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Tuesday, 23 October 1973

The PRESIDENT -Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted.

Senator CAVANAGH - In the adjournment debate in the Senate on 9 October 1973, Senator Georges spoke on the question of turtle farming in the Torres Strait Islands. He was followed by Senators Laucke, Keeffe and Webster. In reply I stated, as recorded on page 108 1 of Hansard of that date:

By some means or other I am prepared to make available, after perusal, all relevant documents that may be of assistance.

I further stated:

I can promise honourable senators that a full report will be given on every matter raised by Senator Georges and Senator Keeffe.

On 10 October 1973, in the Senate, as recorded at page 1087 of Hansard, in my reply to a question by the Leader of the Opposition, I stated:

All the minutes and reports of the Aboriginal Co-operative Advisory Committee will be available. Every allegation which was made last week is the subject of a reply from the Department and that reply will be tabled in the Senate.

I cannot account for the reference to the Aboriginal Co-operative Advisory Committee but believe it must have some reference to the Council for Aboriginal Affairs of which Dr Coombs is Chairman. I know of no such body as the Aboriginal Co-operative Advisory Committee and seemed to indicate this in reply to a question of Senator Laucke of 16 October 1973, reported on page 1193 of Hansard, when Senator Laucke asked for the minutes .of the Aboriginal Cooperative Advisory Committee and I replied:

We seem to be at cross purposes as to which documents the honourable senator desires to be tabled. A long document containing the answers to the allegations made by Senator Georges has been received by my office. I have not yet perused it. The document will be tabled at an early date.

I now table the report of the Secretary of my Department on the allegations made in the adjournment debate on 9 October 1973, together with relevant attachments. In the reference to the Aboriginal Co-operative Advisory Committee, which I believe to be the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, the attachments contain the extracts from 2 meetings of this Council, which are relevant to the turtle farm. I am advised that this Council has not had any meetings since March of this year and earlier minutes would have no relevance. I am also tabling with the documents a Departmental reply to statements by Senator Wright made in the Senate on 1 1 October 1973 on this matter and a reply to an article by Mr Peter Sekuless published in 'The Canberra Times' on 18 October 1973. I further include in the documents tabled, the explanation of the Secretary of my Department of the extracts of a letter that were sent by him to Dr Coombs and Professor Stanner. These extracts were published in the 'Australian' newspaper.

Senator Georgesis reported in the Hansard record of 9 October, page 1075, as saying:

This year we will be spending $ 1 70m through the Department of Aboriginal Welfare.

In conversation, the Senator informed me this figure should read $1 17m, and as that figure is the Budget allocation for this Department, I accept his correction. I am convinced that this completely answers allegations of the waste of public moneys on the turtle farm activities. The Department still has full confidence in that project as a viable means of employing many unemployed Torres Strait Islanders.

I wish to give a further explanation to what appeared in Hansard. I accepted when Senator Keeffe mentioned that Dr Bustard had an Island wife that this was referring to some adulterous association. But I find, in fact, his lawful wedded wife was an Islander, and my expression of horror that such a matter was brought into the debate was unjustified and was unfair to the Senator. For this I apologise. I do believe there was extravagance in the administration of the turtle farm, and I believe this was the opinion of my predecessor when he nominated 3 directors to the Board of Applied Ecology. I believe that such appointments were to curtail extravagance, and recent reports would suggest some success in this direction. If the report of the present investigating team set up by Senator Willesee reports the venture has possibilities, I think some alteration in the administration should be made. These alterations should involve a less costly administration located closer to the area of farming and with greater involvement of Torres Strait Islanders.

It may be appropriate to mention the changes I am considering on matters that have been mentioned. All moneys spent under the Aboriginal Enterprises (Assistance) Act 1968 are spent at the discretion of the Minister. A large part of Treasury allocation to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is spent by ministerial decision. This year some $70m could be spent where the Minister directs. Despite the best investigations and checks of such expenditure some must go to enterprises or causes that do not return profitable results. The annual report for 1971-72 in the Commonwealth Capital Fund for Aboriginal Enterprises showed that of all loans made from the Fund, 29.6 per cent were possible failures or had failed. This field of endeavour is risky, and the mistakes that must occur are too great a responsibility to be decided by one person. I am, therefore, discussing with my Department that all applications for loans, advances and grants be screened by a group of responsible people. Although no final decision has been made on who shall comprise such group, I am inclined to favour an all-party parliamentary standing committee.

The other body to be reviewed is the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. In fairness to this Council, contrary to what a previous Minister has stated, the Council at no time had power to spend money. The Council as previously existed has no place in the present arrangement with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, but, nevertheless, it is thought the experienced and learned personnel on this Council can still perform a most useful function. As to the future function, the Chairman, Dr Coombs, is now preparing a paper for my consideration, and, whatever future role this Council may perform, it will be answerable only to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

With the coming into operation of the National Aboriginal Consultative Council, many of the present advisory authorities will have to be changed so as not to impede the acceptance of advice from Aboriginal representatives. I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

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