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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1666

Senator COONEY(4.42) —I begin by making some remarks about the fact that the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, the Acting Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, did not enter this debate. First of all, it is proper to consider the nature of the proceedings before the Senate. There is no legislation before the Senate and there are no proceedings which would call for the presence and the contribution of the Minister in these circumstances. If there was legislation, such as the legislation which was introduced by the Fraser Government for the Northern Territory, before the Senate, and if there was an agreement across this chamber that that sort of legislation should be made applicable throughout Australia, I am sure that Senator Ryan would come in here and make a contribution. But the fact of the matter is that that is not so.

Senator Baume has quite properly directed the attention of the Senate to the good deeds of the Government of which he was part in bringing in the legislation in the Northern Territory. Knowing him for the decent man he is, I ask him whether he would be agreeable to a situation where all parties in this chamber agreed to extending the provisions of the Northern Territory Act so that they applied throughout Australia. That seems to me to be the test of just where we are going, the test of just what we are all about. Is there agreement? Can there be agreement by all parties that the Northern Territory legislation be made national legislation applicable in each State? If Senator Baume and the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chaney, were to agree that that was so, I would go immediately to my party room and say: 'Look, we have agreement across the parties. This is a non-party situation where we all agree'. If the honourable senators can acknowledge that, many of the problems will be solved. The fact of the matter is that that cannot be done by them. The history of the matter shows that the Northern Territory legislation will bring difficulties if an attempt is made to extend it to other States. That is explained by the history of both the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal people in Australia.

The non-Aboriginal people of Australia have much to be proud of since they first settled here in 1788. The settlement of the land, the building of towns and cities, the development of a national identity, the establishment of a culture and the creation of a free and open society are matters Australians can properly hold up to the world as mighty achievements. The culture the Europeans found on coming to this country appeared to them, wrongly in my view, to be primitive. Unfortunately, they displayed towards it a contempt and animosity which has continued until today, although thankfully it is now more muted. A superior technology enabled the Europeans to conquer and possess the land which they then exploited to generate the civilisation in which we now live. Obviously, that process has devastated the Aboriginals. It has devastated them most unjustly. It has devastated them to this very day.

Clearly, the history of Australia cannot be changed. We cannot call back yesterday. No matter what our ethnic backgrounds, we are now Australians. Senator Macklin pointed this out. Senator Macklin said that because the Aboriginals are the original owners, the original inhabitants, the original possessors of our land, they continue to have proprietary rights over the land. If that is so, they have the right over all the land. Senator Macklin cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that because of their position in Australia Aboriginals have a right over only part of the land. It must be over all the land because the Aboriginals, as a matter of fact, originally possessed all the land. Senator Macklin also said that the non-Aboriginal Australians love their country and they ought use that love of their country to understand how devastated the Aborigines have been because they have lost the rights that they had in their country. How can he say that we, non-Aboriginals, do have a love for our country when, on his own analysis, it cannot be our country? That simply shows the difficulty we are in. It simply shows how complex this problem is.

History throws obligations upon us. There is an obligation for all people, particularly non-Aboriginals, to recognise the injustice, the oppression, the degradation, which have been inflicted over the years on our fellow Australians, the Aboriginals. There is an obligation on us to ensure that the demands of their situation are met and to redress the wrongs that they have suffered. We cannot-this debate has shown this-restore them to the position they would have been in had non-Aboriginal people never come here, but we can attempt to place them in a position that restores, as far as possible, their rights as the indigenous inhabitants of this country. That is the problem. There are 200 years of European history, of white, non-Aboriginal occupation of this country. We cannot, as it were, suddenly pass legislation that clears away all that injustice and oppression overnight.

What we have to do is to feel our way. That is what has happened. That is what is happening under this Government. That is what has happened under other governments, including Senator Baume's Government. Insofar as that Government felt its way so that the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia got justice, credit ought to be given to it. In pointing out what the former Government did, one cannot isolate one part of the country, the Northern Territory, from the whole situation-one State-and say: 'Look what we did there. We were good. We brought in satisfactory legislation. We deserve praise for it'. Of course that Government deserves praise, but it does not deserve praise for not including the other parts of the country in the legislation.

Senator Chaney is present in the chamber. He is a man of compassion, a man who would like to do more than he and his Party are able to do for Aboriginals, but surely he and Senator Baume could take to their party room the suggestion that the Northern Territory legislation-I have returned to this because it is important-apply throughout every State. Of course it is magnificent legislation. If it is so good-it is good; I accept it as being good-it follows, as night follows day, that a policy should be introduced so that it would apply not only in the Northern Territory but also in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, insofar as it is applicable in those States. They cannot do that because the reality is that the tortured history that the Aboriginals had to face in this country has broken the straight line that existed before. It has bent it and it is impossible to put it back. Looking at that in the terms in which it ought to be looked at, for the Opposition to come in here and say that this Government ought to be censured and taken to task because it has a policy which is confused and uncertain seems to miss the point. That situation has been created not by this Government but as a result of the white occupation of this land. How is it possible at one point in history to select one group or organisation and take it to task for something that was created over many decades?

Senator Lewis —It is the promises you made up to 1982 that we are criticising.

Senator COONEY —I think that is a fair point. Of course promises have been made, not only by this party but by many other parties over the years. When the Australian Labor Party came to government and found itself in a real life situation-Senator Lewis has been in such situations himself-those aspirations and policies were very difficult to realise and, in fact, it has not been possible to realise them. That is what has happened here. I have no doubt that if we ask honourable senators in this chamber what they personally would do for Aborigines we would get a very generous response. We would get a very generous policy, a very generous plan from them. The problem is how to put that policy and that plan into operation in the real world. What this debate ought to be about is how as a parliament and as Australian people we can feel our way to redressing in some way the injustices that have occurred so far. The difficulty is that when we try to do that we come up against vested interests-people with legitimate interests, people whose families have been here for over a century, and perhaps up to two centuries. What do we do in that situation? That problem is similar to the situation in Northern Ireland or the Middle East.

How can those problems be solved? There are two conflicting groups with conflicting rights that must be adjusted. True enough, if we see it, as Senator Macklin does, from a position of not actually having to put into operation some sort of effective policy, it is easy to make statements and to put forward policies which are too grand in their concept. They are too grand because of the vested interests over which, unfortunately, we have no control. On the other hand, unless we have a dream, unless we have policies which are more ambitious than can ultimately be realised, we will not get anywhere. If I can use a hackneyed old phrase, without vision the people perish. Without some attempt by the Labor Party to realise the grand vision, the result would not be as extensive or as good as it presently is. I hope that when the legislation in relation to Ayers Rock, to use the old name, and the area surrounding it is debated in this House there will be unanimity, which will be evidence not only to Aboriginal people but to people generally in Australia, that we are intent on redressing so far as we can, although we can never do it completely, those injustices that have occurred in the past. We will see what happens when that legislation is introduced.

I return to Senator Macklin's comments because in my view he made some impractical suggestions, no doubt with the best of intentions. I concede that it is reasonable enough for him to have this grand vision, which people should have, but in putting forward those views it is proper for him to understand that there are practicalities and, unfortunately, our visions have to be tempered by the realities of life. He would find wide agreement with his view that Aborigines have a moral right to land. What then are we to do? If Aborigines have a moral right to the land, a right which many people would concede, I ask Senator Macklin whether the Aborigines are the ones who should refuse or accept entry of refugees from war-torn areas? Are they the people to make the decisions on matters such as that? Should they make decisions on whether uranium ought to be mined and sent overseas? These are the questions to which Senator Macklin did not turn but which I submit ought to have been addressed by him. In other words, Senator Macklin did not address himself to what is possible in this very difficult area.

I note that Senator Chaney in a very compassionate speech spoke quite feelingly about the Aborigines. I hope he uses the same approach, even the same speech, when he returns to his home State of Western Australia and speaks to the Leader of the Opposition there. I am sure he will do that.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired. The debate on the matter of public importance is concluded.