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Thursday, 14 May 1987
Page: 3234

Mr CONNOLLY —by leave-I join with the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and thank him for his kind remarks about members of the Committee and the staff, with which I totally concur. I also support the observations that he has made. This is a very important report. It is the first time that this Parliament, to the best of my knowledge, has recognised, in a report form, the significance of the homelands movement among what are principally Central Australian Aboriginal communities.

One must remember that we are talking not about urban Aborigines, or even fringe dwelling Aborigines, but Aboriginal communities which are, to a very large degree, either remaining in what can best be described as their traditional environments and following their own traditional lifestyle, or communities which, through no fault of their own, as a result of decisions taken by governments in the past, have been moved from their traditional lands-allegedly to provide ser- vices, by State and Federal governments. The need to move relatively small communities out of a desert-type environment so that they could be better administered and controlled was in accordance with policies which were based on the belief that Aborigines had to be assimilated at all costs. The majority of Australians now accept the fact that assimilation was not a successful program. Whereas the long-term objective should be to integrate, insofar as that is possible, Aboriginal Australians into the mainstream-if I may use that term-of the Australian community, nevertheless they have the right to determine the lifestyle that they wish to follow.

The majority of Australians living in the metropolitan suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and other cities, find it difficult to understand and appreciate the lifestyle, traditions, culture and the very physical environment in which other members of the Australian community live. That is something absolutely alien to the experience of most people, and it is often difficult to explain the difficulties and the expectations of the Aboriginal community living in that environment.

We hoped that our report would analyse, in a systematic manner, the major issues facing those people, in the hope that it would become a resource document that could be used by other Australians, wherever they may be, to understand better the implications and the difficulties that we all face in coming to terms with what can only be described as a fundamental conflict of perception. We are not talking about the noble savage; we are not talking about black English men or black Australians-in the sense that the nineteenth century colonist would have referred to many indians, for example-we are talking about a great and noble culture that has survived over many thousands of years, despite the extraordinary activities of some of our forebears to wipe it out.

Mr Hand —Forty thousand years, actually.

Mr CONNOLLY —Yes, 40,000 years, as my colleague on the Committee, the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Hand), points out. The significant point is that whereas in the areas of major white settlement in Australia there are no longer any traditional Aboriginal communities in the accepted sense of the term, that is not the position in Cape York, most of the Northern Territory, the north western tip of Western Australia and the desert areas of South Australia. Those communities were allowed to remain more or less intact for the very simple reason that they had no economic resources that anybody else wanted. Whether people want to admit that or not, that happens to be the message of history that I think we all need to understand.

It is, therefore, in that environment that those communities could have been allowed to remain indefinitely, had it not been for the decisions of previous governments not to allow them to do so. For better or worse, they had to be brought together and into contact with the superior culture of the European race and they had to be assimilated. Now, perhaps, we have learned the lack of wisdom of our earlier decisions and are trying to develop programs under which Aboriginal Australians, especially those within a traditional or semi-traditional environment, are to be given at least the right, insofar as it is possible in a multicultural society, to self-determination and to achieve a degree of autonomy.

Mistakes were made but people and governments were trying to do the right thing, while not necessarily succeeding in that objective. We tried to give them autonomy, without properly appreciating what that should mean. What is worse, we tended to try to force upon their cultural systems our sense of values and what we regard as the normal impedimenta of a modern society. When we visit the parts of Australia where those people still live, we find a whole generation of people of an age probably equivalent to most members of this Parliament, and it is difficult to understand that very few of them can read or write English. They can understand their own dialect, and many can understand three or four dialects, but they were never taught to read or write English. Yet we are attempting to introduce cultural systems in the form of health services, local government services and the whole range of government programs, which are fundamentally in conflict with the traditions and the understanding of that very ancient society.

I make that point because, with all the good will in the world, we will not be able successfully to overcome the very serious problems that many of those communities face, in that the level of education, by our standards, is deplorable, that the housing conditions in which many of them live is equally deplorable, and that the standards of health are a disgrace to Australia-as they are. If we compare them with any fourth world community in most parts of the world, the statistics for Aboriginal health are among the world's worst. Therefore, on the one hand we have a culture that regards itself as being civilised, as being among the world's leaders, with a standard of living that we regard-or did until relatively recently-as being among the world's best, and yet side by side with that we have this incredible combination of the first world and the fourth world.

It appalls me how few Australians seem really to understand that these serious problems of deprivation are not in Bangladesh, the Sahelen parts of Africa, West Africa, but are here in our own country. Those who continually call for greater expenditure on foreign aid, for example, allegedly to overcome the problems of other peoples, would do themselves and this nation a greater favour if they put some of their resources into trying to understand better the genuine and real problems being faced by their fellow Australians not so far away.

It is important to note that, as a result of lands right policies throughout Australia, 12 per cent of this nation is now Aboriginal land. In the Northern Territory, the figure is over 30 per cent, and if current claims are accepted it will be about 50 per cent in the foreseeable future. We are, therefore, dealing with a significant amount of land, although the percentage of our total population living there is very small indeed. Probably, between 60,000 and 80,000 people are the subject of this report. Nevertheless, those people are members of the Australian community in the wider sense of the term and are entitled to expect access to a standard of living and conditions at least comparable with those that most Australians simply take for granted. It is precisely because of that that the Liberal Party's Aboriginal policy is based on the fundamental premise of equality of opportunity for all Australians, insofar as it is possible to achieve that given geographic and other problems.

The result is important in that it demonstrates the current shambles in the provision of basic services, where both Commonwealth and State governments are often trying to outdo each other in the same area. For example, in South Australia we met a senior officer of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, whose responsibility is for the Pitjantjatjara homelands in the north of the State. For the benefit of the House, the Pitjantjatjara people were the first Aboriginal community to receive land rights in the modern context. In that community today, there is a range of social and health problems as bad as, if not worse than, anywhere else in the world. I am not suggesting that there is a connection between the two; what I am saying is that land rights by itself is not the answer to some of the fundamental problems that those people face.

What that senior officer told us was that that small community, which I understand has about 1,800 to 2,000 people, has every month more than 2,000 visitors from various government agencies, both Federal and State-doctors, medical personnel technicians coming to fix things; name it and they get it-2,000 visitors a month for a community of about 1,800 people spread in small groups throughout that vast area. Many Aboriginals say to themselves, when they see the constant flow of visitors: `What are we getting for all of this? White Australians complain that too much money is being spent on our development. We know that the figure is some $5 billion. It is about $2,000 per head per annum, on a per capita basis. But it does not seem to help those most in need'. A conflict has been allowed to develop in our society over the allegation that 1.4 per cent of the population is getting more than what is perceived to be its fair share. That is a matter of the greatest concern to me and to the Opposition.

The reality is that many Aboriginal people, the subject of this report are the most deprived Australians in this country. It is grotesque that they should be held responsible for the maladministration of programs by this Parliament and by State parliaments which have resulted in them being blamed and not us. We determine these policies, we apply these programs and we have to accept responsibility for their success or failure. Our report referred to about 588 homeland centres. They are growing at a substantial rate, as more tribal groups break away from the mixed communities in which generations have been forced to live because our policies so dictated in the past. They brought friction among tribes who are as different as the French and the Germans. Anyone who has studied European history would agree that for so long there were no more antagonistic and more different races than the French and the Germans.

The old Australia, before we came here, was made up of thousands of tribes with different languages, subtle differences of culture and clearly defined land boundaries. With our superior knowledge we forced them to live together and wondered why the experiment was a disaster. The homeland movement today is the response. Aborigines are saying: `We now have a title to this land, given to us by the parliaments of the States or the Commonwealth, and we want to go and live on our traditional land'. That is a response which every Australian should be able to accept.

The problem we are facing is: What level or services are these people entitled to have? This Parliament would appreciate, as the members of the Committee would appreciate, that if people live in the desert they will not have the same standard of services as those provided in a suburb of a main city of Australia. No one is disputing that. What we are saying in this report is that there are minimum standards of health, education, welfare et cetera which we must strive to attain, to meet reasonable expectations. At the same time, we must ensure that the outstation resource organisations, which are on the ground and under some control by these traditional communities, through their normal tribal elder systems and so forth, will be able to provide these services.

However, we are concerned that the standard of, essentially, white people who are working in these communities leaves much to be desired. That is why one of our recommendations is that we should improve standards of education and training so that Aboriginal communities will have the opportunity to say: `We are taking people among us, to work with us; people we can trust and relate to, who at least understand the basis of anthropology, who have had some opportunities to learn the dialects which our people speak, people who have some empathy with what we are trying to achieve for ourselves in our own cultural environment.' Regrettably, because we have not had this standard in the past and because salary scales are remarkably low, considering the very real social and economic difficulties in which people have to live and the sheer problem of distance, we have not attracted the type of people we need for those essential services. We need to go further than we have. We need to re-examine what we did in Papua New Guinea, where we had excellent support services. Patrol officers were trained in Sydney. They had the same standards and were under the same basic discipline. They were able to go out and work with the tribal communities of Papua New Guinea. It amazes me that, having learned the lessons from Papua New Guinea, we did our best to ignore them when faced with similar problems in our own Aboriginal communities.

Many things can be said about this report. We believe that its contents are important. It refers to the arts and crafts industry and the need to give Aboriginal communities greater economic self-sufficiency because, ultimately, economic development and financial independence are essential elements if we seriously seek greater autonomy and self-determination.