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Monday, 6 December 1976


Mr VINER (Stirling) (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) - by leave-I inform the House that the Council for Aboriginal Affairs is winding up its activities and at its own suggestion terminated on 30 November after nearly 9 years of valuable service to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people and to successive Commonwealth governments. I need hardly say that its disbandment in no way implies a diminution of the Government's resolve to lift Aboriginal standards of well-being or a pause in the flow of resources or real consideration towards that purpose. It signifies only that in the joint opinion of the Council, the Government, and representative Aboriginal organisations an advisory and consultative task which was always envisaged as transient has come to an end and can now properly pass to others. The termination of the Council coincides with the receipt and study of the report of the Hiatt Committee of Inquiry into the future organisation and role of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee. This seems an appropriate time, while the Government is considering the future style of consultation with the Aboriginal people, to make the break with the Council which was responsible for much of the consultative process at an earlier stage.

The Council for Aboriginal Affairs is a most unusual body set up in unique circumstances to do a job for which, in any case, there seems to have been no precedent, but which grew more and more urgent and complicated. The late Harold Holt, as Prime Minister, in November 1967 commissioned the Council to do certain things. It was to oversee the establishment of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs; to advise the Government upon the formation of national policies to give effect to the new obligations imposed on the Commonwealth by the 1967 referendum in respect of Aborigines; to consult directly with Aboriginal people and organisations about their wishes and felt needs; to become the avenue of Aboriginal approaches to Government; to establish and ensure good working relationships at the official level between Commonwealth and State instrumentalities in the Aboriginal field; and as far as practicable to co-ordinate the working out of the then highly variable policies and administrative practices throughout Aboriginal Australia. Subsequently, other duties were added. In 1971 the Council was made responsible for recommending the acquisition by the Commonwealth of land for Aboriginal communities; in 1973 for watching over the interests of the Torres Strait Islanders in negotiations over the Australia-Papua New Guinea border; and later in the same year for discussing with officials of the Queensland Government possible amendments of Acts of that State Parliament affecting Aboriginals and Islanders. I feel that I should say, though for reasons into which I need not at the moment enter, these tasks were made the harder by the informality of the Council's position. It was not given either statutory or even chartered recognition and, for its first 5 years- until late in 1973- often had to depend for its effect only upon the rational appeal of its proposals and the force of its personalities. Perhaps fortunately, each of the 3 members- Dr H. C. Coombs, Emeritus Professor W. E. H. Stanner and Mr B. G. Dexter- brought to the assignment a long experience of the inner workings of Government and public authorities, a large fund of specialised knowledge, a capacity to act jointly, and a remarkably similar vision of their task.

If honourable members who are in a position to do so will cast their minds back to 1967 they will, I am sure, agree with me that there have been many significant changes in the Aboriginal scene. These reflect the Council's influence. It may well turn out to be the case that its greatest contribution has been its insistent confidence that the Aboriginal people, if given a chance, could demonstrate their capacity to manage their own affairs. I would attribute largely to the Council's tireless efforts to go to the Aborigines and to listen to their own statement of their viewpoint and wishes the present healthy fact that everywhere within Australia Aborigines now approach Government without inhibition or hesitation, speak up for themselves in no uncertain way, and are quick to demand the full measure of their constitutional rights. This is not the occasion for me to attempt to judge other respects in which the Council has performed its duties. When the Office of Aboriginal Affairs became a department, and in the second half of 1973, began to develop the full capacities of a department, the Council has withdrawn to the sidelines of policyplanning and day-by-day administration. More recently, it has withdrawn into the background and has concentrated on particularly critical matters of policy and on projects referred to it by the Minister or the Permanent Head.

I should like to place on Parliamentary record the Government's appreciation of the services of each of the 3 members of the Council. I believe that Dr Coombs' contribution as Chairman is among the most significant of his many public services. The third member of the Council, Mr Dexter, has been Council's Executive Member and in that capacity and as Director of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs and since 1973 Secretary and Permanent Head of the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs has ably carried out an onerous task and lead a dedicated staff. Professor Stanner, in addition to playing a full part in the work of the Council and contributing particularly from his great anthropological knowledge, also acted a Special Adviser to several Standing Committees of this House and will be well known to many members. The Government hopes to retain the part-time services of Dr Coombs and Professor Stanner on a consultancy basis for particular tasks on which the Minister or Permanent Head feels a need for their special experience.







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