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Thursday, 9 May 1957


Mr BRYANT (Wills) . - I am gratified that the House sufficiently realizes the importance of this matter to allow a discussion on it to take place. 1 hope that very important and influential people will take part in the debate and that, in doing so, they will remember that this is a human problem, and not a party political matter. It is a matter for which, perhaps, we all have to accept responsibility. It is time that this Commonwealth Parliament, with the resources at its disposal and the authority behind it, took steps to overcome the dis abilities which the aborigines have suffered since we first landed on this continent 170 years ago. I do not point the finger at any particular government. I say that this matter is the responsibility of all of us. The neglect of the aborigines goes back many years. About 120 years ago, Governor Gipps took violent action against certain citizens of New South Wales at Liverpool Plains. On the afternoon of Sunday, 10th June, 1838, a number of citizens suddenly surrounded a place where more than 30 blacks were assembled. The aborigines were tied to a rope in the way that convicts were sometimes tied, and marched away and killed. Governor Gipps, much to the horror of some people at the time, took action, and the men concerned were executed. He gave notice that, in future, whether a man was black or white, his rights were the same. It is not a matter of citing statistics of the things we give the aborigines, or of proving how much we spend on social services for them. It is a question of whether they receive the same " go " in this community as white people receive. It is our responsibility to see that they do. We know perfectly well, of course, that we do not spend as much on them as we do on ourselves. We do not do the things for the aboriginal people that we do for the white people. It is incumbent upon us here to-day to consider this matter and see what we can do about it.

The problem of the aborigines goes back to the beginning of our settlement here. Turning back the story of the aborigines, I found a report of a man who had been sent out to the government service in Victoria, in 1839. On 30th August of that year, he wrote - and this could have been written two months or twelve months ago -

I am distressed for the blacks - I cannot feed them as I would - I have no clothing for them - I find I shall be obliged to relinquish giving them flour as my stock is growing short. What a disgrace it is that the government makes no provision for them!

That was nearly 120 years ago. We come to 1915, and a request to the Government from churches to investigate the matter. In 1939, the present Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen), who was then Minister for the Interior, defined the policy of the government in this matter. He is a man of goodwill in this respect, as are most Australians although, for reasons which are perhaps beyond their control, they are prevented from taking action. This is what the Minister said then -

To this end 1 have envisaged a long range policy. A commencement must be made, however, and every step in the routine must be deliberately and conscientiously directed to the ultimate goal . . In considering our obligations to raise the status of these people, one must not think in terms of years but of generations. The policy is framed to define a final objective and to reconcile the long march towards that objective with the obligation to give immediate care and attention to the needs and training of these people.

The longer that is going to take, the more urgent it is for us to start now. That is why I hope that we shall be able to arrive at some conclusion, and that the House will express its support for this matter.

The aborigines of this country probably have never had a decent standard of living. If we turn back the pages of history, we shall see that Dampier regarded the aborigines as of a very low order of human beings. However, I know, from experience of teaching aboriginal children in schools, that it is possible to assimilate them and to enable them to take their part as useful citizens. If that can be done for one or two, it can be done for thousands. This Parliament has a responsibility to deal with the matter, particularly in respect of social services. In the course of answers to questions which I have addressed to various Ministers recently, I have received information explaining the general line that the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck) has adopted. I do not blame the Minister for the neglect that has occurred. I do not claim to be an expert on matters pertaining to aborigines, but from the answers to the questions that I have asked, it is obvious that more could be done for them. Of course, in the Northern Territory, where this matter is a Commonwealth responsibility, and because the financial and other resources of the Commonwealth are available, the job is done best. Because of the resources available, there is no doubt that this Government is able to do a better job than can the State governments. The Commonwealth, under section 96 of the Constitution, could make grants to the States, but it does not do so.

In order to come within the scope of the social services legislation, an aboriginal must conform to certain standards. In Victoria, an aboriginal mother may receive maternity allowance if the Director-General of Social

Services is satisfied. Does that restriction apply to any other Australian mother? Do such restrictions apply to the ordinary Australian citizen? 1 do not think they do. A white Australian, by virtue of being born here, or merely because he is a human being, is entitled to these things. I say that aborigines also should be so entitled.

Similar conditions apply in respect of unemployment benefits. An aboriginal native may be paid unemployment benefit if, by reason of his character and the standard of his intelligence, he is entitled to it. Do we apply a standard of intelligence to any other Australian who seeks unemployment benefit? I admit that the Department of Social Services is administered effectively, and that in most matters it makes benefits quickly available, but I submit that these restrictions should not exist. Similar conditions apply to the payment of invalid and other pensions to aborigines. In my opinion, it is our duty to take steps, as the result of constructive discussion between ourselves, to see what we can do to improve the lot of the aborigines. A long-term policy is called for, as the present Minister for Trade stated nearly twenty years ago.

I wish now to comment on the wages that are paid to aborigines. In the Northern Territory aboriginal workers are relatively well treated, although I understand that they are not paid wages at the same rate as the white people are paid. In the course of an answer to a question which I asked the Minister for Territories recently, the following appeared: -

Many aboriginal workers, as a result of their own bargaining with employers-

I am surprised that that is approved - are paid more. There are numerous cases of stockmen receiving £4 a week plus food, clothing, tobacco and keep of their dependants and in some cases they receive £7 a week.

Apparently, these people are almost capable of earning half the basic wage! The answer continued -

In urban employment domestics earn from £l to £2 a week with everything found.

Is not that wonderful! Admittedly, if there were no ordinance, and if it were not for the paternal outlook of the Government, the aboriginal workers probably would be paid nothing. Wc have heard of distressing cases of that kind in the last few years. The Minister's answer went on -

The minimum wage for aborigines employed by Administration departments in Darwin was increased recently from £2 per week to £3 10s. per week plus food, clothing, tobacco and accommodation. At the same time the casual rate was ^increased from 2s. 6d. an hour to 4s. as hour.

We do not apply these tests and restrictions to the white people in Australia. They do not have sub-standard wages. Their entitlement to social services is clear. It is our duty to attempt to fit these people into the community in the manner to which they are entitled. We must accept, first of all, the fact that, as human beings, they are entitled to the same rights as we are, whether those rights be financial, economic, or even electoral. On the whole, I think it is fair to say that we have treated the whole problem in an offhand fashion.

I turn now to a recent South Australian report on this subject and its reference to statistics concerning aborigines. Imagine the great care that we take to compile statistics concerning the activities of white people, and of the population generally. The South Australian report stated that although attempts had been made on several occasions to obtain an accurate census of the number of aborigines in South Australia, it had been found extremely difficult to do so, mainly on account of the nomadic habits of the natives. Is South Australia, or Australia, for that matter, so huge that it is impossible for that to be done? Does not that bear out my contention that, in many respects, the aborigines are treated offhandedly as being slightly sub-human and of little account when it comes to the important matter of keeping the records of the country straight.

These are matters arising from neglect by every one of us. People have been agitating for a century to have the lot of the aborigines improved, but relatively little has been done. I do not think that, no matter what the Minister may say, the Government can deny the continuing shortages, the hunger, the starvation and the privation among the aborigines of the Warburton Ranges. Even if there were only one aboriginal in the Warburton Ranges hungry, it would be a case for urgency. Some of them perhaps do not even have enough water.

These are matters that cannot be brushed aside by reports, or by the figures that the Minister quoted a moment ago. He said that £600,000 was spent annually on social services for aborigines. That amount works out at about £10 or £12 a head of the aboriginal population. But expenditure on social services for the population generally works out at about £20 a head, and when the per capita cost of services, such as education, medical benefits, hospitalization and so on is added to that figure, the total would probably be about £40 a head. Examination of the budgets of the States shows that the average rate amounts to about £15 a head for each aboriginal in respect of the provision of services and administration. That amount, of course, is much less than the amount we spend on administration for the benefit of Australians generally.

I suggest that we examine the Social Services Consolidation Act closely and remedy its deficiencies. By that 1 mean that we should remove the restrictions and exclusions that apply to our aboriginal population. If there are 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 aborigines incapable of looking after their own financial affairs, then we should appoint trustees to act on their behalf. A white person in our community who is incapable of work, as a result of invalidity, receives the appropriate pension. If an aboriginal is unable to take his place in our white community because of the disabilities of his background and ancestry and so on, an amount equal to that which we spend in respect of a white person so placed should be set aside to raise the standard of living of that aboriginal, to educate his children, and so on. So, I recommend that positive action be taken on the part of the rehabilitation service of the Department of Social Services. If we can spend £4. or £5, a week in providing for a pension to a white invalid unable to work in the community because of a physiological or psychological disability, then a black person whose disabilities are ancestral in character should be treated in the same way. I am certain that the Austraiian taxpayers would willingly pay taxes for this purpose.

The other point 1 wish to make is that power to control native affairs should reside in this Parliament. Section 96 of the Constitution has its limitations. Under it, the States bear the burden in relation to aborigines. The States that bear most of that burden are Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland and, to a smaller degree, New South Wales. Those States could well be asked to refer power over native affairs of the Commonwealth. The exclusion of Commonwealth power over native affairs, which was written into the Constitution 56 years ago, will have to be overcome. 1 suggest, as a first step, that the Commonwealth should approach the State governments and ask them to cede to it the power to administer aboriginal affairs. I hope that the Constitution Review Committee, which is now engaged in taking evidence on constitutional reform, will recommend that the Commonwealth seek power from the States to control aborigines on an Australia-wide basis.

There are no aborigines in my electorate, but 1 believe that the people of Brunswick, Coburg, Heidelberg and Cheltenham, in Melbourne, have as much responsibility for the care of the aborigines of the Warburton Ranges as have the people who live in the suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. The accident of State boundaries should not enable us to avoid our responsibility in this respect. During the recent parliamentary recess I visited Dimboola, in Victoria. The small community there is attempting to rehabilitate the local aborigines. I say that such work is not the responsibility of the people of Dimboola. Those people are to be respected and congratulated for what they are doing, but I believe that the responsibility belongs to all of us. The final responsibility must, as a matter of logic, lie with this Parliament, and I hope that this debate to-day will be the first step towards our making a constructive, long-range plan to absolve us from the blame attachable to us for neglect of aborigines over the last 170 years.







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