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Thursday, 20 April 1961

Mr HASLUCK (Curtin) (Minister for Territories) £8.20].- in reply- The statement on the native welfare conference, which was presented to the House this afternoon, has been debated for more than four hours and honorable members on both sides of the House have spoken on it. The gratifying feature of the debate has been that the principles put forward in the statement have received the endorsement of the whole House and the methods of applying that policy have gained the approval of the majority of the House. Although this is not an occasion on which a vote is necessary - nor will a vote be taken - on the questions of policy, it will be of some interest to the Australian nation, and I hope to nations overseas, that this Parliament, having had presented to it a statement, agreed upon by the representatives of all the governments of Australia, has seen fit to endorse that statement and to approve of the methods which are proposed to be applied. We should remember that not only in this Parliament but also in other parliaments in Australia the responsible Ministers who took part in the conference will, no doubt, in due course inform members of their parliaments what it is .proposed to do. I trust that the proposals will receive a similar endorsement from their members.

There are only two minor comments I should like to make on the speeches. One is almost a trivial comment, but I think it needs saying. In the course of the debate some statistics were used, particularly by the honorable member for the Northern Territory (Mr. Nelson). Although I am sure he used them and other speakers used their statistics in good faith, I would counsel some caution in the use of figures because, for the reasons set out in the statement, there is no agreed and uniform basis of presenting statistics on native welfare work in Australia. That is one of the minor problems to which we must give attention. So, any comparative statements based on statistics are open to question.

The other point on which I wish to comment very briefly is what seemed to me to be a grossly distorted account of Australian history given by the honorable member for Hindmarsh (Mr. Clyde Cameron). I do not want to go into it in detail. I do not think the honorable member sets himself up as an historian. He certainly did not enhance his reputation as one when he spoke this afternoon. I think I am correct in saying that the broad pattern of the history of relationships between the aboriginal population and the European settlers in Australia in all the colonies that were successively formed was something like this: The original settlers came to Australia with a good Christian and humanitarian intention. In the course of a very few years, clashes occurred between them and the aboriginal people whom they were dispossessing. The nature of those clashes sometimes led to the spoiling of property and, unfortunately, to the taking of life. That led to a period of reprisals. We have to confess that as part of our national history the reprisals that were taken, unfortunately, were sometimes far more severe than the original offence warranted. But those reprisals were not in themselves - I say this advisedly - the cause of the de-population of the aboriginal race. Diseases - often mild diseases such as measles, to which the aboriginal population were not immune - and sometimes more deadly diseases were the cause of the reduction of the Australian aboriginal population. Diseases caused more fatalities among them than the rifle or illtreatment ever did.

After that period came a period of complete compassion - rather mistaken and perhaps ignorant compassion - when people with kindly hearts said: "Pity the poor aborigines. They are bound to die out. Let us do the best we can for them while they are still here." Up to the close of the last century there was a period when a great number of people, out of a sense of pity, were ministering to the aborigines; but they were ministering to them without hope and without any intention that they could do any lasting good for the aborigines, who they thought were bound to die out.

Over the last half century at least, an entirely different view of the position has come into Australia. I believe that it can be historically shown that the origin of this new attitude is to be found in Australia itself, particularly in one of the principles which have animated Australians in handling their own social problems. There is one principle that we all have; that is the idea of giving a man a fair go. It was that idea that animated the pioneers of trade unionism in this country. It was that idea that animated many of the social reformers, I believe that it was that idea which was the mainspring of modern ameliorative efforts on behalf of the aborigines. The attitude has been, " These people are living in this country with us and we are going to give them a fair go".

Increasingly in modern times - rising to a faster tempo in the post-war years - we are making a conscious effort, of which we need1 not be in the least ashamed, to tackle this extremely .difficult social and racial problem. It is not a great problem. Australia has 70,000 aborigines in a population of 10,000,000. We, as a nation, have tackled many difficult social problems. We, as a nation, have many great social achievements to our .credit. I .am sure that as Australians, irrespective of party and any minor differences there may be about method, we can beat this problem. I am sure that we can bring it to a triumphant conclusion and do justice by these fellowAustralians who live with us.

The honorable member for Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth) said two things which in my opinion were wise. I was going to say " unusually wise ", but that would have seemed to be a slight on his contributions to debates in this 'House - an undeserved slight. One of the things he said was that this problem of an aboriginal race and an immigrant race is not new; it has happened all over the world. The ancient Britons were aborigines. : Eventually they were completely assimilated in successive waves of conquerers or immigrants. To-day the ancient Britons live on as a racial infusion in the inhabitants of the British Isles, with some influence on the language spoken in the British Isles and with a minor influence on the customs in the British Isles. In nearly every Asian country one sees the remnant of an aboriginal race that has been submerged by an invading race. So, do not let us think that this is necessarily a white-black clash. It is a problem of an aboriginal race, which in every continent and many parts of every continent of the world, has suffered from the incursion of a stronger invading population. So, the problem is not novel.

The honorable member for Mackellar also referred to the terrific adjustment which the Australian aboriginal people had to make because, as he described it, their society was a personal society with a very clear relationship between all the members of that society and under the pressure of circumstances they had to try to fit themselves into a society such as ours, which is largely impersonal. I will enlarge on that a little by pointing out that the aborigines had a very complex and highly involved social organization of their own, but in that social organization the relationships between one member of the society and every other member of it were clearly defined and clearly understood by everyone, and the obligations which one member bore to every one else were clearly understood. When they enter into our society and necessarily try to work out some sort of similar personal relationship to members of our society, of course they find great difficulty in doing so.

I wish to correct an unfortunate impression which the honorable member for Hindmarsh has. The easiest adjustment that the aborigines of this continent ever had was on the pastoral stations because, whether it was good or bad, living in a sort of feudal situation on a pastoral station where the pastoralist was something like a feudal baron with a tribe and two or three white stockmen around him, it was comparatively easy for the native tribe, whose territory was not disturbed and whose hunting rights were left untouched, to enter into an easy new personal relationship with the new white society. But when agricultural settlements and mining settlements became established, and when aboriginal people began to be attracted into the towns, an easy adjustment to the new life was far beyond the compass of their understanding.

Part of our difficulty was, and still is, as it has been constantly over the past half century, that in trying to apply our policies for the advancement and the welfare of the aboriginal people we have been dealing with aboriginal societies that have already collapsed. We are dealing with decaying remnants of the people, not with a people having a vitality of their own, except, perhaps, in some of the newly opened regions in which, in comparatively recent years, the nomadic people have been 'brought in touch with settlement. Over recent years the pace has been greatly quickened by the pressure of Australian development, and also by the fact that the curiosity of the aboriginal people is causing them to be attracted, of their own volition, more and more to our settlements.

The honorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley) made a statement which seemed to suggest that he thought that in the centre of Australia there are still untouched a fairly large number of aborigines leading a fully tribal life. The number of aborigines untouched would now be down to only a few score, or, at the most, a couple of hundred. The aborigines have been attracted more and more into the settlements that we have established. They may come and go at first, but in greater and greater numbers they are coming in. A great deal of the work we are doing in the Northern Territory is in bringing schooling to the children of aborigines who, ten years ago, were completely tribal nomads with limited and occasional contacts with Europeans.

Somebody has suggested that in the process of assimilation we should concentrate on the education of the children. It has been claimed that if a man has grown up in a nomadic and primitive condition you cannot alter his life very much, but that if you start with the children you may effect a transformation. I think it was the honorable member for Macarthur (Mr. Jeff Bate) who gave a very clear illustration of what had happened in the case of a particular group of children who, because of the exigencies of war, had been transferred from the north to the friendly atmosphere of a parsonage in New South Wales, and had responded very well and had taken advantage pf the opportunities available to them in their new environment. Of course, that kind of movement of aboriginal people involves a complete severance from the primitive life and the adoption of a completely new life. Whether we are right or wrong, we do not care to make the severance as complete as that. I do not really think that you can tear up human beings completely by the roots and transplant them in such a final fashion. You still have to give them some sort of native soil in which to grow, some sort of relationship with their own families, some sort of feeling for their own society, even though this may impede your own efforts to educate them.

I remember going out to one of our stations on the edge of the desert, at a place called Yuendumu, where we had established a school, and talking with the school-teacher about his problems. They were very real problems. We had established a well-equipped school, staffed with qualified teachers, and it was being regularly attended. The schooling consisted not only of reading, writing and arithmetic, but included instruction in such things as the morning shower, the cleaning of teeth, the blowing of noses. We gave the children a good mid-day meal and taught them how to eat at table. We instructed them in all these matters which are, in essence, just as important, from the point of view of living with other people, as being able to read and write.

The school-teacher told me about his problems, one of which was just beginning to confront him, because the children had been at the school for only five or six years. He said that he could bring the boys up to the age of about thirteen years, and the prospect would be promising. Then, as he put it, one day he would notice a kind of a dreamy look in a boy's eyes, and he would know quite well that back in the camp the old men had been talking to him, and that the time for initiation was drawing near. Inevitably the boy would leave school in order to undergo his tribal initiation. In these new areas where the tribal influence is still strong, the period of initiation sometimes is as long as two or three years.

We have tried one or two novel means of overcoming this problem. We have talked to the old men, and have sometimes suggested to them that they may be able to contract the period of initiation. Initiate the boy, by all means, but over two or three week-ends rather than two or three years.

Mr Whitlam - A crash programme.

Mr HASLUCK - Yes, a crash programme of initiation. We have also suggested that instead of carrying out the initiation by their rather crude methods, with no asepsis, they should let one of our doctors do the necessary act in a surgery in a matter of a few minutes, with the old men standing around to see that it was done thoroughly and well. In a few cases we have succeeded with suggestions of this kind. 1 have mentioned these matters simply by way of illustration, to show that the problem of the advancement of a primitive people has many novel aspects. In the few minutes remaining to me I would like to mention only two other matters. There are many others that I could refer to, but I think there are only two that really demand consideration. First, our toughest problem in this work of assimilation is not with the tribal nomads. The toughest problem is with what, for lack of a better term, we call the fringe-dwellers. These are aboriginal people, some full-bloods and some of mixed blood, who are living very close to the fringes of our society, but who are not of that society. The difficulty in the case of these people arises from the fact that in periods of past neglect they have tried to make their adjustment by creating a new society of their own, on the very borders of ours. Some people think you need only to be friendly towards one of these mixed bloods living on the fringe of a town to transform his life. He has his own barriers against us. He has his own comfortable little group of people living in what might be mistaken for a gipsy encampment. He has to make an adjustment to his own society before he can come over to ours. In some ways the kind of social entrenchment that these fringe-dwellers have made in periods of past neglect, when they were rejected by our society, is much stronger than the entrenchment of the primitive people against us.

This problem of the fringe-dwellers is much more difficult than many people realize. Although friendliness on our side, the provision of opportunities for housing and education are supremely important, and opportunities for employment are absolutely essential, these things by no means cover the whole problem. We still have to enter into the minds and the understanding of the people who make up these little societies of aboriginal people and people of mixed blood, and who have grown up alongside us. Until they are persuaded to modify the little societies that they have established, it will be difficult for them to enter our society.

The other point I wanted to make is one that has emerged very clearly in this debate. It is that the problem throughout Australia is most diversified. We are not dealing with one social problem but with about a dozen social problems throughout Australia. There is the problem of the primitive nomad, the problem of the group of people who are still largely under tribal influence, the problem of the group of people who have obtained employment but are still feeling the lingering effects of tribal influence, the problem of the completely displaced full blood, who is not yet habituated to the ways of our society, and the problem of the fringe-dwelling mixed blood, who is almost in our midst, and sometimes right in our midst, even in the city slums, but who is still not fully received into our society. There is a diversity of problems, and we must not generalize when dealing with any one of them, and think that what we say about the aboriginal problem in one situation will be true of all situations throughout the Commonwealth. We must realize, of course, that these people are not only a group of human beings; they are also individuals. As individuals, they have the same degree of diversity as we have in this House.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The Minister's time has expired.

Question resolved in the negative.

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