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Aboriginal Affairs Minister signals funding for a further inquiry into the Hindmarsh Island bridge will be taken from ATSIC revenue; discusses proposal for the Army to build infrastructure in remote communities

PETER CAVE: The Prime Minister says the Senate has failed the people of South Australia by rejecting the Federal Government's attempt to allow the Hindmarsh Island Bridge to go ahead. Last night in the Senate, the Opposition and the Democrats and Independents blocked Government moves to fast-track building the bridge. Mr Howard says the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Senator John Herron, will now be forced to hold another inquiry at a cost of up to a million dollars, and has dubbed the Senate's action yesterday farcical. But Democrats Leader, Cheryl Kernot, says the Government's Bill was racially discriminatory and unnecessary. Now, Aboriginal Affairs and Island Minister, Senator John Herron, says the million dollars may have to come from ATSIC funds that would be better spent on health, housing and employment. Senator Herron is in our Canberra studio, and to talk to him, Catherine Job.

CATHERINE JOB: Senator Herron, this can't have come as a surprise to you. What will you do now?

JOHN HERRON: Well, it did come as a surprise because we thought common sense might prevail, but this fiasco is going to continue. Now, where we go from here is that I am required to have a Section 10 report. There isn't a valid one. An application has been made for it; it was agreed to by the previous Minister, and I'll just have to go ahead with that. So it means another inquiry.

CATHERINE JOB: That doesn't necessarily mean a big inquiry though, does it? I mean, even the Ngarrindjeri people themselves point out, you could simply appoint someone who is closely associated with a previous inquiry that was found to be unconstitutional - the Matthews inquiry - review the literature that's already in place, and write a report for you. Why does that have to cost a million dollars?

JOHN HERRON: Given the litigation that's gone on before with this, that suggestion is ludicrous because it means that a quick and dirty inquiry can be challenged in the court, and here we go again - the merry-go-round continues, the fiasco continues. And it's at the Senate, the Labor Party and the minor parties have supported that. You'd think common sense would prevail. I think the Australian public regards this as just a fiasco.

CATHERINE JOB: But you have the power to make a declaration on this, to say 'enough is enough, this is my decision,' don't you, under the Act as it stands?

JOHN HERRON: Well, no, I've got to have another inquiry before that. Yes, I have the power ....

CATHERINE JOB: Then you can do that.

JOHN HERRON: Then I can do it, but then we've got to have another inquiry. That million dollars has to be paid for by ATSIC, and that's what makes me angry. That's a million dollars more out of their budget. Now, I don't here the Democrats and the minor parties screaming about that, and they should be.

CATHERINE JOB: But why does the report have to cost a million dollars and, once you've had it, you can make your declaration and that's the end of the matter? I mean, there is light at the end of this tunnel now ....

JOHN HERRON: No, there's no light at the end of the tunnel. There have been four inquiries so far, $4 million has been spent. Now, you can have a cheap inquiry, but do you really think that would stand up in the courts? Of course, it won't. If there is to be an inquiry, then it has to be a full and replete one so that it can't be challenged. And it will be. I mean, there's no doubt. Given the nature of this fiasco that's gone on so long, then I don't think a quick and dirty inquiry .. even Father Frank Brennan said that. He said it would be a sham.

CATHERINE JOB: Will you facilitate this inquiry by appointing a female Minister to take receipt of it, as the Ngarrindjeri people have asked and as the former Government did, given that some of this material is culturally restricted?

JOHN HERRON: Well, that's another furphy in the sense that there are some Ngarrindjeri women that objected to this. It's not all the Ngarrindjeri women, it was one group of Ngarrindjeri women. The women that told the truth - and you'll recall that there was a Royal Commission into this, into the secret women's business. A Royal Commission found that it was a fabrication. Now, do you still go along with those people when a Royal Commission has found that they fabricated evidence, and you want me to take notice of that when a Royal Commission has said it was a fabrication?

CATHERINE JOB: What harm would it do to appoint a female Minister to take receipt of a report on allegedly sensitive female matters?

JOHN HERRON: Are we going to have fabricated evidence dictate the sex of the Minister? Do you want the colour of their eyes; do you want the colour of their hair? I mean, are we going to be determined by fabricated evidence as to which Minister or the sex of the Minister when the evidence was shown by a Royal Commission to be fabricated?

CATHERINE JOB: I guess that's a no then?

JOHN HERRON: Well, let's see. But I think .. there is a request for a report. I'll reply to that when that request comes forward.

CATHERINE JOB: Is this an indicator of how the Senate will likely vote on any attempt to extinguish native title in response to the Wik High Court judgement?

JOHN HERRON: Oh, I think you'll have to ask the Independents because I'm particularly disappointed with their stand on this, too, because they've denied the South Australian people the opportunity to have a bridge put across to Hindmarsh Island, and it's on their heads and the rest of the Senate, for that matter. You'd think the Labor Party would have learnt something out of it. They haven't learnt the lesson of the last election. The Hindmarsh Island fiasco was a rather big nail in their political coffin, and you know, in a sense, I feel sorry for them because they are the laughing stock of the Australian public over this Hindmarsh Island fiasco.

CATHERINE JOB: On the Wik matter, if you do extinguish native title on pastoral leases, as the farmers want, what happens to the Aboriginal people who still, as they always have in many parts of northern Australia, live on those pastoral leases and use the land like the Wik peoples themselves? Does that mean they lose the right of access they've always exercised?

JOHN HERRON: Cathy, you should know better than that, trying to drag me into the Wik situation when we are discussing Hindmarsh Island. I mean, nice try, Cathy, but no go.

CATHERINE JOB: So there isn't an answer to that question?

JOHN HERRON: We're talking about Hindmarsh Island; I'm talking about that legislation that was rejected by the Senate; and it's a nice go to get on about the Wik decision. As you know, the Prime Minister is consulting every group. There was a meeting called for next Friday and the process is still in train.

CATHERINE JOB: On that meeting, Aboriginal leaders are considering boycotting it, claiming they weren't consulted with the timing of it; they weren't actually invited to attend, they were told. Is this another example of the Government's, if you like, hand-fistedness or insensitivity in dealing with the Aboriginal issues?

JOHN HERRON: Not at all. I was present at that meeting and it came up during discussion that there should be another meeting, and the Prime Minister said he'd be happy to convene one. And the invitation was announced, as you know, on Sunday for a meeting on Friday. Now, they've already had a meeting; they've had previous meetings, and there are some quite outstanding Aboriginal leaders there who were present at that. And I don't see that a week should be a deterrent to coming forward. I understand that they're meeting today to determine whether they'll attend that meeting. I think it would be in their best interest to attend, and I hope that they do. I don't see any point in boycotting things.

CATHERINE JOB: What's happened to the proposal to send armies into remote communities to build infrastructures? Anything happening with that?

JOHN HERRON: Yes, oh very much so. We've been working on that over Christmas, and there should be an announcement at the end of this month where, as I said at the time that was announced, it would be in consultation with the Aboriginal communities and we are consulting them and we should be able to announce at the end of the month the six pilot studies, and I think that's progressed on very well. A lot of work has gone on, as I say, but the important thing is to go in with the agreement of those communities and we are close to that resolution now.

CATHERINE JOB: Senator Herron, thanks for your time.

JOHN HERRON: Thanks for your interest.

PETER CAVE: And Catherine Job was speaking there to the Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, Senator John Herron.