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Thursday, 26 August 1999
Page: 9205

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (12:24 PM) —by leave—I move:

That this House:

(a) reaffirms its wholehearted commitment to the cause of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians as an important national priority for Australians;

(b) recognising the achievements of the Australian nation commits to work together to strengthen the bonds that unite us, to respect and appreciate our differences and to build a fair and prosperous future in which we can all share;

(c) reaffirms the central importance of practical measures leading to practical results that address the profound economic and social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many indigenous Australians;

(d) recognises the importance of understanding the shared history of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and the need to acknowledge openly the wrongs and injustices of Australia's past;

(e) acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our international history;

(f) expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices; and

(g) believes that we, having achieved so much as a nation, can now move forward together for the benefit of all Australians.

It will be no secret to the House or, indeed, to many Australians that over the past few days—indeed, over the past few weeks—I and a number of my colleagues and others have been giving thought to the issues that are the subject of this motion. It is a historic resolution. It is a very important resolution because it goes to the issues of the spirit and the heart and the character of our country in a way that many of the issues we debate in this chamber, important though they are, do not.

As all members know, we are approaching that momentous event in Australia's history when we will celebrate 100 years of Federation—100 years of the Australian nation. That will be an occasion when all of us will want quite legitimately to focus on what this nation has achieved. We will quite legitimately in the year 2001 celebrate with pride in an unqualified way the immensity and the scale of the Australian achievement. And that has been a great achievement. It has been an achievement that has delivered to our country a reputation for achievement, for tolerance, for understanding, for compassion, for independence of spirit, and an ability to work together to overcome adversity. I would imagine that, whatever our views are on political issues, whatever our ethnic or national origin might be, whether we practise this or that religion, or whether we profess no religion at all, we would want in the year 2001 to focus overwhelmingly on those things that unite us as Australians and not those things that divide or set us apart as Australians.

I have come to the view that an important element of that celebration of the unity of the Australian nation is undoubtedly achieving an effective and lasting reconciliation between indigenous Australians and other members of the Australian community. I know that is a desire that everybody in this chamber shares because, in reality, there is an extent to which the sense of the unity of the Australian nation is qualified and diminished so far as indigenous Australians are concerned unless, in their hearts and in their understanding, there is a proper basis for achievement of reconciliation.

It is that context and that background, the desire on the part of the government to make the maximum contribution towards achieving the conditions of reconciliation, which will enable all of us—whatever our views are on constitutional forms, whatever our views are on taxation, whatever our views are on foreign policy, health policy or all the other things that we debate so passionately in this chamber—to pause in the year 2001 and reflect unqualifiedly and without any sense that one sector is diminished or restrained because of unfinished business and to celebrate the scale and the immensity of the Australian achievement.

We need to do that as a people. We want to do that as a people. I want all of the Australian people to feel an equal measure of pride and satisfaction in the Australian achievement. We in this chamber must recognise that that cannot be done in quite that unqualified way by indigenous Australians without a sense of reconciliation.

In approaching this motion today, people are entitled to reflect on what I have said in the past. People are entitled to say that I said this on one occasion. Some will criticise me. Some will say that I have changed my position on some aspects of this. I do not mind if they do. I do not think changing your position on something really matters, unless you are changing to a less worthy position. I have sought to bring to an understanding and a comprehension of this issue what I can to make, as Prime Minister, a practical contribution and a genuine contribution to the cause of reconciliation.

When my government was returned in the election last October, I spoke on election night and said I wanted to commit the government to achieving reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. I believe that the motion that I am putting to the House today, if carried, will make a very significant contribution towards that cause. I do not pretend that this is a perfect motion. I know there will be some in this House who would want it expressed in a different way. There will be some who will say it does not go far enough, and there will be others who will say that perhaps it goes too far.

But it is an honest and sincere attempt on the part of the government to make a genuine contribution to the reconciliation process and to genuinely empathise with the sense of alienation that many indigenous Australians continue to feel within our society. It is also a recognition of the magnanimous way in which many leaders of the indigenous community have sought to approach this issue over the last couple of years. Of course I have to some degree moved my position, and I do not deny that, but so have significant figures in the indigenous community. I respect them for that, and we should respect them for that. That they have done it is a measure of their commitment to the essential unity of the Australian nation. It would be a strange government and a strange Prime Minister who did not reciprocate that act of generosity on their part.

The Australian achievement, as I said, is of a scale that should make all of us proud. This country has achieved enormous things. This country has won itself great repute and great credit around the world. Just as we as a nation are entitled to draw pride from the triumphs and the achievements of Australians, so we must in a completely unvarnished fashion confront both dimensions of our national story. We must not only confront and embrace the dimensions which give us pleasure and pride and a sense of achievement and a sense of satisfaction but also confront the uglier parts of our national history.

Like all nations' histories, ours is a history that has not been without blemish. Without any doubt, the greatest blemish and stain on the Australian national story is our treatment of the indigenous people. I do not think that can be seriously argued against, and that is not the first time I have said that, and it will not be the last. I am not the first Australian political leader or the first Australian Prime Minister to have said that, and I will not be the last.

It is important in this motion that we recognise, confront and acknowledge that and in the process express, as the motion does:

. . . that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter and our international history;

Then we go on in this motion to express:

. . . deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices; . . .

We can debate the detail of this or that practice. We can argue about the detail of particular reports and particular propositions, but the purpose of this motion is to generically express in relation to a number of issues the regret that the people of Australia feel for those past practices and the continuing consequences of them.

I have frequently said, and I will say it again today, that present generations of Australians cannot be held accountable, and we should not seek to hold them accountable, for the errors and misdeeds of earlier generations. Nor should we ever forget that many people who were involved in some of the practices which caused hurt and trauma felt at the time that those practices were properly based. To apply retrospectively the standards of today in relation to their behaviour does some of those people who were sincere an immense injustice, and I think that is understood by most people within the Australian community.

But that does not mean that we ought not to address the issue. That does not mean that we ought not to, on reflection and in generosity and with good heart, express a regret, and a sincere regret, for what has occurred in the past. Part of the process of bringing about an effective reconciliation, and part of the process through that effective reconciliation of making a contribution to the unity of the Australian people, is to do what this motion seeks to do.

Mr Speaker, all of us know as practising politicians that we argue, debate and differ on issues and we feel passionately and strongly about them. I know that those who sit opposite will have a different emphasis and a different view in relation to some aspects of this motion—and that is their right. The opposition are perfectly entitled in the context of this debate to criticise me, to say that this does not go far enough, to say that I should have done it a couple of years ago. They can say all of that, and I frankly do not mind and I do not think the Australian people will take much notice of it, either. I think what the Australian people will do is that they would make an assessment of the sincerity of the Australian government, they would recognise that this government has been able to meet the aspirations of many people within the Australian community and they will recognise that this motion more effectively expresses what they want to say about this issue than any alternative.

The Australian people do not want to embroil themselves in an exercise of shame and guilt. The Australian people know that mistakes were made in the past. The Australian people know that injustices occurred. The Australian people know that wrongs were committed. But for the overwhelming majority of the current generations of Australians, there was no personal involvement of them or of their parents. To say to them that they are personally responsible and that they should feel a sense of shame about those events is to visit upon them an unreasonable penalty and an injustice, and that is why this motion does not seek to do that. Indeed, I am not alone in saying that; it has been recognised by a number of representatives of other parties who have spoken to this issue.

I hope that this motion is, in the end, carried unanimously by this House and also by the Senate. I hope, if that occurs, that it will be seen by the Australian community as a genuine, generous and sincere attempt to recognise past errors, to make a contribution to the cause of reconciliation and to bring about a better understanding. Importantly, I hope that it lays the foundation for a future focus on those things that will really affect the quality of life of the indigenous people of Australia—the quality of their health care services, the quality of their educational services, the quality of their employment opportunities and the extent to which they are to participate fully in all other aspects of Australian life. Perhaps, having been able to find the right words to express the collective view of the Australian people on this issue rather than a narrow view of the Australian people on this issue—having done that—we can then move forward more effectively as a community to achieve those objectives.

I would like to acknowledge in this speech the contribution that Senator Ridgeway and the members of his party, the Australian Democrats, have made to putting together this motion and the contribution that he personally has made as an undisputed leader of his people in the time that he has been in this parliament. It is a matter of satisfaction, a matter of very considerable pride to me, that the government has been able to reach agreement with him and the members of the Australian Democrats on this issue. He is only the second indigenous Australian to sit in the national parliament. The first was the late Senator Neville Bonner, who represented the Liberal Party from the state of Queensland. Those two men in their particular ways—Neville and now Aden—have made and are making a very special contribution to this place. I do not think it would have been possible to put this motion together and to have gathered the right spirit, the right sense of occasion and the right sense of unity to bring this motion forward without Senator Ridgeway's contribution.

Senator Ridgeway came halfway and many of the indigenous leaders with him have also come halfway. They have recognised that, in order to move forward, there has to be an understanding of some of the concerns and some of the reservations that were genuinely felt by people in the Australian community on this issue and which prevented them, and continue to prevent them, from embracing, in quite the terms that were asked for several years ago, the sort of reaction and the sort of formal national responses that were called for then and may still be called for today by those who sit opposite. But they made the decision, they extended the hand of friendship and the hand of cooperation and they said they would travel part of the journey if we would travel the other part of the journey. As I said a moment ago, for us to fail to do that would be lacking any sense of generosity or any sense of a decent spirit.

The most important thing to me about this motion is that it not only expresses regret, which is important, and it not only in its terms demonstrates an understanding on our part of how our fellow Australians who are indigenous feel about certain past practices but, importantly, also talks about the future. That really takes me back to what I said at the beginning of my remarks—that is, as we come towards this great exciting moment in our history when, whatever our differences on other issues, we can all come together as Australians to celebrate the centenary of our nation, we want every Australian to feel that they can unqualifiedly and without any constraint, without any hesitation, participate in that great national celebration. In order to do that, our indigenous Australians must feel a proper sense of reconciliation and a proper sense of being, in every way and totally, part of the Australian community. This motion will make a contribution towards that.

I do want to thank Aden Ridgeway. I want to thank other leaders of the indigenous community of Australia for their generosity of spirit. I think it is important that I say that. I also want to thank two of my parliamentary colleagues for the contribution they have made in this area. I want to thank Senator John Herron, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. John Herron, in my view, has brought sincerity, decency and dedication to the discharge of his responsibilities. He enjoys my total confidence and support in that portfolio. In his life he has demonstrated in so many ways a depth of humanity and decency and understanding of human adversity which is superior to many I have known in public life.

I also want to thank Philip Ruddock, to whom I gave the task of assisting me with reconciliation after the last election. Not only has Philip brought very great skill to the discharge of his responsibilities as Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs but also he has brought a very special understanding to the discharge of his responsibilities in that area.

I do not pretend that when this motion is passed every obstacle on the journey towards reconciliation will have been removed. I do not pretend that for a moment. There will be argument and debate about the form of the document. There will be criticism of me. There will be criticism of the government. There will be legitimate exchanges of passion and vigour in this place. But by passing this motion I think we all understand that we have a watershed in the process towards reconciliation. By passing this motion we give reconciliation its best chance. By passing this motion we display a generosity, an understanding and a capacity to compromise between two genuinely held but different views.

In passing this motion we express to the Australian people once again that those things that bind us together are stronger and more important than those things that might push us apart. In passing this motion we say to the indigenous people of our community that we want you in every way to be totally part of our community. We want to understand you. We want to care for you where appropriate. We want you to be in every way part of the Australian achievement and part of the Australian story. I think we owe that to them as the first people of this nation. I think all the Australian people will support the passage of this motion.