Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Divisive Melham should be removed over 'separated children' report

Comments yesterday by Opposition Aboriginal Affairs spokesman Daryl Melham MP seeking to link the Government to the Ku Klux Klan are despicable.

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, if he has any decency and leadership, should disassociate himself and the Labor Party from those remarks.

Mr Beazley should remove Mr Melham from the shadow Ministry.

Accusations such as those voiced by Mr Melham yesterday cannot be simply treated as the extravagant rhetoric often accepted as part of the cut and thrust of politics. The comments are totally unacceptable.

The Government is fully committed to giving the recommendations of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in its report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families the careful and proper consideration which they deserve - and which the indigenous peoples whose interests are in issue also deserve.

There can be no suggestion that the Government has sought to `bury' the report - quite the contrary. The relevant facts bear repeating:

. former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch referred this matter to the Commission on 2 August 1995;

. the Commission's report was due to be completed by December 1996;

. this Government extended the time for reporting when it became apparent that

the Commission could not complete the task within the inadequate time allowed

by the previous Government;

. moreover, this Government adjusted the Commission's 1996/97 Budget to allow it additional funds to do so;

. I was first provided with a copy of the final report on Saturday 5 April 1997;

. sufficient copies of the report for tabling in the Parliament were not received by

the Attorney-General's Department in Canberra until 14 May 1997;

. the first Parliamentary sitting week following my initial receipt of the report was

last week - that is, Budget week;

. tabling the report on Budget day, or in the days immediately after the Budget

was presented, would have been inappropriate;

. Parliament is not sitting this week; and

. Parliament will sit again next week, when the report will be tabled.

Considerable attention has been given by the Government to the report since it was first received, with a view to ascertaining the best way in which the recommendations made by the Commission can be subjected to consideration in a proper, principled and thorough manner. The Commission's recommendations are wide-ranging, and traverse the field of responsibility of not only the Commonwealth but also State and Territory Governments and many non-government organisations. As such they require careful and coordinated handling.

The Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator the Hon John Herron, as the Minister with primary and coordinating responsibility in this area, will make a more detailed statement about the Government's intentions once the report is tabled.

The fact that the Commission's report has been widely detailed in the media prior to its Parliamentary tabling should not go without comment. The Commission's actions in releasing the report to the press on a supposedly embargoed basis, without Government consent or consultation, together with its apparent campaign to promote a presumption of Government antipathy towards its recommendations, are entirely inappropriate.

While the Government's detailed response to the Commission's recommendations will be further developed in the coming months in accordance with the processes to be outlined next week by Senator Herron, there are a number of points which should be made clear.

First, it must be said that the Government understands and appreciates the emotional and social significance of the circumstances of those indigenous Australians who are the subject of the report. It is clear that the treatment afforded to them in decades past is something that neither this Government nor right-thinking Australians would either contemplate or condone today. There is a need to now address those events of history and consider practical responses.

However, it must also be said that the attitude we adopt today cannot necessarily be taken to condemn that which was adopted by those responsible for the events of the past. The policies and practices on which the Commission has reported were generally implemented with the authority of the various Parliaments and Governments of the day. To now attribute malice to their actions would be a distortion of history. However much we may now think those actions to have been misguided and misplaced, it is unfair and unjust to now malign their intentions.

This assessment is fundamental to a proper consideration of the underlying issues, and particularly the question of whether or not some form of monetary compensation is now warranted. The Government made detailed submissions to the commission in this regard. On pages 29-30 of its submission the Commonwealth Government argued that:

1. "The Commonwealth Government acknowledges and understands the strength of feelings held by persons who suffered or believe they suffered as a result of laws, policies and practices which led to the separation of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in all Australian States and Territories. However, the Government can see no equitable or practical way of now paying special compensation to those persons, if compensation were considered to be warranted.

2. The facts in this case remain to be determined in the Inquiry and, in particular, the extent of direct responsibility of past Commonwealth governments is arguable. The Government takes the view that in considering, and ultimately judging, the laws, policies and practices which led to the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, it is appropriate to have regard to the standards and values prevailing at the time of their enactment and implementation, rather than to the standards and values prevailing today.

3. It need not follow, therefore, that compensation to those affected will be appropriate or acceptable, even for significant failures or appalling results. This conclusion should detract in no way from a recognition of any failures of governments in the past and their consequences. It is based, rather, on a view that attempts to rectify past failures of governments should avoid the creation of new injustices and inequities, and that responses by governments to disadvantage suffered by individuals should rely on criteria of need rather than cause."

The Government has not changed its view about the inappropriateness of extravagant and divisive compensation claims.

It must also be said that the Commission's analysis on other matters is simply flawed and wrong.

Of these, perhaps the most glaring example is its suggestion that removal of Aboriginal children from their families was genocidal. The Commission bases its conclusion on its view that "a principal aim was to eliminate indigenous cultures as distinct entities". Under the Genocide Convention, however, `genocide' is a term with a particular legal meaning which requires that acts be committed `with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.' The definition does not extend to the adverse impact on, or disruption of, a culture of itself. Moreover, adopting this view of the aim of removal is hard to reconcile with its own finding that child removal policies "were often concerned to protect and `preserve' individual children". It is also at complete odds with the specific and contrary conclusion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, that such policies were adopted `not for the purpose of exterminating a people but for their preservation.'

There are recommendations in the Commission's report that Australian Governments and non-government organisations will undoubtedly be prepared to consider favourably. No doubt others will not win such favour.

But what is fundamentally important is that all parties to this debate now behave with decency and propriety in addressing the important issues on which the Commission was asked to report.

Media Contact: Nicholas Harford, 0419 423 965; 06 277 7300