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Thursday, 20 April 1961

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) . - Many constructive speeches have been made during this debate and not by any means from only one side of the House. Although we may differ from time to time, this question has been approached with goodwill and sincerity. Honorable members have acknowledged what the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck) has done, what the Government has done and what the Government intends to do. However, we cannot be satisfied with the present position. We must realize that an appallingly difficult problem exists. The problem has been difficult, not only in Australia and not only during a recent period of history. The aborigines in India, for example, are a problem to the Indian Government, which faces some of the difficulties which we are facing in Australia.

Going back a little in history, I find that in Africa the races corresponding to our aborigines - the Bushmen - met disaster at the hands of the Bantu - the black people who came down from the north. So the problem of an aboriginal race is not peculiar to Australia, although I think that our aborigines are perhaps now unique and probably one of the most interesting and, in a sense, most important groups of -people in the world. I do not think that any of lis believes that the .individual aboriginal is either better or worse, person for person, than we are, but we .do know that he mas lived in a different environment for a very long time and that this makes it very difficult for him to be assimilated into our way of 'life. This does not absolve us from the responsibility of assimilating our aborigines. It does not absolve us from the responsibility of allocating resources of money, land and material to this task.

What we are talking about at .present is not the principle of this .policy of assimilation, on which we all agree. What we are talking about .is the way of bringing about the inevitable transition which will be best for the aboriginal himself. I was very glad to see that in the Administrator's Speech on the occasion of the opening of the Parliament recently there was a reference to the making of a study of these people and their ways of life. Such a study is necessary and desirable if we are to deal with the numerous problems which various honorable members have discussed and if we are to carry through this transition in the way which is best for the aboriginal people themselves. This fact is further acknowledged in the statement made this afternoon by the Minister for Territories, who, speaking of the recent Native Welfare Conference, said -

The conference agreed that further research was necessary into the social organization of aborigines and the nature of social change. It was agreed that a number of topics should be referred to the Social Science Research Council which should be asked to put them before appropriate university authorities.

As I say, this is not in any sense an excuse for doing nothing. It is a means of determining the best thing to do. Looking at our efforts in the past, I am not certain that we have been wise in entirely ignoring the tribal organization as an instrument of transition. The aborigines have been living in a complex environment. Let us not underestimate the physical skills which they have demonstrated in maintaining life and surviving in the very difficult terrain of the Australian countryside. This is an achievement which none of us would like to be asked to emulate and which we probably would not be able to copy successfully with the tools and implements which the aborigines "have at their disposal.

In the very difficult conditions in which the aborigines live, they have evolved a very complex tribal organization. Until recently, we have not appreciated fully the delicacy of this mechanism and the way in which it works. It differs from our community organization in that it is a personal and not an impersonal one. The transition from the personal to the impersonal is -the big change which the aboriginal has to face. He is involved in a tribal life which is very rigorous and very complicated, but it is a life in which he knows by name and personally practically every one of his associates, because he lives in a small community. He has now to be translated into a community in which not only the laws are different. That is perhaps not such a big thing. The great difference is that the aboriginal has to go into an impersonal community, because he has to come into contact with thousands of .people, most of whom he will not know personally, in place of being in contact with a few hundred people, almost all of whom he knows personally. To him, this is a tremendous shock. .Let us not underestimate the psychological troubles which inevitably will follow when the things in which he has believed - -the tribal beliefs - are broken down and become of no account. Which of us would survive without psychological shock an experience of this kind? Let us not underestimate *the terrific difficulties with which the aboriginal is faced as an individual in making this transition. With these considerations in mind, I say that perhaps we have been unwise in the past in ignoring entirely the aboriginal's own tribal organization as a means of transition, because the transition and the advancement that are envisaged have to take place.

As honorable members know very well, the Australian aboriginal is a hunter. He is in a sense a nomad, although he lives within strict tribal boundaries, and he has no agriculture as such. The universal experience of the human race has been that it has progressed from the hunting stage through an agricultural stage to the present industrial civilization in which we live. I am not certain of this, but I put it forward as something 'which merits examination rather than as a conclusion, because I feel that in these matters we know far too little and .that we should not be dogmatic about any conclusions in this field. This transition of which I have spoken may well be achieved through an agricultural phase, using to some extent the old tribal organization in order to pass through this agricultural phase quickly, and perhaps in a generation. Where we have tried putting aborigines on farms, we have found that they do not take to them. As we know, the aboriginal is not tolerant of agriculture. He is good with animals, but he is bad with plants. However, I am not at all certain that we have persisted sufficiently with our efforts along these lines, and we may well find that we can adapt a tribal organization for agricultural purposes. This is what has happened in the past with all humans, including our own ancestors. This may well be the natural path along which we can force the aboriginal quickly in order to achieve the full transition to our way of life. We want this full transition to take place as soon as possible.

I think that the Minister's statement describes the objectives admirably, and I am glad that it has received so much support from both sides of the House. May I just reiterate by saying that, whatever we do, we need to be more carefully informed about the background. We shall handle the problems of the aborigines more sympathetically, more successfully and with less hurt to themselves during the period of transition if we are better informed about both the background from which the aboriginal comes and the nature of the psychological forces' which will -be at work in the making of the necessary transition.

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