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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 94


Senator JOHNSTON (4:13 PM) —May I say in response to this motion that the Commonwealth does assume and accept a responsibility to show national leadership to reduce rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people and has delivered substantial outcomes in that regard since being elected in 1996. The government continues to be focused on this issue. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the states, particularly state Labor governments in Queensland and Western Australia. In those states there has been complete lethargy with respect to a whole host of Aboriginal matters. Deaths in custody have been approached in a half-hearted, lackadaisical manner. Indeed, broad reports dealing with Aboriginal domestic violence and child abuse in Western Australia have been approached in a very untimely fashion. These are matters of great concern to the Commonwealth government and to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Senator Amanda Vanstone.

The government does not support this motion. The motion is simplistic in its response and unrealistic in terms of what is actually happening in Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. With the greatest respect to Senator Ridgeway, I ask: has he actually been to Palm Island? I have been to Palm Island, Senator. I have met with the people and I have seen the infrastructure. I have experienced the difficulties that they experience in accessing services and in their capacity to make some meaning of their lives on Palm Island. I was there last year in October observing the work being carried out there by the Australian Army engineering corps.

Palm Island, as many in this chamber would know, is some 65 kilometres north-east of Townsville. It is home to approximately 3,000 Aboriginal residents. The Palm group of islands is the traditional country of the Manbarra and the Bwgcolman people. The settlement was established in 1918 to replace the Hull River Mission near Tully in north-east Queensland. There are 40 distinct clan groupings on this island, so it is a grouping of disparate, dispossessed people. That is one of the roots of the problem on Palm Island.

I was there observing the performance of the Australian Army. They had constructed some 20 new homes and assisted in repairing the hospital and the roads, including the airport access road. It had been a most successful program. They had spent some $10 million making a substantial contribution to the lives of the people and their ability to gain employment. I saw the 20 purpose-built homes and I met the people who were going to live in them. I saw the upgrade and repair of the island's water treatment plant. I saw the upgrade, repair and installation of adequate drainage to Wallaby Point and Butler Bay; the provision of ablution facilities at the youth centre and the sports centre; the repair and upgrade of the access road; the beautification and installation of pathways at the children's playground adjacent to the main town site; and the refurbishment of the island's aged care facilities. Over 140 patients were being treated by the Royal Australian Navy dental team when I was there. I sat down with these people and I asked them: what is the principal overriding concern of people living on Palm Island? Their answer was, as one, very simple: `We do not have a job. We are looking for employment. We are desperate to find a meaningful job so that we can support our families.'

The fact is the Queensland government has been sitting on its hands with Palm Island for far too long and this problem has been waiting to happen. I call upon the Premier of that state to conduct a meaningful inquiry that these people can relate to with respect to the death of the man in question. When you have 40 disparate tribal groups dispossessed and placed on an island for as long as they have been, and who are utterly dependent upon welfare, this is the nub of the problem. They have got no self-esteem, no motivation and no desire to branch out and do anything meaningful given the dependency that they have been subjected to for such a long time. I call upon the Queensland government to not simply say that this is a matter of law and order; it is not. It is a much deeper problem, one which it, sadly, has been neglectful of. These people, as I say, are very keen to find jobs.

In many of the Army projects, the attendance record of the 40-odd Palm Islanders who were training and acquiring proper TAFE certificates was invariably 100 per cent. That sends the clear message to me as an observer that these people are wanting to get on with their lives and do something purposeful, and they cannot. The island has very limited opportunities. There are a host of proposals—indeed, I put some ideas in the minds of the ATSIC people who provide services to that island. Nothing much has happened, obviously, and it is of great concern to me.

I am convinced that, with a very small amount of lateral thinking and effort on the part of the Queensland government, things can be changed on Palm Island, but there needs to be some political will. I observed both in native title in Queensland and on Palm Island no political will whatsoever from the Queensland government to engage these people and put them on the right path. It has been left to the Commonwealth government through this plan and AACAP for the Australian Army to go there with the Navy to attempt to provide some form of assistance and support to these people.

I come back to the wider problem, and this motion talks of race riots in Redfern and on Palm Island. On my part, the beginning point to addressing Aboriginal issues is compassion. We must have compassion for Aboriginal and Indigenous people in this country, but it is not a one-way street. There must be a reciprocal discipline disclosed in each community in each part of Aboriginal culture that says, `We are unhappy about spending the rest of our days utterly dependent upon government handouts.'

I celebrate Noel Pearson's and so many of his fellow travellers' attitude to that in this area. It is time. The minister, to her great credit, has bitten the bullet and said, `If you do not send your kids to school, you will not go to the swimming pool. If you do not get a uniform and if you do not participate and enrol your children in education and start assuming some responsibility then there will be no government support.' This, I must say, is long overdue. Senator Ridgeway, I share many of your sentiments with respect to what has happened on Palm Island—be in no doubt, I share them—but it is not a one-way street and some responsibility and leadership—that good old word—as you have enunciated today, has to come forward.

The dependency and the frustration that flows from that requires leadership from Aboriginal people. `Self-determination' has simply been a euphemism for the strongest dominating the weakest in Aboriginal communities. The levels of domestic violence, criminal violence and unemployment in Aboriginal communities are unrivalled and unparalleled around Australia. When we say that in order to receive government largess you have to get up off the ground and do something to earn it, you have to work for the dole, so many people are up in arms saying `This is not right.' Let me tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President, it is right. The government has come to the conclusion that the ATSIC fantasy of spending money and living high on the hog while the people at the bottom of the ladder get nothing is coming to an end. (Time expired)