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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3152

Senator COOK(4.08) — The Senate is debating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Interim Protection) Bill 1984. I recited the full title of the Bill to draw to the attention of the Senate what this debate is really about. It is unfortunate that people who listened to the contribution of speakers on the other side of the House would not have gained much of an idea of what it is really about. The operative words in the title are 'interim protection' and 'heritage'. The Bill itself goes out of being in two years. In that period the Government hopes to bring in legislation on land rights and a number of other things to protect the rights of Aboriginal people in Australia, to allow them a decent place in Australian society and, at long last, to give them due recognition as original owners of this country. The other important aspect of the title, which seems to have been ignored by many speakers in the debate, is the word 'heritage'. We have heard from the Opposition that this is a land rights Bill. We have read advertisements to the effect that it is a land rights Bill. It is explicitly a Bill to protect heritage. As much as honourable senators opposite might try to contort and pervert the English language, that is what this Bill is about. It is not about land rights. That is a matter to which this Government is committed, about which it will consult later, and on which it will eventually bring in legislation.

However, there is a campaign in the community, a campaign which has started by attacking this legislation. It is in the form of an ambit objection to any legislation dealing with Aboriginal rights in Australia. It is an ambit objection so that when legislation eventually arises on land rights, the campaign organisers hope to have built and stoked an emotional anti-Aboriginal campaign and, therefore, on the basis of that, they hope to defeat the legislation on land rights.

I want to bring this debate right back to what it is really about. It is important, and unfortunate, to note that Opposition senators have lent their names and their speeches in support of an emotional and damaging campaign against Aboriginal people. I would caution honourable senators opposite that that is an extraordinarily dangerous course. It is a course that leads to division on a matter about which we ought to be unified. It is a course that puts Australians against Australians on a matter about which we should all stand together decently, at long last, to respect and acknowledge the rights of Aboriginal people in this community. I make that appeal. I hear the interjections. If honourable senators want to persist with the interjections that they are on the side of division and disunity, let them persist and be identified as objectors. But if they want to put their names to some unity of purpose about what this Government stands for and what is the due right of the Aboriginal people, they should support the legislation.

I want to take the Senate back briefly to events that occurred in Australia on 8 August 1980. On that day 50 trucks assembled in convoy at Eneabba, a small town near Geraldton in Western Australia, and had loaded on them an oil drilling platform. The trucks were then driven 1,500 kilometres north to a place called Noonkanbah in Western Australia. They were escorted by an extensive police escort, and they were escorted as well by a traffic escort. It is important to make the distinction, because one escort was for police purposes and one was for traffic purposes. These trucks had had the number plates removed, and new number plates had been issued by the State Government in order that the identity of the owners of the trucks or their drivers could never be traced. Put into those trucks were individuals who had been recruited by an organisation known as Assistance and Security Corporation, an organisation publicly dedicated to strike breaking and other anti-Australian activities. These individuals then, in explicit defiance of a ban, proceeded as scab drivers to drive that convoy.

What that convoy met was a series of objections and picket lines in the towns of Karratha, Roebourne and Port Hedland, and near Strelley station, north of Port Hedland, and in Broome, Derby, and Noonkanbah itself. It was a divisive act . It was an act that polarised the Australian community. The whole purpose of this quasi-military operation was to conduct a drilling exercise in an area of sacred significance for the Yungora community at Noonkanbah in Western Australia . It was conducted, moreover, to require the company that had the licence issued by the Western Australian Government, Amax Exploration (Australia) Inc., against the advice of the Museum in Western Australia, the organisation charged with protecting sacred sites, to drill on that particular site, when Amax did not want to drill on that site and had made it clear to a number of people and to the Noonkanbah community that it was required to drill because the Western Australian Government at that time had blackmailed it with the threat that if it did not drill as directed by that Government, all rights to prospect anywhere else in Western Australia would be withdrawn.

Then the roughnecks, the people who operate the drill platform, put a ban on the activities of that rig in response to a request from the Aboriginals in the area to protect their sacred sites. Under cover of night, during the time when the community was away from its traditional land at Fitzroy Crossing, the State Government, again with the aid of the Assistance and Security Corporation, organised scab labour to come in on a back road and take over the rig-which overnight was nationalised by the Western Australian Government-and drill on and desecrate a sacred site. There had been extensive negotiations to prevent this. I repeat that the company concerned did not want to proceed. However, the Western Australian Government at the time, under Sir Charles Court, threatened that if the company did not proceed it would lose its right to drill or prospect anywhere else in Western Australia.

Who was this action taken against? It was taken against the sacred needs of the Yungora community in Western Australia. This community had constituted itself on Noonkanbah station and was running a successful pastoral operation. The community had banned alcohol and a number of other European practices from that station in order to reconstruct the community and allow its members to drag themselves back from being fringe dwellers to a functioning respectable Aboriginal entity. At this community a dignified and gentle people was reconstructing itself on the land that it associated with.

We have talked in this place about religion. What we need to understand in terms of Aboriginal culture is that it is related to the land. Aboriginal culture is related to occupancy of land. The special features of that land give the Aboriginal culture a special meaning. Without an intact and inherent culture there is no base on which to form a community or to establish a proper Aboriginal organisation. If their cultural objects and sites of sacred influence are taken away their cultural base is destroyed and they are destroyed as a people.

I cited the Noonkanbah event because that occurred less than four years ago in Western Australia. It occurred at a time when the Federal Government had power under the Australian Constitution to do something about it. But the Government sat on its hands and did nothing to prevent that desecration. This caused sickness and ill health in the community. The operation was aimed at undermining an established and functioning Aboriginal society. This legislation is to protect Aboriginals and to prevent a repetition of those events. If anyone says that there is no need for this legislation then I ask them to go back to 1980 and argue the case in relation to Noonkanbah. If we had had this legislation and a government with the will to act, the damage that was done could have been prevented.

Senator Messner —Why does the State Caucus in Western Australia not agree with you?

Senator COOK —The State Caucus in Western Australia has another view. Since Senator Messner has raised the question of the State Caucus in Western Australia -I anticipate that maybe even Senator Chaney will wish to throw that objection at me-I set the record right. The position in Western Australia is quite simple. The Burke Labor Government, when elected last year as a result of the defeat of the remnants of the Court era, was elected on a comprehensive platform to do something about Aboriginal rights in Western Australia. It has public approval to do that.

Senator Messner —To be seen to be doing something.

Senator COOK —If Senator Messner does not want to listen to the explanation I ask him not to interject in future. The Western Australian Government constituted an inquiry, headed by Paul Seaman, QC, into land rights. The inquiry moved immediately to that question of land rights. There is an honest difference of view between the Western Australian Government and our Government as to whether land rights should come first or the heritage legislation should come first. That is the difference. If one wanted to deal immediately with land rights, one would side with the Western Australian Government and the findings of its inquiry. But if one believed that we should move to protect heritage immediately and them move to land rights over time, one would support this legislation and the way in which we have proceeded. The next time a South Australian senator tells me, a Western Australian senator, what Western Australian interests are, he should be better informed. That is the situation.

To move back to this legislation, as I have said, four years ago those horrendous and dissipative events occurred in Australia at a time when a Federal government was in power with a constitutional authority to do something about it . But it did not do anything. This legislation will enable a government to do something. No one can say that there is not a need for this legislation. There is a demonstrated need for it by events that have already occurred. In 1967, as several speakers on our side of the chamber have pointed out, a referendum to clothe the Commonwealth with powers on land rights was carried. Not all referendums put to the people are carried but this was a distinctive and important referendum. It attracted a 92.7 per cent Yes vote. It attracted support by a majority vote in all States and in all electoral divisions. It was a resounding and overwhelming authority to the Australian Government to move. But it has taken until now for a government to make those moves, and to make those moves after due and adequate consultation.

Some honourable senators opposite have argued that the principles of this legislation are wrong. If one looks around this country, most State governments in some form or another have on their statute books legislation which would enable them to move in the ways set out in this Bill. So Opposition senators cannot say that this legislation is wrong when in a majority of States in Australia the principle is already in existence. What this legislation does is to provide a Federal mechanism by which, in the event of special need nationally , the national interests of the country can be protected if the measures open to the State government are not taken up for particular reasons. Therefore, what is being proposed is nothing more than what a number of States in this country already have in the way of powers. It provides the Federal Government with a safety net that is necessary to give voice to its constitutional obligation as carried by the referendum in 1967.

I turn now to some of the objections made to the legislation. As I said at the beginning, essentially an ambit objection is being developed for political reasons, aimed not directly at this Bill but at any legislation to advance and protect Aboriginal rights in Australia. That objection is couched in the most emotional terms and we have now heard the bleating dismay and cry of no consultation. I am advised that full and adequate consultation has been undertaken. There may be some people who will object to the decisions made, after the consultations, and demand continuous consultation in order to obstruct any progress and to prevent anything being done. That is always a way of protest . When one's objections have all been listened to and considered, but the Government in the interest of the nation chooses to proceed, a demand of no consultation is a pretence at opposition.

As I have said, there has been full and adequate consultation. However, I am dismayed to see that the Australian Mining Industry Council has moved to advertise a need for consultation in an advertisement that appeared in a number of newspapers. The interesting thing about the Mining Industry Council's advertisement is that, if it were sent for examination, it would be proven to be a misleading advertisement, a frankly distorted and misleading advertisement, containing a distortion of the truth. The heading 'A Need for Consultation' denies the fact that the Mining Industry Council has met with the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke); Senator Walsh, the Minister for Resources and Energy; and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding; and discussed fully with those three people, the three principal officers concerned with this matter in the Government, all of the matters about which the Mining Industry Council is concerned. One cannot have an argument that there is inadequate consultation when the highest officers in the Government have made themselves available to consult. It is just a contortion of words.

Let us go to the advertisement and look at some of the other misleading comments made. The advertisement states that the Bill:

could give the Government almost unlimited power to declare an area or object to be of special significance to Aboriginals.

I do not find anything in that statement objectionable. Why should not the Commonwealth, in proper circumstances and with proper protections all round, have that power given by 92.7 per cent of votes in the referendum in 1967? It is not the existence of the power that anyone would argue about; it is the way in which the power would be exercised. That is where this advertisement is again misleading. The second point the advertisement states is that the Bill could:

Adversely affect landholders without providing them with proper rights for compensation.

That is just not true. What the Bill provides, and it is there in black and white for those who choose to read it, is that where a sacred area is to be considered, the Minister, upon receiving a request, will depute someone to make an inquiry and, in making that inquiry, that person will, of course, take into account the views of all of those who have been affected. I do not need to say that. It is in the second reading speech. It is in all of the statements that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has made. It is a clear and very obvious interpretation of what, in fact, the procedure would be. Of course, there is also a provision in the Bill for compensation. This advertisement cannot argue in the terms it does without attracting the label that it is directly misrepresentative.

The advertisement makes another point. It states that the Bill could:

Apply to large areas, not simply specific sites.

That, of course, is an attempt to scaremonger about a massive takeover of all lands in Australia in terms of land rights. It is just not true. We are talking about sacred areas and areas of special influence or objects and artifacts in this legislation. We are talking only about such things. As I have said several times, we are not talking about land rights. The subject of land rights requires further consultation and that is something that will come later.

I could advert to a number of other points which are made in this advertisement . The reason I am spending some time on it is that it seems to be the debating script for senators opposite who have not read the Bill but only the advertisement. I recommend that they read the Bill. Last night we heard from Senator Bjelke-Petersen something about people who might unwittingly wander on to Aboriginal areas and disturb Aboriginal sites. Of course, in the advertisement-the script for her speech-there is a reference to that as well. The advertisement says that such people could be subject to heavy penalties. Again, that is just not true. There is a clear provision in the Bill which provides that if a person did not know and can reasonably demonstrate that he did not know, that person has mounted a successful defence.

However, what this advertisement and the speakers on the other side have tended to talk about have been the rights of everybody else. That has been the problem in Australia. We have always talked about the rights of everybody else. It is about time we talked about the rights of the Aboriginal people. This Bill tries to protect their heritage by giving them a right to appeal to the Minister who has the power to declare their areas of sacredness be protected. Rather than fall for the emotional claptrap and inherent incipient racism of the campaign that is being mounted, we in this place have a duty to look at the rights of the Aboriginal people and to provide by this legislation relevant protections.

I return again to the fundamental proposition: Aboriginal culture is based on the land. If that culture is not protected, Aborigines do not have an identity. This Bill tries to provide a mechanism-I believe a successful one-which will enable their culture, and thus their identity, to be protected. Once their identity and culture are protected they can move with greater dignity in this community and start to deal with the other matters of grave concern to them.

I commend this Bill to the Senate. I believe it should be passed. I hope, having seen the list of speakers that will follow me, that we will not hear the scaremongering racist claptrap that has intruded in the speeches of honourable senators on the other side. I hope that by carrying this Bill we can move towards doing something which will dignify the Aboriginal people.