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Monday, 9 May 1994
Page: 454

Senator TEAGUE (6.05 p.m.) —We have before us the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 1994. There were three amending bills last year which set the foundations and amended the ATSIC arrangements so that there was an election in December. The Senate gave quite a deal of attention to these amendments and most of them have already been put in place.

  But one area of the amendments to the legislation that we dealt with last year affects the Torres Strait regional authority which will come into effect on 1 July this year. In the months now leading up to 1 July the government has seen fit, after consultations with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Torres Strait Islanders themselves, and the opposition to bring in some further amendments before 1 July so that the Torres Strait regional authority is in its best definition before it begins to operate. Accordingly, we have in the bill before us some 10 or 11 pages of further amendments that almost entirely relate to a more careful definition of the Torres Strait regional authority.

  The bill extends powers to the authority. It makes it more powerful and more capable to act independently as an authority. For example, it enables the Prime Minister to confer a departmental function on the Torres Strait regional authority. It enables a minister to confer commission functions—that is ATSIC—and other like powers. It gives authority for the regional authority to make agreements with other government bodies at all three levels of government and to make grants and loans to Queensland and its authorities, particularly local government authorities. It also allows the authority to use money in its land and resources fund, not only for acquiring land but to implement the marine strategy that is in the Torres Strait development plan. This bill also allows the minister to make rules for the conduct of elections by a system of wards in all or part of the Torres Strait area and it makes various minor administrative changes.

  The opposition has long supported the idea of a distinct regional authority for the Torres Strait Islanders and it has long accepted a particular specific approach to what will best serve the interests of Torres Strait Islanders. We wish to be, as in the past, responsive to the representatives—indeed all of the people—of the Torres Strait in the determination of these matters. We are confident that the matters that are before us now enhance the best interests of the peoples of the Torres Strait and, accordingly, we have no objection to the bill. Indeed, we support these amendments to the ATSIC act.

  We are also aware that, in addition to the provisions in the bill, there will be some final amendments that the government will introduce at the committee stage. These have been discussed with the Liberal and National parties. Whilst they will be more precisely explained by the minister in due course in this debate, I foreshadow that, as they have been explained to us up to this point, we accept the need for those further and final amendments to this bill.

  With regard to the Torres Strait Islands' distinctiveness, the Aboriginal people of Australia recognise that there are Australian Aboriginal communities and there are the Torres Strait Island communities. There is full recognition of the distinctiveness of the Torres Strait Islanders as a part of Queensland and as a part of all of Australia, but as, nevertheless, a distinctive and separate region of this country. For example, the act refers to the first function of the Torres Strait regional authority as:

to recognise and maintain the special and unique Ailan Kastom of Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait area.

I take the words `Ailan Kastom' to be the pidgin—the language—used by the people to sum up the distinctive traditions and other customs which are special and unique to this region. The act notes that Ailan Kastom means:

the body of customs, traditions, observances and beliefs of some or all of the Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait area and includes any such customs, traditions, observations and beliefs relating to particular persons, areas, objects or relationships.

That is symbolised by our support of that inclusion in the act—the act is already a part of Australian law—and by our support of these enhancing measures in the bill before us. We support the recognition of the Torres Strait Islanders making a distinct community within Australia. Occasionally, separatists voices are raised with regard to the Torres Strait and the islands as a whole. I note that it is not the majority view of the Torres Strait Islanders to have any kind of separation or distinctiveness other than that which is provided for through the Torres Strait regional authority.

  The majority of Torres Strait Islanders are proud to be Australians. That is the view of the Liberal and National parties. I understand that is very much the view of the Labor Party and the government. I have not heard voices from the wider community within Australia saying anything other than that the whole of the Torres Strait Islands is part of Queensland—and the whole of Queensland is part of Australia.

  In all our decision making in this parliament I will continue to urge that we be mindful to provide for the regional authority within the Torres Strait so there is that self-determination at that level, and be so responsive in every other respect to all the people of Australia, including the Torres Strait Islanders, that we maintain the unity and wholehearted support of every individual within Australia for the unity of Australia. The government has foreshadowed that it will move two or three amendments and we will debate them at the committee stage if necessary.