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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 924

Senator WOODLEY (6.10 p.m.) —The report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on the situation of Australian South Sea Islanders was presented to the then Attorney-General, Mr Michael Duffy, on 20 January 1993. It was tabled in the Senate on 10 May 1993. The report was entitled The call for recognition, which aptly sums up the situation outlined in the report and the conclusions and recommendations.

  It must be said at the outset that the length of time taken by the government to respond to the report is inexcusable. I realise that the Attorney-General's Department has had to liaise with a number of other government departments in formulating its response, but that should not be an excuse for leaving the issue hanging for so long. The report makes clear that Australia's South Sea Islander community is in a situation of high need, with particular difficulties in school retention, employment skills, home ownership and health. The report was clear and succinct and provided only six recommendations. It should not have been too hard for the government to respond to these much more quickly than it has.

  One of the recommendations was for a specific allocation to be made in the 1993-94 budget for various programs for South Sea Islanders and organisations. Not only was this not addressed in the 1993-94 budget but it was also absent in this year's budget, well over a year after the report was originally presented.

  The report makes clear that Australia's South Sea Islanders have suffered from a century of racial discrimination and are significantly disadvantaged as a result. It is for this reason that it is so crucial that they are officially recognised as a distinct minority group and therefore provide the assistance which the Racial Discrimination Act offers to such groups. For example, on page 69 of the report there is a call for recognition. It reads:

The call for recognition is the most fundamental and most often expressed demand of South Sea Islanders. They report of many ways in which they are described as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and want to be recognised as a distinct racial group. One simple example pointed out by John Clubb of Innisfail is that three Australian servicemen who died in Vietnam and were described in press reports as Torres Strait Islanders were in fact South Sea Islanders—Francis Fewquandie, Norman Womal, and Noel Harold. This confusion with other races continually belittles the South Sea Islanders, who feel that they played their part in developing Australia and are now ignored or forgotten.

I visited Mackay in April this year and had a meeting with one of the prominent groups of South Sea Islanders in that city. That is where the largest group of South Sea Islanders exists in this nation today. The obvious pride that they have in their own culture and history is embodied in the meeting place where we gathered on a Sunday afternoon where they pressed me very hard on a number of the issues which are raised within the report. They certainly were well aware of the report. They were very keen that the report should be pursued and the recommendations put before the parliament and enacted, and that practical support for those recommendations should be given.

  We need to examine the statement that the government has made against the recommendations, especially in terms of funding which is being provided. It is good to recognise the South Sea Islanders as a separate race. It would be a very ironic situation if, in recognising them as a separate race, that was to their financial detriment. It would in fact be a tragedy if they were less able to access the support services currently available to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. It seems to me that the $80,000 which has been mentioned as the initial grant by the government is really only equal to the salary of perhaps two community workers and the many other needs that are mentioned in this report really are not at all covered by that amount of money. So my concern is a very real one that the government will recognise the report and the recommendations which are made and make appropriate funding.

  I mention also that recently for the second time in Mackay the community building which was built by and on behalf of the South Sea Islanders was burnt down. The suggestion is that it was done by arsonists and possibly as an expression of the racism of some very misguided people in that city. I do not know what the result of investigations has shown in that regard but I hope that as these people establish their own place within our nation they will be able and allowed to make the kind of contribution that I know they are capable of making. For these reasons I commend the report and the government's response to the Senate.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.