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Wednesday, 17 October 1973
Page: 2254

Mr CROSS (Brisbane) - I thank the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) for the very generous way in which he has approached this question. There was almost nothing in his speech with which I do not heartily and enthusiastically agree. We are concerned at the question of ministerial responsibility. I also feel that it is a good thing that the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt) has brought this question before the House. As one of a number of members on both sides of the Parliament who are interested in Aboriginal affairs I feel some concern at the present situation in which many statements are being made, some based on fact and some based on fancy. Whatever their purpose they are likely to have a harmful effect on the Aboriginal program. I accept that the matter of public importance raised by the honourable member for Gwydir was not put forward with that in mind. I am a member of the Labor Party's Aboriginal Affairs Committee, and have been for some time. I assure the House that there is absolutely no complacency on the Labor Party's side of Parliament about the Aboriginal affairs program or the Government's performance to date.

I think it is important to set some of these matters straight. In a debate of this kind, while dealing with ministerial responsibility we should not do any harm to the program by being ungenerous to people who have made quite a contribution. The policy upon which the Labor Party was elected at the last election included a plank on Aboriginal affairs and that plank remains. I freely admit that we have found some looseness in different areas. This was so under the previous Government and continues under our Government. Under the leadership of the honourable member for Wills (Mr Bryant) as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs a great deal was done to tighten up the loose areas. The program for which the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth) was originally responsible in no small measure involved trusting Aborigines to the maximum possible extent to manage their own affairs. This Government has advanced money, as the previous Government did, to Aboriginal organisations which seemed to have a cohesive element, a constitution and a program that looked worthwhile, in order to allow them to spend the money in the interests of the Aboriginal people and in accordance with the priorities that the Aborigines determined. Unfortunately, in a program of this kind one hears rather more about the failures than about the successes. There are failures but there are also many success stories. I pay a tribute to the honourable member for Mackellar who was a pioneer in this area. He set the programs on the base which has been used by succeeding Ministers and the present Government.

When the Labor Party was elected its Aboriginal Affairs Committee in conjunction with the Minister carried out over a period a survey reviewing public expenditure in order to develop guidelines which would ensure that the principles to which I referred were followed while the Aboriginal people were given the necessary support to enable them to spend money wisely. The new Minister will find, as the previous Minister found, that there are great difficulties. The Aboriginal people of this country expect us to solve vast problems in a very short space of time. The previous Minister had to cope with the expansion from a small office to a department, and that is not easy, particularly when trying to involve Aboriginal people in enterprises to the maximum possible extent. Many Aboriginal people do not have qualifications which are recognised by the Public Service Board. Nevertheless, they might be able to play quite a responsible and useful role in Aboriginal affairs.

Many Aboriginal people have an unreal expectation of what this Parliament can do in allowing them to spend public money. It has not been pointed out to them that money appropriated from budgets of this Parliament has to be spent in accordance with the Audit Act and under the supervision of a Minister. Some of the expectations that have been held up to Aboriginal peeople unfortunately are unrealistic. I think there is a need for the Government to make fairly soon in the Parliament a well considered and wide-ranging statement on Aboriginal affairs in order to set the record straight and to let the people of Australia know the principles that guide the Government in its expenditure in these matters. The Government should also let the Aboriginal people, some of whom are outside Parliament House now, know what it is all about. This matter of public importance has to do with the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. It has been suggested that Ministerial responsibility has not been properly exercised. We on this side of the House take note of the views expressed by the right honourable member for Higgins. I support his views. But I should not like this opportunity to pass without placing on record the great work done by the Council in earlier days in the innovative stage because, without doubt, at a time when the Commonwealth was exploring new policies the Council played a substantial role in advising the Minister of the time on the development of those policies.

The role of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is unique because unlike the Department of Health - I choose that Department because of the presence of the Minister for Health (Dr Everingham) at the table - which has a clearly defined responsibility, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, given the joint Commonwealth and State responsibilities in this area, has not only the responsibility for expending money on its own Estimates but also the problem of acting as a catalyst for co-ordinating the work of the other Commonwealth departments in the field and for coordinating with State departments and other organisations. It was for that reason that the late Mr Holt, the then honourable member for Higgins, in his wisdom set up the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. While there may be matters which should be looked at, and which are being looked at, in the whole question of the administration of Aboriginal affairs - and I think we all agree that what is happening at the moment is a searching review of all these procedures - the fact of the matter is that the Council has served the Aboriginal people of Australia well and we would be ungenerous in the extreme if we let this debate pass without placing that statement on record.

The matter of a one-line entry in the Budget was raised by the right honourable member for Higgins. Of course, this is not the only one-line entry we have seen in Budgets. Hon- ourable members will recall that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has a one-line entry in the Budget. However, the expenditure of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is accounted for in the AuditorGeneral's report. Much of this one-line entry - which amounts to more than $30m if my memory serves me correctly - is made up of money provided to the States. Very little is not subject to audit. The procedures laid down by the present Government require an Aboriginal organisation to have a constitution, to have a proper accountability, before it receives assistance. Any Aboriginal organisation that has not met this criterion has found that continued assistance is not provided.

The matter of turtle farming has been raised. This is the subject of investigation. The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) asked the special Minister of State (Senator Willesee) to appoint appropriate people - Dr Carr from Florida, Professor Maine from Western Australia and another gentleman on the managerial side, Mr Smart - to investigate the matter. We hope that the Special Minister of State will have their report in a week or so - fairly soon. It is not our intention to harm the turtle project. It has never been the intention of any member of the Labor Party to harm the turtle farming project. If that project is viable, both ecologically and economically, every member of the Labor Party and, I am sure, of the Parliament wants it to succeed.

I think that this has been a useful debate. Many areas of our performance in Aboriginal Affairs should be improved. This discussion has thrown light on the administrative procedures which are, quite correctly, being subjected to a great deal of scrutiny at present. I can say only that I welcome the bipartisan approach to this matter by Opposition speakers to this stage. I think it augers well for the Aboriginal program in the future.

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