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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 941

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:26): Before this debate was interrupted by question time, I was indicating to the Senate that I, like my colleagues, will be supporting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012.

I mention, for those listening to this debate, that speakers get a maximum of 20 minutes to contribute on the bill. Just before two o'clock, when I started my contribution, I indicated my support for the bill. I also took the opportunity at that time, when all of the government ministers were in here preparing for question time, to describe a situation in Townsville. We hear many fine words about recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—and I agree with the need for recognition and I agree with the contents of this bill. There is a situation in Townsville at this very moment that involves Indigenous people, many of whom do not come from Townsville but come from outlying areas up in the gulf and Cape York, some 300 or 400 kilometres from their home base, and do not have big support networks in Townsville.

Until recently those people were able to get a state government sponsored taxi fare to the hospital for renal dialysis. For whatever reason, the state government suspended that program. I do not want to get into the blame game, but this has resulted in a terrible situation for those Indigenous people requiring renal dialysis. There was a community group that had started to transport them—a group of volunteers who convey people around Townsville. Without going into detail, for a number of reasons it became impossible for that not-for-profit community group to continue doing that at no charge. One of these Indigenous people in Townsville has already died, and I am told that four have died since this transport service was stopped.

I took that opportunity just before question time, while ministers were in the chamber, to say: please can you do something about this? If you are really interested in Indigenous people, do something positive that will help bridge the gap that you speak so much about. I asked ministers: please refer the three ministers I wrote to to my letter of 20 February. Have a look at it; please do something urgently.

I thought everyone in this chamber would agree with me. Some of my Labor colleagues shouted at me. I think it was Senator Sterle—if it was not him, I will apologise later; if it was not him, it was one of his colleagues—who said, 'You wouldn't even know what an Aborigine looked like.'

'How dare you raise this in this debate!' I heard another of the Labor senators say. I find that appalling and offensive. It is not offensive to me but to the people that I am trying to help in this chamber.

Why did I raise it here? I raised it because it is now six days ago that I wrote the ministers an urgent plea—not a political plea—to help these people. Why? I had been asked by Indigenous people to help them. I had appeared on the Indigenous radio station 4K1G in Townsville, and I have had two discussions with the presenter about this very issue.

I have had no response from the ministers' offices. Admittedly it is only six days, but this is a matter of life and death. So I take the opportunity to alert the ministers to this critical situation—to say, 'Please do something about it'—and all that happens to me is that I get shouted at by Labor members of parliament. These are the same members who will get up and give very impassioned speeches about Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people, and yet when there is an opportunity to do something to help Indigenous and Islander people all I get is abuse.

Just for the Labor senator who interjected and said, 'You wouldn't know what an Aborigine looked like,' may I say that, unlike most Labor senators, who live in the cities—in the flash houses or apartments—and many of whom went to the flash private schools, I went to a state school. And I grew up with both Aboriginal and Islander kids. I have to confess that I had some problem with Aboriginal and Islander kids because they were always the ones who tackled me hardest at Rugby League. They were the ones who were game winners in basketball, because they were very talented people. They were the ones who would attend parties at my house and win some of the young females that I was trying to deal with. So I find it very offensive that Labor senators suggest that I would not know what an Aborigine looks like.

I only raise these things to say that I have lived and worked with Indigenous people. And I know that the issues that are of interest to Aboriginal and Islander people are not so much the flowery words of apology—although they do play a part—but the need their people suffer as a result of being treated as being different. It started with Whitlam saying, 'Look, we owe you a living. We've wronged you. So don't bother to do anything; we will feed you and clothe you and you won't have to work.' Indigenous leaders now understand—Noel Pearson is one—that the welfare society imposed upon Indigenous people by the Whitlam government and subsequent 'socially conscious' people from the other side of the chamber, is the worst thing that has ever happened to Indigenous people. And their leaders now understand this.

So why couldn't some of the time and money that we have spent on this particular bill, which I think everyone agrees with—everything spent on all the committees, inquiries and other costs—be put into transport for Indigenous people requiring renal dialysis in Townsville? And I am sure the same thing happens everywhere else.

I return to the bill before us. As I said earlier, this bill says:

(1) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Whilst I am supporting the bill for its symbolism, I have to say that I think most Australians actually understand that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The bill goes on to record:

(2) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters.

I think there would be few, if any, Australians who need an act of parliament to inform them of that. And I think most Indigenous people accept that every other Australian accepts those two things.

And, of course, the bill goes on to say:

(3) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Again, I think most Australians, without this bill, would have accepted, acknowledged and respected those cultures, languages and the heritage. And I think most Indigenous and Islander people also accept that other Australians accept that.

So, whilst this is symbolism—whilst it is, I guess, a step in the right direction—I do not think it is the most important issue that confronts our country as it deals with Indigenous people. The Labor Party talks a lot about closing the gap, but it never seems to happen. Even last week a woman—she was half Aboriginal and half Islander; she proudly told me her family history—came into my office and said, 'Please, Senator, can you help me. We've always voted Labor because the Labor Party come and promise us everything. They've been doing it for 20 years. They keep giving us the same promise every year and we keep voting for them, but nothing ever happens. Can you please make sure something happens.' She was speaking in relation to the protection of children in trouble.

I do not want to be political about this, but if you look at the results in the Queensland election you will see that places like Palm Island—an Indigenous community off Townsville—for the first time ever, had a majority vote for the LNP.

We usually used to get five or 10 per cent of the vote on Palm Island. This year on first preference we got 48 per cent, from memory, and on two-party preferred an enormous vote. Have a look at what happened in the Northern Territory election. Indigenous people understand that the Labor Party is all talk and very little action.

The coalition and the Liberal Party, of which I am a member, are very proud of our involvement with Indigenous people, particularly with Indigenous people in parliament. We do not need 'captain's picks' to get Indigenous people to parliament. We have had Indigenous people approach us, become part of the party and stand for preselection against all other comers.

Eric Deeral, I remember, was the first Indigenous member in a state parliament. He came from the electorate of Cook, which includes Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands. I think Eric was a Cooktown person. I did know him. He was a member of the National Party in the Queensland parliament. Of course, my friend and colleague Neville Bonner was the first Indigenous person to ever set foot in this parliament of Australia. Again, he was a guy who got here on his own merits, not by a 'captain's pick'. He was selected by members of the Liberal Party as the best person for that position. I often recount and well recall how Nev Bonner stayed at my flat one time before I was married. I warned him that it was a flat that did not have all that good a reputation for parties and those sorts of things, but he was happy to spend the night in my flat and I was honoured that he did. He was a very fine man. Ken Wyatt is another Indigenous person who is currently a member of the House of Representatives and who is a very significant person. Whether he is Indigenous or anything else, he is a real achiever and a real leader. I am delighted that he is a member of our party. I remember even the Democrats had an Indigenous senator at some time.

The Labor Party have never had it in their souls to select an Indigenous person, so the Prime Minister has had to have a so-called 'captain's pick'—overturning one of the Labor senators who, I have to say, has done more for the Indigenous communities than any other Labor politician I can remember. She has been thrown over so that the Prime Minister's Indigenous 'pick' could take her place in the Senate. As with all of these things, actions speak louder than words. I am, as I say, delighted that I have known Indigenous people who have represented all Australians in state and federal parliaments of this country.

This bill does hopefully take reconciliation further, but I keep saying the best form of reconciliation is to give Indigenous people the same opportunities that every other Australian has: a good education; a good opportunity to get a job and become a member of our community—not someone different, not someone who needs special attention, but someone who has the same opportunities as every other Australian. That is the important challenge. Sure, apologies take the fancy of the media but they do not, in effect, do a hell of a lot for a very disadvantaged group of people in a country as lucky as Australia. I look forward to the day when an Abbott government—should we be elected at the next election—can continue the process of real advancement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this lucky country and land of plenty.