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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1809

Mr LES SCOTT —-My question is directed to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Can the Minister advise the House of the latest developments in the campaign to return Aboriginal human remains to the Aborigine people?

Mr TICKNER —-I thank the honourable member for his question about what I think is regarded by all Aboriginal people as a very sensitive and delicate issue; namely, the holding of Aboriginal human remains by museums, universities and other institutions. Unfortunately, this comes after a very sordid history which in many cases amounted to little more than grave robbing and in others was founded on what are now totally discredited supposedly scientific theories based on racial superiority. They are of course absolutely false and are offensive not only to Aboriginal people but, I hope, to all Australians.

In recent times there have been a number of cases of the most welcome return of remains from Australian museums to Aboriginal communities. The Commonwealth has also been working closely with Aboriginal people to secure the return of many of the human remains which regrettably are still held in overseas institutions. I am pleased to report to the honourable member that one of the biggest collections of Aboriginal remains held overseas has recently been returned to Australia. I refer to a collection of skeletons and part skeletons of some 300 Aboriginal people which was formerly held by the University of Edinburgh. This, the single biggest collection of remains ever to be returned to Australia, includes remains taken from every mainland State and from the Northern Territory. It happened only because of prolonged negotiations involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the ATSIC organisation and the Australian High Commission.

The return of those remains has been particularly difficult and I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the university and to all those who have been involved in securing the return of the remains. One of the problems is that, because of the deficiency in the information available from the university about the origins of the bulk of its collection, the ATSIC commissioners have arranged to have this material returned to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra for safe keeping until appropriate communities can be identified to take custody of it. Two Aboriginal men with a long history of involvement in this area, Mr David Mowaljarlai, the Aboriginal of the Year, and Bob Wetherall recently returned to Australia with the remains. The successful return of those remains is an example of what can be achieved when all parties work together on this very sensitive issue.

I am pleased to report that there is also a high level of political cooperation across Australia on this issue. The meeting of the Australian Aboriginal Affairs Council resolved in December last year to adopt a policy that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be given rights of ownership over the skeletal remains of their people. That was a unanimous decision. A task force of Commonwealth, State and Territory officials and Aboriginal community representatives has been developing a strategy for implementing that policy and will report to a further meeting of the Council.

As I said earlier, the removal of Aboriginal human remains from their resting places was deeply offensive to Aboriginal people, and it remains deeply offensive. I am sure that they will welcome the fact that this major collection from the University of Edinburgh has been returned to Australia and soon will be restored to Aboriginal custody. There can be no justification for the continued holding of such remains, which in many cases have been stored and untouched for decades in the cupboards of museums and collecting institutions in Australia and around the world.

Mr Howe —-Mr Acting Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.