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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 399


Senator SHERRY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) —I table the statement and the government's response to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report on the situation of the Australian South Sea Islanders. I seek leave to incorporate the statement and response in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The documents read as follows

TABLING STATEMENT

Mr President, it gives me great pleasure today to table the government's response to a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report entitled A call for recognition. Tabled on 6 May 1993, this is a report on the situation and needs of Australian South Sea Islanders.

The report's title encapsulates the most fundamental issue for Australian South Sea Islanders to be recognised.

It is a major step in addressing a serious wrong.

In the formal statement I am tabling today the Commonwealth Government recognises Australian-born South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic group in Australia with its own history and culture.

The report concludes that Australian South Sea Islanders are a unique minority group and have been severely disadvantaged through racial discrimination.

Yet until now, they have not even been formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group in Australia.

In other words, they have not existed officially. Perhaps this is the greatest insult that can be paid to any ethnic group.

More than an insult, this deflates a community's self-esteem. It also threatens the collective heritage of Australian born South Sea Islanders.

They have a right to a fair go as much as any other Australians.

A call for recognition vindicates the government's concern for issues raised by such people as Faith Bandler in her book Wacvie. published in 1977, the book tells the moving story of Ms Bandler's father. He was taken by force from the island of Ambryn, which is part of Vanuatu, and put to work on the cane fields of Queensland.

I would now like to spend a few moments detailing the history of Australian South Sea Islanders.

A history that regrettably few Australians are familiar with.

They are the descendants of the 55,000 to 60,000 Melanesians brought to Queensland between 1863 and 1904 to develop the local sugar industry. They came from many Pacific islands, mainly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

And like Faith Bandler's father, they were often brought against their will. In other words, they were treated no better than slaves.

That is the ugly truth of the matter. This sorry chapter in Australian history was referred to as blackbirding, an obnoxious term.

No other group came to Australia with less status than did the South Sea Islanders.

To add insult to injury, between 1904 and 1906 many were deported under the white Australia policy. This policy was implemented as one of the first acts of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia.

However, about 2,400 people either evaded deportation or were exempted from it.

Today's Australian South Sea Islanders are the descendants of this remnant community. We are not completely certain how many members make up the community but the report suggests there are 15,000 to 20,000 Australian South Sea Islanders. Many still live on the Queensland and northern New South Wales coast where their forebears sweated and strained to develop Australia's sugar industry.

Despite having been in Australia since before federation South Sea Islanders have had very little written about their situation.

In 1991, the Evatt Foundation directed the attention of the government to the social and economic disadvantage facing many Australian South Sea Islanders.

As a consequence my predecessor the then Attorney-General, the member for Holt, asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to undertake an inquiry into their situation.

As I have already mentioned, the report prepared by the commission as a result of this inquiry was tabled in May last year.

The brief history of Australian South Sea Islanders I have just described is drawn largely from that report.

A lengthy process of consultations with relevant Commonwealth departments and agencies has been undertaken since the tabling of the report.

I am pleased to announce that the government response which I am tabling today proposes a number of positive initiatives.

The government's response is designed to foster a real sense of community amongst Australian South Sea Islanders.

The report acknowledges that Australian South Sea Islanders feel they will not become part of multicultural Australia until they are properly acknowledged with their own special heritage and cultural traditions.

The government fully supports the report's first recommendation which calls for the government's formal recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders as a unique minority group that is severely disadvantaged through racial discrimination.

This government acknowledges that the descendants of Pacific labourers see themselves as quite distinct from other ethnic minorities in Australia.

They are not indigenous, nor are they descended from mainstream settler migrants. Their historical experience in Australia has generally been one of lack of control over their own affairs and exclusion.

In the formal statement I am tabling today the government acknowledges:

the injustices of the indentured system of labour under which the ancestors of Australian South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia and the economic and cultural dislocation suffered by those South Sea Islanders and their descendants;

the severe disadvantage experienced by South Sea Islanders and their descendants; and

their contribution to the culture, history and economy of Australia.

The government's response to the other five recommendations is set out in detail in the formal response. Briefly, the initiatives we are proposing are based on from the recognition of the group as an entity.

The census provided by the report is a good start.

We need to assess how government is servicing the needs of the community. First of all we have named the Australian South Sea Islanders as an access and equity group. This means that all Commonwealth government agencies must include service statistics in their reports.

We are funding two liaison officers for three years to provide the community with organisational support.

We have also decided to commission a small cross-portfolio research project to gather data on Australian South Sea Islanders, which should ultimately help service delivery agencies in identifying the community needs. I am seeking to have an Australian non-government organisation take up this research.

Finally, government agencies should take steps to increase public awareness of South Sea Islanders and their role in Australia's history.

My colleague, the Minister for Development Cooperation and for Pacific Island Affairs has earlier today announced details of initiatives that are outlined in the government response. These directly address some of the needs identified in this recommendation.

When my predecessor asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to conduct an inquiry into the situation of Australian South Sea Islanders, it was an important first step in the process of recognising their existence and examining their special needs.

This initiative demonstrates the Commonwealth government's commitment to making social justice a reality for all Australians.

It is also about all Australians celebrating their particular heritage and having their contribution to this country recognised.

I would like to think that the steps the government is taking mark a new chapter in the history of Australian South Sea Islanders.

Mr President, I table the government's response to this important report.

Government Response to the Report on the Situation of Australian South Sea Islanders—Parliamentary Statement by the Attorney-General

I am today responding to the Report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, A Call for Recognition, A Report on the Situation of Australian South Sea Islanders (the Report). The Report is based on a census taken of the Australian South Sea Islander community. This census was used to gather enough data to paint a statistical sketch of the community. The evidence gathered indicates that Australian South Sea Islanders are disadvantaged in many ways.

2.  The broad conclusions of the Report are that:

  (a)South Sea Islanders have suffered from a century of racial discrimination and harsh treatment which are the major factors contributing to their being in a state of disadvantage today. In fact, the statistical profile indicates that they are one of the poorest groups in Australia.

  (b)South Sea Islanders as a group are in a situation of high need, with particular difficulties observed in school retention, employment skills, home ownership and health.

  (c)until recently, it has been relatively easy and common for South Sea Islanders to access a broad range of government programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  (d)Governments have denied South Sea islanders recognition as a distinct minority group.

  (e)as South Sea Islanders are now being denied access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, they are forced into mainstream programs which are seen by them to be culturally inappropriate, with the result that they are not used

3.  The Report makes 6 general recommendations concerning both Federal and State matters. The Prime Minister has referred the Report to the States so that they may consider their responses to it. To date three States have not provided comment on the Report, however those States and Territories which have responded are generally supportive of the recommendations.

4.  Action is being taken in several areas to implement the recommendations of the Report. Below is a more detailed statement of action being proposed on each of the recommendations.

5.  Recommendation 1. The Government should formally recognise Australian South Sea Islanders as a unique minority group which is severely disadvantaged as a consequence of racial discrimination.

6.  POSITION/ACTION: Supported. The descendants of Pacific labourers see themselves as quite distinct from other ethnic minorities in Australia. They are not indigenous, nor are they descended from mainstream settler migrants. Their historical experience in Australia has generally been one of control and exclusion. As an ethnic minority they suffer discrimination yet to date they have not enjoyed any recognition of their special position in Australian society.

7.  The Government recognizes Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic group in Australia with its own history and culture, and acknowledges:

the injustices of the indentured system of labour under which the ancestors of Australian South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia and the economic and cultural dislocation suffered by those South Sea Islanders and their descendants;

the severe disadvantage experienced by South Sea Islanders and their descendants; and

their contribution to the culture, history and economy of Australia.

8.  Recommendation 2. Government agencies should consider whether their programs or activities have particular relevance to Australian South Sea Islanders, and where the programs are not relevant or are culturally inappropriate, the agencies should consult with the South Sea Islander people and take account of their particular needs and wishes. These agencies must take cognisance of the socio-psychological aspects of disadvantage. In particular, agencies providing employment, education, housing and health services should review the application of those programs or the development of new programs aimed at the specific needs of South Sea Islanders.

9.  POSITION/ACTION Supported. Australian South Sea Islanders have not in the past been recognised as a distinct minority group, and so they have not been identified and reported on separately. The Report now provides the government with a census of the group and reports on the group's general socio-economic condition. It does not, however, establish which mainstream services the group accesses, which of those services are considered by the community to be culturally appropriate, and what information could be made available to assist Australian South Sea Islanders to access existing government services. Discussions with Australian South Sea Islander groups have also exposed a need for further consultation with the community.

10.  In order to assist agencies to develop mechanisms to serve Australian South Sea Islander community needs, basic information is required on how governments are currently providing services to these people, and where they are not, why not. A profile of cultural needs in service delivery must also be developed. The Government has decided to undertake a cross-portfolio research project to gather data on Australian South Sea Islanders in order to assist service delivery agencies in identifying their needs and in developing culturally appropriate mechanisms to begin meeting those needs. I am seeking to have an Australian non government organization undertake this research. My Department will jointly fund the research and a steering committee including members from the Department of Human Services and Health and the Department of Employment Education and Training, as well as the Office of Multicultural Affairs and my Department will oversee its progress. The Government will also consider how to best secure a better picture of the South Sea Islander community, including considering whether an ancestry question should be included in the 1996 census form.

11.  A small scale project has been undertaken by the Department of Employment Education and Training, the purpose of which was to consider the current situation of Australian South Sea Islanders in relation to their use of, and access to labour market programs and CES services, and to recommend strategies for improving their access to these services.

12.  In addition several departments have programs in place, or are planning to introduce strategies to assist Australian South Sea Islander communities. For example the Australian South Sea Islander community in Mackay participates in the Department of Social Security's Migrant Advisory Committee, which acts as a forum for providing community groups with information on DSS. The Manager, NSW Area West in the Department of Social Security has arranged for a comprehensive survey to be conducted to obtain data which accurately reflects the situation of Australian South Sea Islanders in that Area. Depending on the outcome of the survey a number of strategies are being considered to improve service delivery to, and staff awareness of, Australian South Sea Islanders.

13.  Another example is from the Department of Human Services and Health which in 1992/3, funded a research project through its Home and Community Care Program, to look at the epidemiology of Australian South Sea Islanders in the Mackay district, with the objective of assisting the planning of better methods to enhance the access of Australian South Sea Islanders to Home and Community Care services.

14.  Recommendation 3. Australian South Sea Islanders should be identified as a high-need group in equal opportunity, access and equity programs, and they should be employed in government agencies dealing directly with the South Sea Islander community, most particularly in the Department of Social Security, CES, and Housing Department offices in Queensland and Northern New South Wales.

15.  POSITION/ACTION Supported. The agencies identified could incorporate in selection criteria relevant skills, knowledge and experience similar to those contained in the Guidelines on Identified Positions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when selecting for positions concerned with delivering services or developing policy relating to Australian South Sea Islanders. It would be expected that Australian South Sea Islander applicants would be able to compete successfully for such positions.

16.  The Office of Multicultural Affairs has indicated that as the agency responsible for the Government's over-arching Access and Equity program, it has made Australian South Sea Islanders a target group. OMA will report to the Prime Minister on the Australian South Sea Islander position with regard to Access and Equity in its 1994 Annual Report.

17.  Recommendation 4. The Government should, as soon as possible, make available to Australian South Sea Islanders, schemes comparable to Abstudy and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational support programs currently provided by the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET), with the development and (where appropriate) the implementation of such schemes to be the responsibility of DEET.

18.  POSITION/ACTION Supported. The government believes that completion of formal education is of great importance in overcoming the disadvantage suffered by individual Australian South Sea Islanders. Since Abstudy became available in the 1970's about one-third of Australian South Sea Islanders have received it while completing their education. Presently over 60% of 13-19 year old Australian South Sea Islanders report receiving it. Australian South Sea Islanders suffer very similar educational disadvantage to urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australian South Sea Islander people will be severely disadvantaged by the removal of the de facto access to Abstudy which they presently enjoy. I am proposing to defer consideration of the scholarship needs of Australian South Sea Islanders until the results of the new research project are known.

19.  Recommendation 5. The Government should make a specific allocation in the 1993-94 Budget for the provision of culturally appropriate programs for Australian South Sea Islanders and organisations (such as programs to include housing, legal, child care and financial services). Community development workers could be employed through Grant-In-Aid type programs to liaise between South Sea Islanders and mainstream services, provide organisational assistance so that South Sea Islanders are better able to continue examination of their past and present situation, and present cogent arguments to governments for action as and where required.

20.  POSITION/ACTION Supported. The Government believes that access to community development assistance for Australian South Sea Islanders and their organizations is a significant need which must be addressed. Funding, of $80,000 per annum, shall be provided for three years to pay for two community liaison officers and provide some necessary travel expenses for them. This initiative will be a co-operative venture with the relevant State authorities providing infra-structure support.

21.  Recommendation 6. The Government and relevant government agencies should take steps to increase public awareness of South Sea Islanders and their role in Australia's history, including through inclusion in school curricula, preservation of South Sea Islander historical sites and archival material (including oral histories).

22.  POSITION/ACTION Supported. The Minister for Development Cooperation and for Pacific Island Affairs will announce separately, details of a number of initiatives which directly address some of the needs identified in this recommendation.

23.  The first of these is the establishment of a Cultural Awareness Awards Scheme, to be funded under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's International Cultural Relations Program, to assist Australians of South Sea Islanders descent to visit their countries of family origin in the South Pacific to research traditional customs and genealogy, and to use this knowledge for the benefit of their home communities in Australia. It is intended that the Scheme, which will commence in 1994/95, will help to meet the need, identified in the HREOC Report, for Australian South Sea Islander communities to re-establish family and cultural links with the South Pacific islands from which their families originated, as part of a process of developing and reinforcing their sense of cultural identity and in helping to keep alive South Sea Islander culture within Australia. It is proposed that the scheme will be run in consultation with the Australian South Sea Islander community.

24.  Secondly, funding support of a total of $75,000 over two years has been approved under AIDAB's Development Education Special Projects Scheme, for the development of a special curriculum package for Australian South Sea Islanders in Queensland, by the Queensland Department of Education. This initiative will provide historical and contemporary Australian South Sea Islander cultural education materials for early childhood, primary and secondary school students.

25.  The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is also funding the development of a photographic and ethnographic public exhibition depicting the history and development of Australian South Sea Islanders. The exhibition will open later this year and will tour selected centres in Australia during 1994 and 1995. After this, with further funding support from the Department's International Cultural Relations Program, the exhibition will also tour key centres in Pacific countries. It is proposed that the photographic component of the exhibition would afterwards be gifted to the Australian South Sea Islander community for permanent housing at an agreed venue.

26.  The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is also proposing to arrange, with funding support from OMA and in co-operation with the Queensland Government, the restoration of two old community buildings in Bundaberg with a historical association with the South Seas Evangelical Church. The Church originated in Bundaberg and is marking its centenary in 1994. It is proposed that, the restored buildings be used by the local Australian South Sea Islander community in Bundaberg for church and for general community purposes. The project would be closely relevant to the

need, identified in Recommendation (6) of the HREOC Report, to preserve Australian South Sea Islander historical sites in Australia.


Senator SHERRY —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the statement and response.