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Thursday, 9 May 1957

Mr HASLUCK (Curtin) (Minister for Territories) . - The Government welcomes an opportunity to discuss this very important social question. Perhaps, we regret that it should have been brought before the House in this particular form, but we certainly do not shirk the occasion to discuss questions of native welfare, nor do we want to avoid any sort of discussion on it. Moreover, I should like to congratulate the honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant) for the studied, non-partisan way in which he has broached this question. His speech reminds me of the fact that on a similar occasion in 1950, when I was a private member sitting on the Government side, I also brought the same topic before the House and, I think, initiated a debate which, as I hope the present debate will be, was some sort of contribution to the understanding by the Parliament, in a nonpartisan way, of what our responsibility is and what our obligations are towards the aboriginal section of our community. 1 do not differ in the least from the emphasis which the honorable member for Wills placed on the fact that when we speak of the aborigines we are speaking of human beings. That has always been a point on which the Government, and I, as Minister for Territories, have insisted - that these are human beings, that we are dealing with a human and social problem. But there is one point which we have to recognize as part of the facts of the case. That is, that this particular group of human beings is living in a wide variety of conditions, and that many of them are living under conditions completely different from those with which most honorable members would be familiar. I would have hoped that the honorable member for Wills might have had longer discussions than I think he has probably had with some of the members of his own party who have a first-hand and close acquaintance with the conditions of aborigines who live in the outback and less closely settled areas. I refer to the honorable members for Leichhardt (Mr. Bruce), the Northern Territory (Mr. Nelson) and Kalgoorlie (Mr. H. V. Johnson), who could have given him vivid and real pictures from first-hand experience, of the primitive and backward conditions in which these people live, not because of anything that has happened as the result of white settlement but because they are a primitive people living in a country and according to customs which, in their primitive state, did not allow them to rise to a higher standard of material welfare. We do have to recognize that fact - that some of them are unacquainted with even the lowest levels of hygiene, that in their natural state their range of foodstuffs was extremely limited, that their acquaintance with what we call economic activity was limited to roaming the country and picking up or hunting their food where they found it. Those are part of the facts that cannot be escaped.

There is a long history of consideration of this subject as between the Commonwealth and the States. 1 will not go any further back than the 1937 conference, initiated under a government of the same political complexion as the present Government. Then there was the 1947 Premiers conference, under a government of the opposite political persuasion, which gave attention to this question. That was followed by a very useful conference presided over by the honorable member for Kalgoorlie who was, at that time, Minister for the Interior, in 1948. That was followed by a further discussion at a Premiers conference presided over by Mr. Chifley in August, 1948. Those conferences have been followed, during the term of the present Government, by a number of other discussions between the Commonwealth and the States with a view to bringing about an improvement of the way in which we, as Australians, in the total, handle this question.

Implicit in the honorable member's proposal for discussion by the House, although he did not develop it to the point of great length in his speech, is the idea that the Commonwealth Government has failed in some way to provide special money for special work among aborigines by the State governments. On that point I want to quote, as expressing the standard view of the Federal Treasury, a statement made by Mr. Chifley at the Premiers conference in August, 1948. He said -

It is not desirable that the Commonwealth should make individual grants for a variety of purposes. It is far better to deal with all these matters together than to deal with them piecemeal. The proposal for assistance on a £l-for-£l basis (for aborigines) is not acceptable. We believe that matters such as this one come within the ambit of the tax reimbursement grant.

That view, expressed by Mr. Chifley, who was then Treasurer as well as Prime Minister, has been the consistent view of all Commonwealth Treasurers: First, that under the Constitution the States have the responsibility to discharge this function; secondly, that any financial assistance should be sought by the States in respect of their whole budgetary position and not in respect of one single administrative responsibility; and thirdly, that if special assistance were granted for this, that or some other special purpose, it would lead to a very considerable problem in trying to distinguish and sort out the various applications that would come from the States for help on this, that or the other thing. In fact, money has been made available for work on native welfare by the States as part of the general provision of revenue to the States. This, being a State function, is one of the items, among other items, that has been taken into account in fixing the amounts of tax reimbursements grants. In recent years, of course, the amount of money available to the States by way of tax reimbursements and special grants or, in the case of the claimant States, grants recommended by the Grants Commission, has greatly increased.

Perhaps I could illustrate the point J am making by taking the example of one State that has been under notice recently, namely, Western Australia. If we go back to the point when Mr. Chifley stated the principle, 1948, we see that in that year the tax reimbursement grant to Western Australia was £3,807,000. There was no special grant. In the current year, the same State has a tax reimbursement grant of £12,252,000, plus a special grant of £1,454,000, making a total of £13,706,000 in tax reimbursements and supplementary grants, compared with £3,807,000 in 1948. On top of that, as a result of the adoption of a recommendation of the Grants Commission, the same State has, to-day, a grant of £9,200,000, compared with a grant in 1947-48 of a little under £3,000,000. In summary, that State, with the responsibility, among many other responsibilities, of caring for the aboriginal people within its own borders, has, to-day, from the Commonwealth a revenue of close on £23,000,000 to allocate as it thinks fit, compared with a revenue of £6,750,000 in the previous period. My point is that the State does have more money available to apply to this or to any other purpose, and the decision whether it gives more to aboriginal welfare or gives less is a decision which is made by the State Government. In making that decision, this particular State Government of Western Australia is certainly not worse off to-day - far from it. It is in a much better position to-day to make liberal allocations for native welfare than it was some years ago. Moreover, since Western Australia is a claimant State, it has the opportunity of making a special case to the Grants Commission on the ground that this particular social obligation places on it burdens which do not fall on other States.

I want to make the point also that, since 1948, as the previous Government did, the present Government has attempted to seek closer co-operation with the States on matters of native welfare. Under my own chairmanship, two meetings of the Native Welfare Council were held and, I think, produced useful results. But, unfortunately, at that point, through the unwillingness of the State governments to continue to confer, the council lapsed. I must say, quite plainly, that my own decision then was that, rather than concentrate my efforts on trying to get co-operation where co-operation was, perhaps, not readily forthcoming, I could best serve the interest of the aborigines of Australia by concentrating my efforts on doing a job in what we might call our own backyard - doing more and more in the Northern Territory to improve the welfare of the aborigines there, for whom the Commonwealth was directly responsible. L acknowledge, gratefully, the kind words of the honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant), admitting that, in the Northern Territory, we are attempting to do far more than has been done before - that we are attempting to carry out our responsibilities.

Linked with this question of finance is, of course, the question of the transfer of powers. Under the Constitution, the responsibility for native welfare is placed upon the States. Up to date, the States have been rather unwilling to have any transfer of powers to the Commonwealth. The people of Australia, at the single opportunity they had of expressing an opinion - at a referendum introduced by the right honorable the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) when he was Attorney-General - refused to transfer powers. I would not comment on whether or not a transfer of powers would be desirable, except to say that most of the functions which are going to be of direct benefit to the aborigines are functions which are carried out by the States. The things that will make the biggest difference for aborigines in this generation, particularly the backward ones, are things related to their health and their hygiene, things related to their education - in many cases it has to be a basic and very elementary education - things related to their better housing, things related to their settlement and the provision of land on which they can settle, and things related to their vocational training and their placement in employment, so that they can sustain the higher level of living to which they are being educated. Ali of these functions, of course, reside in State departments of health, education and lands, State housing commissions and so on. That is a factor which should always be borne in mind when we are considering the question of a transfer of powers.

In the very brief time remaining to me 1 should like to refer again to the question of social services benefits which I alluded to during question time in the House to-day. 1 would permit myself this observation to the honorable member for Wills. We should not regard money - coins - as the only crutch on which the aboriginal should lean. I would say quite definitely that in many cases the handing out of sums of money to an aboriginal who has not yet become accustomed to handling it causes a bigger handicap to his advancement towards civilization than if he were without money.

Mr Bryant - That is what they said about white people.

Mr HASLUCK - I do not know what they have said about white people, but it is a fact that the easy possession of money, given not in return for any effort or work done, but just handed out, is not conducive, in all cases, to the improvement of the welfare of the aboriginal who receives it. In some cases there are aborigines who still need protection, guidance, education and the careful tutelage of those placed in care of them. They do not need money; they need assistance of a more fundamental, careful and humanitarian kind. They need a charity of the spirit rather than a charity of throwing coins. The easiest thing you can do to some under-privileged persons at a low level of civilization is to throw them some coins. The throwing of coins may ease one's conscience, but it will not be of much benefit to them. What they want is our tutelage, care and teaching.

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