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Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
06/07/2018
Matters relating to constitutional change

BECK, Ms Gail, Regional Development Manager, South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council

[15:28]

CHAIR: Welcome.

Ms Beck : I was part of the first round of consultation. I then went to Uluru and was invited to come along here, but I really don't understand the whole process.

CHAIR: That was the national consultation conducted by the Referendum Council?

Ms Beck : Yes.

CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Ms Beck : I would like to see change. I would like to see us as Aboriginal people in Australia have a voice. I believe we have an enormous amount of gifts to give not only to parliament but to the people of Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you. You said you were part of the regional dialogue here in Perth?

Ms Beck : Yes.

CHAIR: And then you went to Uluru?

Ms Beck : Yes.

CHAIR: Could you tell us what the discussions were like, and, particularly, how people came to a sense of what were the priorities in the list of matters that was on the discussion table?

Ms Beck : There were 120 people approximately who attended. We had some of the mob from Yamatji country come down, because they missed out on theirs, and also some from the Goldfields—so it wasn't strictly Noongars only. The discussion was really quite robust; there was a lot of passion in the room. People were talking about having a similar system to New Zealand, where we've actually got seats in parliament, and then there was talk about how this was all going to happen. Then we had the experts in, the referendum people. A lot of people didn't really understand that, and I was one of them. I guess most of us in the room were there for change, and there was anger in the room that a lot of the past policies have created the mess we're in today. They were policies created without our people at the table, even at the concept stage.

The big takeaway for me was: we want change, we deserve change, and we want to be sitting at the table where people are making decisions about us. I guess we've had enough of people making decisions about us without us being at the table. I will be attending the social services workshop, from the Commonwealth government, and they're talking about collaborating. They've shown the research on our people, and everything in the research for the past 70 years—of that, 30 years is mine and 40 years is the elders—are the solutions we've been trying to give. I'm feeling that the majority of the people in the room want to be at the table to create that change. We need a voice.

Then there were discussions about, 'Oh, there's a lot of people like Mr Dodson and others that are in parliament but the problem with that is, yes, you're representing our mob but you're not really—you're representing the party, so, therefore, you've got to toe the party line, so to speak.' This is where we had a lot of discussion about, 'Wouldn't it be good if we had our own people at the table who are there for our people, not the party.'

CHAIR: So, to have an independent set-up that could talk to the parliament about matters that directly affect First Nations people?

Ms Beck : Yes. There was also lots of talk about how we could bring the nation together because we haven't really celebrated, I don't believe.

CHAIR: Did you discuss that as important only at the national level or was that important at a state and a local level?

Ms Beck : That was discussed at our meeting here. At the national level, that was discussed as well. At Uluru, that was all discussed as well but we broke up into areas that we were passionate about. Of course I went to the area where we stand alone, where we have our own—I was hoping that we would get seats in parliament, like New Zealand.

CHAIR: Was there a focus on the state government, as it were, because the state controls most of these services and delivers the criminal justice system?

Ms Beck : No, it was all around recognition in the Constitution. Personally I see this dialogue we're having now as an opportunity—and I heard the other people—to bring all tiers of government together to create change. I don't understand a lot about the Westminster system and the way parliament works, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we all worked together? I know that's one of the pushes from the departments of the Commonwealth.

CHAIR: Out of the Uluru statement came the question of truth telling. Was that seen as an important way to bring people together?

Ms Beck : Yes.

CHAIR: What was in the minds of people?

Ms Beck : There are a lot of Australians who actually don't understand the journey that our First Nations people have been on. I was fully involved in the reconciliation decade. It was brilliant the moment you changed the mindset of people who came into the room. Their mindset totally changed. There was a ripple effect and they went and dispelled the myth out there that we got free everything. I don't want to believe that we're a racist country. I think we have a lot of ignorant people. This is where the truth telling came out. We need to be able to change the history books and tell the truth. The oldies that I've spoken to over the years said that it wasn't about anything else but making their pain real. That's what the truth telling was all about—getting our history out there and changing it.

CHAIR: Did people have any models or ways in which to embark upon the truth-telling process? I know the makarrata is a concept that was proposed. Were there other things discussed around that?

Ms Beck : Not really. They were really focusing on the voice. The truth telling, no—I took from it that that would come when the others are in place.

CHAIR: And by 'the others' you mean entrenchment in the Constitution and in the legislation?

Ms Beck : Yes, because that would enable the truth to be told.

CHAIR: Do you think the consultation process was different to any other process?

Ms Beck : I think the process was good but too quick. I think there should have been a bit more. It was a bit of hit and miss. I'm not saying that disrespectfully. I think it would have been better to have more people at the table, because this is a pretty big challenge for us. I get that everyone has time frames, but it would have been nice to have had some of our younger generation in the room, because they're our future. I think I could count on one hand how many were in the room here in Perth. At Uluru there was a cohort of 30 maybe. The young ones coming through are pretty deadly. I think that locally we could've probably done it better.

CHAIR: If I can just go to the voice idea, how did people envisage this voice interacting with the parliament? Did they see them coming along and talking in the chambers, making a report to the parliament in some way or another, or talking to a minister or to cabinet?

Ms Beck : Being at the table.

CHAIR: There are many tables of the parliament.

Ms Beck : Yes. Being at all of them.

CHAIR: At all of them, okay. Some you won't be able to be at—

Ms Beck : I know.

CHAIR: like the Speaker's table.

Ms Beck : Yes. Like I said, I don't understand the structures, and it's all just too complicated for me. I've always worked on the outside fight.

CHAIR: We don't even understand it, there are that many structures.

Ms Beck : In the talk that I heard, it was more about the structure to get into parliament. I didn't really like it. It was like a bit of an ATSIC structure, and certain people that sat there got to talk. I wasn't really keen on that, personally, but that could be tweaked.

CHAIR: Were there discussions about how to keep faith with what was raised at a local level—the concerns of people who don't have a voice in many ways? How would it be ensured that their voices would be heard as well as the voice to the parliament?

Ms Beck : There was a lot of heated discussion about that. How do we feed it through and up? Your previous speakers spoke a little bit about it. There was talk from the grassroots people about how we get their voice and feed it up. This was where the ATSIC structure came in, that they could do local, regional and state. I speak for the grassroots. They're at the coalface. They're the ones who are really struggling. I believe they need a voice. I don't believe those of us who've had opportunities to work on part of the stolen gen—I've been in the gutter, I didn't want to, but I'm strong. There are some people who aren't. They're our future as well, and they need a voice, so I'd like to see the ability to have their reps at the voice as well. That's a real hard one, because it wasn't really nutted out. Certain groups broke off and did work at night time, but I wasn't on those groups.

CHAIR: I think the report talks about a process being set up for further discussion about all of those detailed things.

Ms Beck : What they did post-Uluru was each region had members. So for Noongar we had two members who went to Uluru, and then they met up with members from around Australia in Sydney and they were going to talk about how we were going to do this. It came back that we have to look at collaboration. For example Noongars would collaborate with the Yamatji mob and the Kalgoorlie-desert mob, because there are our neighbours and we need to do treaties with them. Then we would be a cohort. Then the Yamatji mob would talk with the Kimberley mob. Then I think it all got too hard, because we are all doing it voluntarily. It's really hard.

CHAIR: The parliament, and particularly the Senate, has a whole lot of committees that consult the public on many different things. Committees have to report to the parliament by a certain date that is fixed. Terms of reference set out to report by certain date. Did people discuss how the voice's view to the parliament might be delivered to the parliament and how they would expect the parliament to respond?

Ms Beck : A delegation, I guess to do a presentation like we are now, and expect a response

CHAIR: This may not have been discussed at Uluru or in your discussions, but this is a committee set up by the parliament, by the House of Representatives and the Senate. We've been asked to try and put flesh on matters that have come from Uluru and from previous inquiries, and to look at the effectiveness of how people are consulted now and whether that's giving greater levels of autonomy. Would the parliament be better having a committee that was able to come around and talk to the people in the local and regional areas, allowing those communities to put the agenda to that parliament, rather than the parliament saying, 'This is our agenda and we want to talk to you about this'? If we had a notification process that said, 'We're going to come to Perth' and we contacted all the first nations organisations and whomever and said, 'Please submit an agenda by certain date so we can get our heads around it' and we conduct a hearing. People could come along and put their views on all sorts of things, then the parliamentary committee could say, 'This is what's on the parliamentary timetable, on our agendas. What you think about these?' So there's a bit of an interface dialogue. Would that be a useful thing?

Ms Beck : It probably would be, but we don't own it.

CHAIR: No, you don't own it—it's still the parliament.

Ms Beck : We don't own the process. I think that's what a lot of the mob were talking about—being at the table and owning it. It did come up in discussion: 'Hang on—we've got a lot of Aboriginal people in parliament now, and that's a good thing.' But they don't own it, because the party you're with own it. Do you understand what I'm trying to say? We want to be at the table and own it. I see what you're saying. That's a lot of consultation, but that would also leave open for me a lot of gaps. A lot of people could slip through.

CHAIR: Sure. But on the other hand, you can't have 150,000 or 300,000 First Nations people all coming to the parliament and wanting to talk.

Ms Beck : Yes. Setting up a structure to give the 350,000 or so people a voice will be a sticky one too, I believe.

CHAIR: I take your point that it has to be developed in consultation with First Nations so they own it.

Ms Beck : Yes.

CHAIR: We're trying to just get some ideas so that our report may be able to put some options back out there for people to further consider these things. That's all.

Ms Beck : The one thing that did come out quite strongly was that recognition in the Constitution should not be flippant. It shouldn't just be that Aboriginal people are recognised. There has to be meaning behind it. Also, some sections in there should be removed because they're detrimental to First Nations people. There was discussion about that.

CHAIR: Just on the first point, what was intended by saying there has to be something more meaningful in the constitutional recognition? What were people hoping to have in the Constitution?

Ms Beck : That we could gain something. Just having something saying, 'We acknowledge the First Nations people' isn't good enough. The Constitution is your rulebook, so there are still opportunities for the federal parliament and others to make laws about our people and no-one else. They're not happy about that. There's nothing there about making laws about Italian people. They're really concerned about that—that the Constitution has been used as a way to do something that's detrimental to our mob.

CHAIR: Are you talking about the race power?

Ms Beck : Yes.

CHAIR: What was the view in the race power? That it should stay there or be taken out?

Ms Beck : Taken out.

CHAIR: By referendum—that's the only way you can remove it, if you wanted to do that. Was the discussion on how the parliament would then make laws for the benefit or otherwise?

Ms Beck : Why? Why would you make laws about First Nations people and not anyone else? Why are we different?

CHAIR: That's a good question. People ask us that. People say it's because they're First Nations.

Ms Beck : Yes. I get that. But sometimes the laws could apply to everyone else. So why are we focused on? I don't get it. There's ABSTUDY and Austudy. It's the same. Why the divide? We are frightened of the divide that is going to give parliament an opportunity to do some nasty things again. Let's face it—the 129 acts that have been imposed upon us haven't been for our benefit.

CHAIR: My understanding is that that's why people wanted a voice—so that the parliament in isolation couldn't do that. But it's very difficult, if not impossible, to tell the parliament what do under its own powers under the Constitution, unless you write those words specifically, and then they have to be agreed by a referendum et cetera.

Ms Beck : That's what I believe people want—to give us the powers to stop making policies that are going to be detrimental to us.

CHAIR: Do they propose any—

Ms Beck : You would have to ask the experts that were in the room. We did have experts.

CHAIR: The proposal that came from the expert panel, which was in 2012, was that there be a new section for a power to deal with First Nations, a proposed section 51A, and that there be a new head of power to deal with non-discrimination, a proposed section 116A. But we were told that they weren't of any priority in the deliberations.

Ms Beck : I don't recall much about it.

Mr LEESER: Ms Beck, I really appreciate your evidence this afternoon. You reminded me of the diversity of views within the Indigenous community. It's nice to hear you say that you want to do something to bring the nation together to celebrate. It reminded me that we've heard other witnesses say that they don't recognise the authority of the Constitution, and they say that Indigenous people will never give up their sovereignty. You seem to operate from a different perspective.

Ms Beck : I've got my views on sovereignty, but I won't say them here.

Mr LEESER: What do you think we can do to encourage more Indigenous people to want to come together to celebrate Australia in relation to the position of Indigenous people within it and their history and culture?

Ms Beck : What do you think we can do to come together to celebrate?

Mr LEESER: I'm using your phrase about how we should bring the nation together and try to celebrate. We haven't had that opportunity yet.

Ms Beck : No. Truth-telling, to start with. Let's go to something that I think is relatively easy—Australia Day. Change the date. It's a date that separates us as a country. There are suddenly more dates, and we don't have any public holidays in September. You could look at Wattle Day, which we have our colours from. That would be a win. We—I'm saying government and state—have to start showing something in good faith. Like I said earlier, we've always had the solutions. We've been left in a little bit of disrepair because of the 129 acts. A lot of your departments have written report after report after report. The number one big problem in the reports is housing, but the houses are taken from us. How are we going to get better if we don't have a stable home? So I guess there are a lot of areas where we could come together if we get some wins on the board. I don't know if that's your space, but that's a real problem. There's the lack of trust.

Mr LEESER: Our space is really working out the structures by which this might happen, trying to put some meat on the bones.

Ms Beck : You might talk to somebody in parliament.

Mr LEESER: I think that was part of the purpose of the voice proposal, to try to give Indigenous people more of a say in their own affairs. Our job is to try and work out what that could look like. One of the things that I'm very interested in, which I'm not sure whether you're able to talk to us about, is the south-west settlement—the Noongar settlement. Are you able to talk to us a bit about how that came about, what it means and what it entails? One of the things that came out of Uluru is obviously thinking about the process for doing that. I'm interested in process questions. You might be thinking, 'Why is he thinking about process?' It's because process leads us to the structure that we might recommend; secondly, because Uluru talked about agreement making. Tell us your view of the process and then something about the agreement making.

Ms Beck : The south-west settlement came about because if you look at the Noongar people's country, we have a few pinpricks for native title. We have massive amounts of farms, we have towns, we have state forests, national forests and tiny little tenements. For us to win native title on these tiny little tenements would really only give us something close to nothing.

So it was decided, not by our current staff but actually by elders, 'Let's have a look at it.' After my first three months at SWALSC I resigned; I couldn't deal with it. Native title, for me, is the modern day 1905 act. It's just divided our people even more. My boss at the time showed me the letter from Mr Barnett, and I saw opportunities. I saw the opportunities of what a lot of the elders and old people have asked for me to try and do in my space because I'm in community development. I was in that space for 30 years prior to doing this sort of role. I thought, 'Here's an opportunity.'

The big thing we had to do was go out, and there were hundreds and hundreds of meetings with our mob, saying, 'Do you want to negotiate?' The amazing thing was that no-one ever talked about money. Everyone talked about a house, saying, 'Give us a home.' Everyone talked about jobs for their kids, getting the kids out of the toxic city and taking them back home. They talked about getting us back our country, because our mob feel we're not free to walk on our country. There's a lot of fear there about getting fined, which has happened, and then if the fine is not paid you're put in prison when you go on country. That went on for two years, going out and talking to everyone, saying: 'Do you want to negotiate? Show us your special lands.' We took out maps of the region where they pinpointed their special lands, be they cultural, ceremonial, burial or whatever—what was left. Also a lot of people wrote down lands that were part of the state's lost lands. A lot of us had homes and farms, and legislation changed and disenabled us to have that, so it was taken. So people were asking for that back as well.

Then we went into negotiations with the state, which took five years. I'll tell you, it was pretty hard. There was a lot of negative stuff coming from the government as well. They were pretty ruthless, particularly to our elders in the room. We walked away a couple of times. I guess we got the best we could out of a poor act.

Mr LEESER: Is the poor act the Native Title Act?

Ms Beck : Yes. It's a poor act for us. It's a bit different to the desert mob, the Kimberley mob and the Pilbara mob because you've still got vast bits of land out there, and we haven't got anything.

Mr LEESER: So there are about 30,000 Noongar people, is that right?

Ms Beck : Give or take a few.

Mr LEESER: What sort of percentage is currently living on what are traditional Noongar lands?

Ms Beck : To my knowledge, none. What are traditional Noongar lands?

Mr LEESER: Noongar country—are there people that live on the farms? This is Noongar country here in Perth, isn't it? So there are no Noongar people living in Perth?

Ms Beck : I beg your pardon; I misunderstood. Yes, our biggest population is here in Perth. There are probably eight regional towns that are highly populated. Some of our Noongar people have got farms from ILC, but there are caveats over them so they can't get money to grow the farm. But on traditional lands that were ours, no, other than the towns and everything else.

Mr LEESER: So is it fair to say that most of the 30,000-odd people live in—how do you describe Perth? Is it Noongar land? How would you describe Perth as Noongar country? My question goes to: how many of your people live in other parts of Australia that aren't areas that have been Noongar? How did you engage with them?

Ms Beck : Okay, in other parts of Australia. We did fairly big media in the early days. We've got people in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Kimberley, Pilbara, Melbourne, South Australia, a few in New South Wales and a couple in Central Australia. They heard and they got in touch with us. We encouraged them to become a member so then we could send the materials out.

Mr LEESER: What will the agreement mean for you in terms of access to your lands, potential economic prosperity and improved social outcomes? How will it change those things?

Ms Beck : I stayed around because I saw the opportunities to pull us out of the bucket of despair. Our youth are committing suicide faster than a lot of other areas. There is a sense of hopelessness in Noongar country. A lot of people don't understand that Noongars were the first to suffer the full impact of colonisation. There was a lot of brutality around that. There is transgenerational trauma. And I'm not being disrespectful, but a lot of people don't see Noongars as being real Aboriginal people, so therefore a lot of the funding doesn't come here. We're constantly left out of opportunities to sit at the table for funding. For me, this settlement is going to give our people job opportunities. It's going to give our young ones a sense of hope that they could become whatever they want to become. While at the moment it's always the hand out and not the hand up, this is going to give us, in time, our own bank so that we can come to the federal government with $5,000 and say, 'Can you match that?' And it's going to give us a sense of pride and an opportunity to reinvigorate or awaken our cultural knowledge and practices, because they have been asleep for a while.

Mr LEESER: Do you think the agreement in effect draws a line in the sand about the past too, to some degree?

Ms Beck : Draws a line in the sand?

Mr LEESER: Does it say: 'The past is the past. We acknowledge the bad that happened, but the agreement is the end of that period.'

Ms Beck : I think it'll take a while for that to happen. I've got to say that when the Noongar (Koorah, Nitja, Boordahwan) (Past, Present, Future) Recognition Bill became an act here, we had our 60 elders in that room burst into tears. They're the ones that suffered. They're the ones that couldn't go in and have a cup of tea with their white friends. They're the ones that went to war, but they couldn't go and have a beer with their Army mates because they were Aboriginal. For them, that was the best. They said it's the recognition that their pain is real. That's what they got out of that. I think it's going to take us three generations to get over the hurt.

The other major part of this out-of-court settlement for us, well for me in particular, is it's going to give us the opportunity to heal. We've got generations and generations of people who were really hurt, far more than those in the desert and up north because, like I said, we were the ones that suffered the full impact down here, and no-one's really done much about it; it's all just been lip-service or a bandaid.

Mr LEESER: What does the process that you went through tell us about what we might do with the voice or anything else that might come out of this inquiry? What if you were talking to other Aboriginal First Nations about your experience and they said, 'How'd you do what you did with the South West bank settlement? We'd like to think about doing something similar.' What would you tell them to do?

Ms Beck : Consult widely. Even though we've had people take us to court and we've had the naysayers, the majority of Noongars wanted this deal. That's a whole other discussion. But I would say consult widely. I was the one who did the consultations, so I know there were thousands of Noongars consulted. And, out of that, there was a bigger amount of elders.

Mr LEESER: Give me a little bit more detail. What did you do in your consultations?

Ms Beck : Okay. We actually put it to the floor: what would you like to see?

Mr LEESER: So you'd call a meeting and people would come along?

Ms Beck : Yes. We'd give them an update—this is after we'd negotiated a little bit. They already knew we were going to get 300,000 hectares of land plus 20,000 freehold and all that sort of stuff. We spoke about how if they still hadn't told us about land they wanted back, could they let us know. We always went to the meetings with the maps. We went with something to get something back so that the people owned the process.

Mr LEESER: How much expectation management did you do with people? I mean we're never going to go back to a pre-1788 position in Australia, so how do you manage those expectations?

Ms Beck : It was about change. This was an opportunity about change. So we either stayed the same and did the same things and had the same outcome, or we could take a risk and opportunities would come. That's the risk we took. And we've copped a flogging over it; I've got that many spears in my back I was lucky I could walk in the door! But at the end of the day, it wasn't about the individuals, even though some people said it was; we were firm about how this was for all Noongars, and that's why we encouraged people all around Australia to get involved.

This is an opportunity—not for me; I may not see it, particularly as we keep getting pushed out—and this is about our future generations. We're laying the foundation for our future generations. We're so different to other mobs in this state that got their native titles all going towards them. They're small groups generally, whereas we're a really large group. Our land base itself is massive. There's also a mindset out there that where we're sitting here today belongs to Noongars. Yes, it does here, but realistically—there were a lot of those discussions. Yes, it always was and always will be Aboriginal land, but realistically we don't own this. So the lands we get back will be opportunities to grow.

Mr LEESER: I want to take you back to the point that you made that the Native Title Act for some Indigenous people is like the Aborigines Act 1905. How is it like that? How do we avoid those aspects, that make it like the 1905 act in your mind, from creeping into the voice—

Ms Beck : I'm not a lawyer.

Mr LEESER: That's okay.

Ms Beck : I'm just somebody who worked in the space.

Mr LEESER: I suppose what I'm really asking is: what's the real problem with the Native Title Act?

Ms Beck : The real problem is it's setting families against each other.

Mr LEESER: How does it do that?

Ms Beck : Brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles: you know, ego comes in. 'No, you're not the TO, I am'—this TO stuff. Prior to the act really being enacted, particularly here in Perth, we all got on together and we got on with our mobs from the Kimberley and Goldfields because we knew they were elders. We all worked together, and then native title came and blew that away. So we were not only working with other Aboriginal mobs, but with our own mob. I've witnessed it. I've witnessed young people telling their beautiful elders in not such nice ways to shut up and get out of the room. They said it worse than that and I'm going, 'Oh my God,' and they're standing there banging on their chairs saying, 'I'm the TO.' That came from them embracing an act that's really not for us anyway. Let's face it. Let's be truthful here: the Native Title Act wasn't set up for our mob; it was set up for everyone else but us.

Mr LEESER: So when you were putting together the South West land settlement, did you have issues around who was and who wasn't Noongar so far as the negotiations were concerned in terms of trying to work out who you'd consult with and who could sign up and the like?

Ms Beck : No. We had a really good anthropological research team. There were eight of them, so they had a region each. Yes, there was a little bit of further research to be done, but our belief was if you felt you had connection to country we had to let you in anyway. And that's part of the act.

Mr LEESER: So if we're setting up a series of what might be local voices that might feed into regional voices or a national voice, how do we avoid getting into that debate about who is and who isn't?

Ms Beck : Me personally?

Mr LEESER: Yes.

Ms Beck : Leave the native title stuff out of it. The one thing we all have in common is we were all part of 129-plus acts; we were all removed; many of us were abused through the system. We all have the same hurt. Leave that out of it. I feel strongly: don't bring native title into it. Like I said earlier, in my role way before native title, I was working with Torres Strait Islanders, I was working with Kimberley mob and I was working with Pilbara mob in a suburb, and they were deadly mob. Now that suburb don't bring those people together anymore. They were seen as elders. They had the stories, they shared the stories and they guided—excuse me—the little scallywags. And native title ruined that: 'You can't talk here. You're not from here.' And that's really sad for a city.

Mr LEESER: I'm very grateful for your submission this afternoon. Thank you.

CHAIR: Can I thank you for your contribution and—

Ms Beck : Hopefully it helped.

CHAIR: It's very important, and we will weigh it and consider it in our interim report.

If you have further things you wish to put to us, could you do that by 16 July. Our process requires us to deliver a an interim report by the end of July and then we have further work to do until a final report in November. So you've still got plenty of time if you have thoughts about any of these things.

Ms Beck : Good luck.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.