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Anniversary of 1967 referendum for equal rights for Aborigines; Government and Opposition cannot agree on wording of parliamentary motion on the anniversary

MONICA ATTARD: Well, in Canberra today, the Federal Parliament recognised the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, but was unable to summon up the same spirit of bipartisanship that delivered a near unanimous yes vote from the people of Australia just 30 years ago. From Canberra, Catherine Job reports.

CATHERINE JOB: When dawn broke over Parliament House, it found a dedicated handful of people gathered outside to start a 12-hour vigil in memory of the 1967 referendum, by far the most successful in Australia's history, a referendum where the Australian Electoral Office only published a yes case because it couldn't find anyone arguing no to the twin propositions that indigenous Australians be counted in the census and that the Commonwealth be given the power to make special laws for Aboriginal and Islander people.

But inside the Parliament, the unanimity of purpose demonstrated 30 years ago was missing. The Government and the Opposition couldn't agree on the wording of a motion on the anniversary. At the heart of the differences: whether the powers handed to the Commonwealth by the referendum could only be used for the benefit if indigenous Australians. The Prime Minister's motion argued the Commonwealth's need to use its powers to address continued disadvantage suffered by indigenous Australians, with specific emphasis on, and practical measures to, address health, housing, education and employment. It went on to support reconciliation, but emphasised the value of cooperative effort to build a better future for all Australians, and supported a request that a commemorative plaque, unveiled in Melbourne today, be placed in Old Parliament House.

JOHN HOWARD: If the 1967 referendum spoke of anything, it spoke of a need to remedy, in a practical way, the disadvantage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If you want a unanimity of view within the Australian community, or a near-unanimity of view within the Australian community, on issues relating to the indigenous people, then you must look at areas of disadvantage in issues such as health, housing, employment and education. And our approach to reconciliation is very much guided by our strong belief that the path to effective reconciliation lies in remedying those areas of disadvantage and, through that, giving to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the full capacity to enjoy freedom of opportunity as Australian people.

CATHERINE JOB: But the Opposition didn't believe that was adequate. Leader, Kim Beazley, wanted a motion to recognise what he says was the clear intent of the referendum, that the Commonwealth's power be used only for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He called for frank apologies for the wrongs of the past and for the commemorative plaque to be placed in the new Parliament House.

KIM BEAZLEY: Let us now, with this resolution, honour the people who passed the 1967 referendum, which was 90 per cent of the Australian people. Let us honour them and let us honour also the people who put forward that referendum, let us honour the Aboriginal people with an appropriate resolution in this place and not a half-hearted one.

CATHERINE JOB: But the Opposition's most moving speaker was Deputy Leader, Gareth Evans, who broke down as he told the story of a young friend, a member of the 'stolen generation' who, after training to be a lawyer in the newly-formed Aboriginal Legal Service in the early '70s, lost hope and killed himself.

GARETH EVANS: The memory of that young man and his family and what happened to them haunts me still. The truth of the matter, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that for all the hopes that were raised by the '67 referendum, all that's happened since, all the years that have passed since, things are now not so very different. There are still justices unredressed and young lives being tragically wasted, and there's still a lack of understanding by too many people in too many decision-making positions in this country, of the nature of the problem and what needs to be done. How can we still be arguing now, in 1997, as we are today, whether the referendum was really designed to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? Does the Government really want to stand up now and say that the referendum was to allow the passage of legislation to hurt and discriminate against our Aboriginal people?

CATHERINE JOB: And a passionate Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, could almost have been arguing the Opposition's case, coming awfully close to offering an apology for the past, describing the practices of taking Aboriginal children as 'deeply, horribly, morally wrong.'

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: In the end, those acts diminish us all. It shouldn't have happened. It obviously must never happen again. But I've had the perspective to think and talk and care about this for seven years and I've decided words are cheap. We can pass motions, we can have all good intentions, but if you actually look today in my area of health, there is no evidence of any improvement whatsoever in the last decade, in fact in many areas things have gone backwards or they've remained static for the Aboriginal population where things have improved for the rest of the population. So the gap has actually widened.

CATHERINE JOB: The Member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson, wasn't happy with either version of the motion and put up amendments of her own, calling once again for the abolition of ATSIC.

PAULINE HANSON: ATSIC has failed as a product of Commonwealth legislation and needs to be abolished. Indigenous Australians need to be brought back into the mainstream so that their problems can be dealt with on a needs basis. They should be protected from bureaucratic failure to the same extent that other Australians are.

CATHERINE JOB: Ms Hanson's amendments were defeated, as were the Oppositions. In the end, the Prime Minister's motion went through on a show of hands; the Opposition not calling for a division. But Labor found some consolation in the Senate where, with support from the Democrats, the Greens and Brian Harradine, their amendments won the day. Whether either motion will make a real difference to the problems both sides agree beset indigenous Australians is another question altogether.

MONICA ATTARD: Catherine Job reporting there from Canberra.