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Aboriginal reconciliation: Opposition sets requirements for bipartisan support of proposed legislation

PAUL MURPHY: The Coalition says it will support the process of reconciliation between white Australian and Aborigines. The idea was floated last year by the Prime Minister who proposed a council of reconciliation to improve understanding between the two cultures and redress social and economic disadvantages. But the Opposition says bipartisanship on Aboriginal Affairs for the first time in eight years will quickly dissolve if the Council pursues a treaty with black Australia and promotes vague concepts instead of offering practical solutions. But just getting his colleagues to support closer ties between blacks and whites proved a divisive task for Opposition spokesperson, Michael Wooldridge, with heated debate in the party room today.

Michael Wooldridge is talking to Andrew Sholl.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: When this legislation comes in if you want the full support of the Parliament these are the sort of things we want to see in it. We are putting these caveats on because we want this to really achieve something. There have been so many false starts in Aboriginal Affairs, there have been so many grand plans, so many times people's expectations have been raised only to be dashed - we are not going to be party to that.

ANDREW SHOLL: So what practical outcomes should the process have?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, it has got to look at the wellbeing of Aboriginal people, it has got to look at benchmarks in health, education, housing, literacy, infrastructure - those sort of things - and they should be part of the agreed goals and looking at how we can better deliver those outcomes to Aboriginal people. ANDREW SHOLL: And what about some of the things that Aboriginal leaders want, like land rights?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, Andrew, I think we have got to deliver on what is achievable. Land rights debates, at a national level, have been very divisive in this country in the past. The national land rights legislation in 1984 was torpedoed by the Burke Labor Government. We are not going to be party to something that is divisive. What this has got to be on about is bringing Australians closer together.

ANDREW SHOLL: But on the questions like land rights and questions such as Coronation Hill, you are in a difficult position, aren't you? You are Aboriginal Affairs spokesman in a party that wants to disregard Aboriginal wishes.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, I don't find it difficult, quite frankly. I am happy to take them one by one. On land rights what we have said consistently is that it is a matter for the States and we will encourage the States to make land available to Aboriginal people appropriate to their social and economic needs. Now Nick Greiner has started to do that in New South Wales, a Liberal Government addressing a very specific problem.

ANDREW SHOLL: But on something like Coronation Hill should, for example, the traditional custodians be overruled though, and mining go ahead?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Aboriginal culture is not a static thing, it changes over time and what you have seen in Coronation Hill is Aboriginal culture changing over a very short period of time to accommodate a particular point of view.

ANDREW SHOLL: So an Aboriginal culture now says that mining shouldn't go ahead?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, it may say next year that it should go ahead, that is the point.

ANDREW SHOLL: How difficult was it for you, as Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson, to push through your position on the process of reconciliation, through the party room?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: It was difficult in that there was a lot of mistrust in Aboriginal Affairs. The things like national land rights legislation, things like a treaty that was proposed by the Prime Minister that he has never delivered on, they have been very divisive. And when you have that background of mistrust and division it is very difficult to then say: well, I think we should start working together now. So what I have to do over the last five months is consult extensively around the country with leaders in the party organisation, in the State and Territory parliamentary parties, and say: look, where do we have room to move? This letter that Hewson has written to the Prime Minister shows there is room to move; the ball is in the Government's court. If they want to pick it up and address our concerns, then we have got a real chance of doing something together.

ANDREW SHOLL: But you do admit there are recalcitrants within the party that didn't want this to come about?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, we had a very healthy debate which I think is a positive thing. In the end you have a formal position here from the party that has been through the Shadow Cabinet, been through the party room and it has the full endorsement of the parliamentary party.

ANDREW SHOLL: But a formal position that can be backed away from should the Government not come to the party with what you want on Aboriginal relations?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, that is right and that is what bipartisanship is about. Bipartisanship is not the Government serving something up and saying take it or leave it. If they want bipartisanship they have to work, just as we have worked, to try and come to some accommodation. Now look, they can choose to focus on what is dividing us and in that case this process of reconciliation is finished. But what this letter is saying is that there are areas where we have got things in common. If you want to focus on what we have got in common, then there is a good chance that we can move forward.

PAUL MURPHY: The Opposition's Michael Wooldridge with Andrew Sholl on the very vexed question of reconciliation between white and black Australia.