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Minister accuses the Liberal Party of orchestrating the allegations that secret women's business in the Hindmarsh Bridge affair was invented

KATIE CRONIN: The Federal Government says allegations that secret women's business was invented to stop the Hindmarsh Island Bridge project have Liberal Party fingerprints all over them. Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner, says the Liberal Party orchestrated the allegations by five Ngarrindjeri women who say the secret women's business was invented at the instigation of a male Aboriginal legal service adviser.

Information about the women's spiritual beliefs contained in a sealed envelope were central to a ban placed on the bridge by Mr Tickner, and later to the resignation of Liberal Shadow Minister, Ian McLachlan, after the documents were mistakenly delivered to his office and opened.

Opposition Leader, John Howard, is calling for an independent inquiry into the affair, but the Government is refusing. Now Minister Robert Tickner says sections of the media are in bed with the Liberals over Hindmarsh Island, and they're using stolen documents to further the cause.

ROBERT TICKNER: I've held back from making a substantive public comment about the allegations, until now. And I've held back because my basic approach to my responsibilities is to be cautious and prudent in the way I carry them out. Now the fact of the matter is that the allegations that have been made are very much, I believe, a part of a Liberal Party orchestrated attack. I think the fingerprints of the Liberal Party are all over this. Let me make it clear that the latest allegations are at least six months old; that they've been contradicted by an anthropologist who prepared a report for the South Australian Government; and today, my stolen mail, the material copied by Mr McLachlan, has been used as part of that Liberal Party campaign.

I think it is totally discredited, but the important message I want to get across is the extent to which my mail and the Liberal Party is deeply immersed in this campaign to discredit the beliefs of the Aboriginal women.

KATIE CRONIN: Are you calling Dorothy Wilson of the Ngarrindjeri tribe a liar for saying the women's business was concocted - something she says and she firmly believes?

ROBERT TICKNER: I pass no comment on any individual person, let alone an Aboriginal woman in this matter, because what I want to do is just talk about the objective evidence. And today we had....

KATIE CRONIN: But aren't her beliefs part of this evidence? And isn't it true .. she says she was there and it was concocted?

ROBERT TICKNER: Well, I think the Aboriginal women who hold the beliefs have rebutted her comments in the course of the last 24 hours. But let me just say in a very decisive and conclusive way that today we had a public statement by Dr Draper(?). Dr Draper was, in fact, working for the South Australian Government. He said on the record today that the claim that the spiritual beliefs were concocted was an insult to the Aboriginal elders who've kept their faith, taken the hard decisions to reveal their secrets, and had put themselves and their culture on the line. And let me make it very clear, Dr Draper reported the existence of those spiritual beliefs to the South Australian Government prior to the meeting it's now been alleged that they were concocted. He was on the record before the meeting, giving credence and support to the existence of those beliefs, and he's come out very strongly today.

KATIE CRONIN: But didn't you receive advice in a ministerial document dated 13 April, 1994 that there wasn't really enough evidence for you to stop the bridge going ahead?

ROBERT TICKNER: I certainly did and, of course, on the basis of that document took no action to issue a heritage declaration. You see, this is one of the stolen documents. This is one of the documents that was copied and distributed by Mr McLachlan, and what we saw today was the Tele Mirror and the Herald Sun reporting a stolen document. What they didn't say is that after that I became aware of the Draper report and its contents; after that I commissioned the report by the very eminent Professor Saunders, which reported to me, totally objectively, about the existence of those spiritual beliefs.

And I think one of the really tawdry parts of this Liberal [...] campaign that's been given great sanction by Mr Howard, is that Professor Saunders has had her integrity and her impartiality criticised as a part of this Liberal Party campaign.

You see, people forget that only a couple of months ago there were more dirty tricks. The fact of the matter was that a South Australian Liberal, Mr Lewis, in the South Australian Parliament, purported to quote from a letter from an 89 year-old Aboriginal woman criticising the existence of her spiritual beliefs. It was then found out that Mrs Kartinyeri had been tricked into signing the letter, which she had been told would help stop the building of the Hindmarsh Island bridge.

But the bottom line is this: back in December, Mr Ian McLachlan, in the Federal Parliament, tried out the very accusations that are now being so badly beaten up by the media, and I don't blame sections, some sections of the media, for being sucked in to this Liberal Party campaign of trickery. But frankly, some sections of the media have been very much in bed with this campaign. They have waged a campaign of smear against the beliefs of Aboriginal people with the Liberal Party that none of them would ever dare do to the spiritual beliefs of non-Aboriginal Australians.

KATIE CRONIN: Mr Tickner, no matter how convinced you are though of the rightness of this cause, nonetheless a great deal of doubt has been thrown on it by the allegations of Dorothy Wilson. If you've got nothing to fear, surely it's in your interests and those of the Aboriginal community to have the inquiry and clear up the confusion which could make the public lose confidence in the whole issue.

KATIE CRONIN: Well, two points, Katherine, firstly, there has been an independent inquiry conducted by Professor Saunders, which I think was a very impartial inquiry and which is a matter of public record. But secondly, should there be a decision of the full Federal Court of Australia which supports an earlier Federal Court decision, then I will be required by law, in the proper exercise of my ministerial duties, to call for a further inquiry and report, and that will be certainly undertaken by a person of no lesser independence and ability than the first report undertaken by Professor Saunders.

KATIE CRONIN: Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner.