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Thursday, 9 May 1957

Mr DRUMMOND (New England) . - I should have preferred a greater opportunity to prepare to speak on this subject, and I am sure every member in this House will echo that sentiment. I want to refer at the outset to what I consider to be basic, and that is the two principles which were laid down by the Minister a short time ago. The Minister said that in shaping policy and deciding on administrative action the first principle which animated his department was assimilation. The only possible future for the very small minority of aboriginal people, said the Minister, was to merge into, and be received as full members of, the European community which surrounds them. The second principle is that the administrative problem is primarily social rather than racial, and that the task of administration is to help these people to live happily and usefully in our society. I think that that clearly states exactly where Australia is going in the administration of the native people.

My own experience of this problem arises from three separate circumstances. In the New England electorate, there is a remnant of the old aboriginal population, now very largely mixed, which is accustomed to go to the New England Tableland in the warm summer months, and to move down to the coast during the severe winter weather. Those people have engaged the interest of the people of the City of Armidale and the surrounding districts. Here I pay tribute to Dr. Ellen Kent Hughes, the sister of the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes), who has taken a continuous and valuable interest in the welfare of these people. I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there is every reason to think that this interest will persist.

In 1936, I visited Darwin en route to the other side of the world. I spent some days in the town, and, as Minister for Education in New South Wales at the time, I took a particular interest in visiting the schools. I found that the main school was occupied very largely by children of mixed races, and that the aboriginal children were taught in a special school. I regret to say that the aboriginal school did not compare at all favorably with the school in which the white and mixed-race children were taught.

Subsequently, as Minister for Education in New South Wales, I had direct contact with this problem, owing to a peculiar incident in a part of my own electorate involving a school of approximately 70 children, 22 of whom were coloured. All the parents of the white pupils went on strike, as it were, and refused to send their children to the school at one stage. This was not the result of any racial friction. It arose solely from unfortunate decisions of a magistrate who decided that two neglected and verminous coloured children should remain under unsuitable guardianship. This decision caused administrative problems, and it became my responsibility, as Minister for Education, to lay down a policy that, I believe, happily is still adhered to throughout New South Wales. I ruled that no coloured child should be excluded from any school, except for the same reasons that a white child might be excluded - its state of health or some other condition that called for the care of the Child Welfare Department. In the Armidale schools, in particular, coloured children have been admitted and trained with white children. As regards the other aspect of the matter, white children have been excluded from certain schools for other reasons. The Education Department sometimes has had to rule, for reasons of accommodation, that white children should attend the school nearest to their home. The department rules that aboriginal children residing at an aboriginal settlement shall attend the school at the settlement, not from any considerations of colour, but simply as a matter of convenience, owing to accommodation and other problems.

I want to make it clear that the fact that only a certain number of full-blooded aborigines has been accorded full citizenship rights, to which the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) referred in discussing the question of differences of treatment, does not indicate that there has been any discrimination based on colour. Any difference of treatment is solely because it is in the interests of the aboriginal, at a certain stage of his development, that he should be treated as being under guardianship. I would not lightly cross swords with the Leader of the Opposition on a constitutional question, but, as one who has studied the debates of the Federal Conventions that preceded the drafting of the Australian Constitution, I point out that placitum (xxvi.) of section 51 of the Constitution was specifically inserted to enable the Commonwealth to discriminate, not against the aborigines, but against people of other races against whom it might be deemed necessary to discriminate. This placitum reads -

The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws:

The implication is that the aborigines are to be treated, as far as possible, as any other Australian citizen is treated.

In considering these problems, I am deeply impressed by the broad grasp of humanitarian principles demonstrated in a practical way by the Department of Territories under the present Minister for Territories. That broad grasp of humanitarian principles is shown by some statistics that I shall cite, though not for party political purposes. In the financial year 1949-50, financial provision for the welfare of aborigines in the Northern Territory amounted to £101,064, compared with £525,000 in the current financial year. Financial assistance to missions, which undertake a very important part of the work of educating and caring for the aborigines, was £26,730 in 1949-50, compared with £184,650 in the current financial year. On the basis merely of financial provision, it seems to me, as one who has studied this matter carefully, that the funds devoted to the welfare of the native people have been increased constantly and generously.

I bow to the wider experience of some honorable members in relation to the Northern Territory. As I understand it, the cattle industry is the most important industry in the territory.

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