is a very good example. The NAC is subject to very severe criticism. In recent times it has been severely criticised by members of my own Party over the extraordinary maladministration exposed by the Auditor-General. This is no time to be defending the NAC. It is a discredited body and has no support in the community. However, I remind honourable senators opposite that if the NAC were being abolished by the Liberal Party that would bring forth a torrent of abuse on our heads. I also remind them that in the last two years they have been responsible for guiding the National Aboriginal Conference and working with it. I point out that that simply has not happened. I further remind them that when we were in government the NAC even met with the Cabinet. Certainly I and other Liberal Aboriginal Affairs Ministers spent many hours in consultation with that body, in a way which the present Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding) certainly has not.

This Government made it quite clear that it was a great supporter of the National Aboriginal Conference. This is what it told the Aboriginal people in December 1983. Mr Holding said:

On the great issues of policy I expect the NAC to advise me and I expect to be guided by that advice in the action I take or recommend to the Government.

. . .

It is not my intention to bring a package of national land rights legislation to this Parliament without the approval of the NAC and the support of Aboriginal people.

My God, how things have changed since December 1983! If there ever is such a package, and part of my speech today is to say that I do not believe there ever will be, there will not be an NAC to approve it. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu made clear in his comments last week, such legislation certainly will not have the support of the Aboriginal people. What we see in the NAC is a sorry tale of neglect, a neglect of the Government's responsibilities to the point where it can now say that the NAC has abused its position and should be abolished. Mr Roger Shipton, the shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, has detailed in a speech in the House of Representatives the complaints in the Auditor-General's report. I in no way seek to excuse the maladministration that has occurred. However, I do not blame the people elected to the NAC; I blame those people who are politically responsible and who should have provided guidance and assistance during periods of great difficulty.

The damage that has been done by this Government's embrace of national land rights legislation is yet to be measured. It is very important to remember the line that was adopted by the previous Government and, of course, bitterly opposed by the Labor Party at that time. When we were elected to government we legislated for land rights in the Northern Territory, in accordance with the recommendations of the report of the Woodward Aboriginal Land Rights Commission. We took a consistent attitude that we were not to bring in national land rights legislation. I do not have time to explain all the reasons, but there were reasons that related to our view of federalism and there were constitutional and legal difficulties. I dread the day we get enmeshed in those, but they are clear for all to see. The administrative difficulties also would be very great in the face of State government opposition, and State government opposition there would be, from both Labor and Liberal State governments. Of course, there would also be an enormous cost.

I note that in the brief period I was Minister for Administrative Services I sent to one of the Senate committees an estimate of the cost of moving in Queensland alone. In the letter dated 11 October 1978 I said that the Department's then estimate of the cost of moving on land rights, without taking the mineral rights in Queensland into account, would be $163m. I can see this Government undertaking a bill of some millions of dollars to legislate nationally in the current climate! I am not sure how it would affect the trilogy. I mention that because it is an illustration of just how facile, footling and foolish the pre-election words of the Labor Party were. Our position was consistent. We had a view on the range of things that needed to be done to assist the Aboriginal people. We moved to meet our direct responsibilities in the Northern Territory and we worked with the States rather than seeking to take the matter out of their hands. We did that under the severest criticism from the Labor Party.

It is also important to remember, because the Labor Party never remembered this and made life very difficult for us, that the Woodward report made it clear that the first land rights legislation would be unique and therefore would need review and possibly change. From my own Ministry onwards Liberal Ministers worked to secure changes to the Northern Territory legislation, and were always bitterly opposed in that by the Labor Party. Consistently during the periods of Liberal Government the Labor Party bitterly opposed alterations to the land rights legislation-changes which were clearly needed in the Northern Territory. We accepted the need for change, but the Labor Party did not.

What is this Government's position? That really seems to depend on who is the audience. We find that back in October last year the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) when in Western Australia reaffirmed the Government's commitment to its constitutional responsibilities but said that in fulfilling those responsibilities the Government would acknowledge the particular needs of Western Australia. It is quite clear that if the Government is talking to a mining audience it will tell one story and if it is talking to an Aboriginal audience it will tell another story. Mr Holding has put forward his five principles, and since he is the Minister I suppose we can believe that he speaks on behalf of the Government. We still hear the Government asserting that Aboriginal land is to be held under inalienable freehold title, that there is to be protection of Aboriginal sites, that there is to be Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land, that there is to be access to mining royalty equivalents, and that compensation for lost land is to be negotiated. The fact is that no State's legislation meets these five requirements. Each State's legislation meets those requirements in part. The reality is that if the Government is to deliver on these five principles it will have to legislate nationally; it will have to take the matter out of the hands of the States.

Uncertainty arises because I know of no one who has considered these matters carefully who believes that this Government will act. What we have been left with is a situation of complete uncertainty about what rights, if any, the Aboriginal people are to have through the actions of this Federal Government. I want it to be quite clear that it is the view of the Opposition that this matter should be dealt with in a federalist context. Primarily, matters of land and mining remain to be dealt with by the State governments. The fact is that, on paper, the Government is committed to something much more overreaching and much more severe in a constitutional and intrusive sense. I am saying that the Government by its actions, and by its delay, has shown that there is very considerable doubt about what, if anything, it will do.

I had hoped that we might today get a clear statement from the Minister on whether the Labor Party platform, adopted only last year, was something the Government intended to enact into Federal legislation. I had hoped that Senator Susan Ryan, who is a no stranger to this matter, having been the shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and having represented the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs for some years in this place, might be able to tell us whether there would be Federal legislation implementing the Holding principles. I had hoped that Senator Ryan might come in here and clarify some of this confusion and make it clear whether the preferred package of legislation of Mr Holding is to be enacted as Federal legislation. I say only that unless the Minister has had a change of heart-she has just reappeared in the chamber-we will be left with a few comments by back benchers which will not provide us with any significant guide as to what this Government is going to do. The Government has trotted out a bit of paper which is called the Holding preferred land rights model. I know of no one who prefers that model. I know of no Aboriginal person who supports it; I know of no State government that supports it; I know of no industry group that supports it; I know of no one else in the Labor Party who has expressed any great confidence in it. It seems to me that we have bits of paper, we have principles, we have platforms, we have preferred models and we have absolutely no knowledge of what is going to happen.

I pose the question: What is going to be done? My answer is: Nothing. I ask that question because I believe that to answer it soon is important. It is all very well for Mr Holding to be hunting for support among the Navahos. That might be pleasant and it might inspire him to make comments which will cast further doubt and uncertainty in the Australian community and, in particular, in the mining community. That is his usual destructive contribution to these difficult issues. I want to know what this Government proposes to do. Let us have some certainty. The continuing doubt and the continuing uncertainty are sowing the sort of disaffection which is so damaging to the Aboriginal people and, indeed, to attitudes to Aboriginals in Australia.

The last thing I want to say is another comment about the present Minister because it seems to me to represent the sort of totally thoughtless, unthinking and unfeeling approach which has been adopted by this Government to a matter which it put forward two years ago as a matter of high morality. Mr Holding for a long time subjected the Australian people to the spectacle of him negotiating with the traditional owners of Ayers Rock about the amount that they should get from entry fees. That is precisely the sort of inanity which has offended so many Australians. The sort of nonsense that Mr Holding has gone on with will badly damage Aboriginal people, not just for a year or two, but for a generation. I think it is time that this Government got its act together. It is time that it threw away the silly policies of the past. It is time that it acknowledged the existence of a federal Australia and it is time that it got back to the business of trying to help Aboriginal Australians.