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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1662

Senator ZAKHAROV(4.12) —I would like first to respond to some statements made by previous speakers. This debate seems to be turning into an occasion for attacking a Minister, rather than for coming to terms with the matter of public importance as stated. I maintain that there is no need for a Minister to be involved in this debate. We are talking about the policy of a government whose back benchers are all members and whose back benchers are all far more active than was the case when the present Opposition was in government. We are also talking about the policy of the Australian Labor Party. The policy of the Australian Labor Party is developed in a democratic process which includes, incidentally, its Aboriginal members. The policy is endorsed by the national conference, which again is elected from the grass roots of the Party. All matters of party policy are debated fully at all levels. It is not policy on the run as we have seen in previous coalition governments. Therefore, when we are talking about the policies of the Party, I maintain that it is very relevant-particularly when the relevant Minister is not present, because he is not a member of this House-that back benchers who are involved in discussing these policies and in the Caucus committee which has had many consultations on all these matters, including a number with Aboriginal groups and individuals, should have a say on this matter.

I deal now with some of the particular points made by Opposition speakers. The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chaney, talked about cutting off funds of the National Aboriginal Conference. Funds have not been cut off, as he alleged. Funding is continuing during the changeover period. Nor has that Conference been disbanded in the usual sense of something being disbanded and nothing taking its place. I find the attitude particularly of Senator Peter Baume but also of other Opposition speakers hypocritical in the extreme. I have been for the last two years a member of the Estimates committee which has been concerned with Aboriginal Affairs and have heard continuous attacks made by Opposition members particularly in denigration of the National Aboriginal Conference and its members.

The Conference is not being disbanded in the true sense. It is being reviewed and a decision has been made to re-establish it as a body more relevant to Aboriginal social structures and methods of decision-making than was the NAC, which was based on the Westminster-type model. These consultations are being led by Lois O'Donoghue, who has been held in such esteem in the general Australian community that this year she was made Australian of the Year. She is consulting and negotiating with the Aboriginal community to develop that new structure, which I am sure will be far more relevant to Aboriginal need and Aboriginal ways of consulting.

Senator Chaney said he hoped the Labor Party platform would be enacted. There is a good deal of misunderstanding about the Labor Party platform, perhaps because other parties do not have similar platforms-that is to say, any of the other parties represented in this place. The Labor Party platform is a long range plan, and I am sure that Senator Chaney and other honourable senators on the Opposition benches would be horrified if we moved to implement that whole platform at once. In fact, I think they should look at that platform to see what our long range plans are in a number of other areas. I think they would be most unhappy if we were to move to implement all those plans at once. That would apply in a practical sense as well as in a policy sense.

Unlike the Opposition parties, that policy has been developed by a democratic process and is publicly available. The conference itself, which is the decision-making body, is held in public and anyone who can get in can attend and listen to how the policy is developed. That policy will be implemented. Much progress has already been made, and I shall return to that matter. But we will go about it in the right way and in full consultation with those people in the Aboriginal community and in the general community who are affected by it.

Senator Peter Baume said he did not believe that Aboriginal people were getting a fair go. I wonder what sort of a fair go they got under the previous coalition Government, which made no attempt to grasp the nettle of the land rights issue, or even to take very much action to protect sacred sites. The Opposition needs to look at its own record when it was in government, and I am sure that all Aboriginal people remember Noonkanbah. As a member of the previous Aboriginal affairs Caucus committee I was present at many discussions with Aboriginal groups in the presence of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding). Senator Baume's description was to my mind far from the truth. I also know that the Minister has travelled very widely to places that are difficult to get to, under difficult conditions, and he has been prepared to sit down to talk to Aborigines in those places. I know he is not the first Minister to do this; I know there have been other Ministers who have done so. But one cannot claim that consultation has not taken place. I also know that at times it has been the Aboriginal groups which have withdrawn from consultation. That is their right and I can understand why that action was taken, but one cannot withdraw and then claim that one has not been consulted.

Returning to the topic of the matter of public importance, which relates to the alleged confusion and uncertainty of the Government's Aboriginal affairs policy, I completely reject that proposition. The Aboriginal affairs policy of the Government is firmly based on the ALP's platform and it is clear. There may be confusion and uncertainty in the public perception of the Government's policy, but that is not the fault of this present Government. A number of factors are involved. One is that Aboriginal affairs became a Federal matter only in comparatively recent years, and is still bedevilled by the lack of co-operation of some of the States, notably Queensland, as previous Ministers have also experienced. This policy is developing in the practical application of principles and has to be co-ordinated with all the other departments involved, such as Health, Housing and Education, which have been concerned with matters affecting Aborigines as a group or groups over the years. There are problems of consultation with Aboriginal communities in remote areas and with Aborigines who lead itinerant lives in either rural or urban areas. Only comparatively recently has there been a realisation by the Australian community in general, and even by governments, that Aboriginal social structures are very different from those of the white community and that new ways of negotiating have had to be developed to cope with those differences.

There is a further problem-I think a very important one-for which some Opposition senators at least bear a great deal of responsibility; that is, the deliberate misinformation which has been spread in years gone by, and at present, by many groups in the community but most recently by organisations such as the League of Rights and its many pseudonyms, one of which is something like the Electors League which I had some dealing with in Victoria, and by individuals such as Hugh Morgan who are able to get media publicity for their views and their misinformation very readily because of the public positions they hold.

I had an interesting experience in north-east Victoria last year when travelling around showing an excellent film about Aboriginal women called Lousy Little Sixpence. Because I was in an area where the League of Rights is very strong a number of these people attended the meetings. I was appalled by their attitude towards Aboriginal people and by their misinformation. Even when it was pointed out in print that their information was wrong, they continued to hold their views and to propagate them. In that case there was an effect on local councils who again believed what they were told, in the absence probably of proper Press servicing of those areas, and mounted a campaign against both the State and Federal moves on land rights, again on the basis of total misinformation. I hope that Opposition senators who may have associations with the League of Rights, or whose parties have, will feel an obligation to exert whatever influence they can to prevent the dissemination of such false information, which is causing unnecessary ill-feeling and division, particularly in some rural areas. This misinformation gets a ready ear because, of course, governments over the last 80 years have failed to meet their responsibilities to the Aboriginal people.

I would now like to spell out some aspects of the present Government's policy to show that this Government, far from being confused and uncertain, has moved in a purposeful and consistent way to implement its stated policies. Senator Baume said that he wanted action. Here are some examples of that action. I refer first to education, which is very close to my heart. Aboriginal education comes primarily within the ambit of the Education Department, and I would like to point to progress made in that area by the present Labor Government. I cite such things as the National Aboriginal Education Committee which has been established as the principal adviser on Aboriginal education. Increasing resources are being supplied to this Committee. For the first time Aborigines have been appointed to major Commonwealth education agencies-Ms Pat O'Shane to the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, Mr Paul Hughes to the Commonwealth Schools Commission and the Curriculum Development Centre, and Mr Eric Law to the Technical and Further Education Council.

Increased resources have been provided in many areas of Aboriginal education. There has been continued support for special schemes of student assistance to encourage greater participation by Aboriginal students in secondary education. I have had personal experience of that scheme in a city school and I can imagine the very great benefits it must have, particularly in rural areas. The Aboriginal study grants scheme provides support for Aboriginals undertaking study after leaving school. This support, and the rate of allowance have been increased by the present Government. On top of the 100 awards already made to Aboriginal students for teacher training, a further 100 awards will be made this year towards our target of 1,000 fully trained Aboriginal teachers in the classroom by 1990. There have been additional measures for participation by Aboriginals in tertiary education. Funds have been provided for 200 additional places for Aborigines in higher education award courses in each year of the triennium. In addition, $1.159m has been specifically targeted for Aboriginal programs in the participation and equity program at school and TAFE levels. Capital grants for Aboriginal education programs through the Commonwealth Schools Commission amount to about $8m this year.

Under the direct responsibility of the Aboriginal Affairs Department this Government has provided funds for the first time for two more Aboriginal independent schools, Yipiringa in Alice Springs and Worawa in Victoria. Expenditure on education within the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio has increased by 11.26 per cent over the previous year. Health has been an area of great neglect in the past. I do not have the time to go through that, but I would like to refer to the trachoma program, which is continuing. More importantly, the trachoma program covers only one aspect of Aboriginal health care. It is hoped that, with the establishment of further health facilities in areas of high trachoma incidence, the addition of better general health facilities will not only prevent and treat trachoma but also will prevent a number of other diseases to which people are prone and disabilities such as malnutrition.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.