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Thursday, 3 October 1974
Page: 1657

Senator CAVANAGH (South AustraliaMinister for Aboriginal Affairs) - It was not my express desire to speak on the Budget. I think the Budget speaks for itself; that is generally accepted. It is the second Budget of a government that has been reaffirmed by a second approach to the people and for that reason I did not think there was much need to justify its provisions. However, in a Budget debate one is entitled to raise relevant and irrelevant matters and using this right last night Senator Georges spoke about turtle farming. I think his speech calls for a reply from me, if for no other reason than to put the record straight. Many matters raised last evening were not truly presented. Most of Senator George's remarks last night were directed towards attributing blame and as the responsible Minister it would be an act of cowardice on my part to allow to go unchallenged the belief that there is a vendetta against the Secretary of my Department and Senator Georges, because the things about which Senator Georges complained resulted from my directions.

Honourable senators will appreciate that turtle farming always has been and always will be a source of controversy and problems. Many unfair criticisms have been made in the Senate of the Department's handling of the turtle project. Since the Commonwealth acquired power over Aborigines in 1967 it has been the desire to find them useful employment wherever possible. In those regions to which industry cannot be attracted it has been difficult to find employment for Aborigines. Therefore it is necessary to sponsor unusual projects to create employment. Today about 110 Torres Strait islanders are receiving award wages as turtle farmers. If it is at all possible to maintain the project I think every effort should be made to do so.

The project first came to the notice of the Government through the section dealing with applied ecology at the Australian National University. It was conducting research into the ecology of the area where the turtle project was established. I do not know for how long this section had been operating, but in 1970 it asked the Department of Aboriginal Affairs whether it would fund the project to research the question as to whether it was possible to develop crocodile and turtle farming. The project was funded by the Department. It was run under the directorship of Dr Bustard, but in 1971 Dr Bustard ceased to be employed by the university as the university believed that the project had reached the stage where it was no longer a research project but a viable project which could be used in the commercial field.

In order to carry on the research the Department of Aboriginal Affairs employed Dr Bustard by funding the money through the university. As Senator Georges pointed out on a previous occasion, there was insufficient accountability of how the funds were used. I think that the Auditor-General's report has illustrated that the Department relied on the normal auditing practice of the university, which was found to be deficient, and the university relied on the government audit which did not have jurisdiction in this sphere. No audit of the funds seems to have been done. Attention was drawn to this aspect only when the Auditor-General referred to the expenditure on the basis not of whether there had been any misappropriation of funds but whether there had been expenditure on activities that had association with turtle farming. My Department referred to this matter in its latest report. It has appointed someone to inquire into all the previous funding by the Department of Applied Ecology Pty Ltd and whether the funding was used on projects or activities associated with turtle farming. This inquiry is still continuing and we hope eventually to get a clear report on expenditure up to that time.

As this project ceased to be a research project and had to be developed into a viable project, a company was formed. It was registered, I believe, on 6 March 1973. It was called Applied Ecology Pty Ltd. I think that one can gather from conversations and in other ways that the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was not happy with the way expenditure on this project had been incurred in the past. I think that Senator Georges in October of last year disclosed some of the concern of the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The Minister thought that possibly he could pull up this thing or get it in proper order so that it would operate on a better funding basis. In June 1 973 he appointed Senator Georges, Mr Neill, an accountant, and Mr Thorburn to the board of Applied Ecology. On the night of the very day on which I was appointed as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs we heard from Senator Georges of all the past breaches by Applied Ecology and of the misuse of funds. As I have said, this matter is now the subject of checking and review.

One notes that the formation of the idea of turtle farming and the misuse of funds occurred during the time of the previous Government. When the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs took over that portfolio in 1972 he acted as promptly as it was possible to act in order to bring this thing into line so that there could be some accountability. He appointed to the board of the company which had been formed men in whom he had some confidence and trust. He did this in the belief that there would be some better control over the application of these funds. As I have stated, I was not satisfied- I am not even satisfied now- that we can properly farm turtles. I know nothing at all about turtles. I do not know whether one can eat their flesh; whether or not their steak is edible. I have always followed the practice that when one is administering a proposal about which one knows nothing one must rely heavily upon the experts on the particular subject. If one gets into difficulty with the law one goes to a lawyer. If one gets into difficulty with one 's health, one goes to a doctor. In various fields one goes to the tradesmen who operate in those fields.

The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), concerned with the reports about and the activities of turtle farming, directed the Special Minister of State to commission an inquiry to be constituted by those who were considered to be experts on the question. He appointed to the inquiry Professor Carr and Professor Main who were recognised as world authorities on the question of turtle farming. One of them came from the United States of America. He also appointed Mr Smart, an accountant from Victoria, who could contribute to the inquiry insofar as he could on the question as to whether the project was a commercial proposition that should be proceeded with. When we received the Carr and Main report, briefly it indicated that we were going about something which no one knew anything about and that we could be doing irreparable damage to the ecology in the area. Their report stated that while we were collecting eggs from the wilds, hatching them and rearing turtles it was not known whether we were not depriving the wilds by releasing some 10 per cent of them back to the sea. It also pointed out that no one had ever tagged turtles in order to ascertain whether farmed turtles ever survived in the sea and that no one knew whether cottage farmed turtles were detrimental to sea life. It was shown that because they were confined in a small area the number of turtles that we had had many diseases, including worms.

There was also the fact that we were feeding turtles on unnatural food and that by the time they reached a marketable size they would be consuming some 7 tons of sardines a day. It was also pointed out that the sardines had to be caught, minced and fed to the turtles, and that the water in the pens in which the turtles were kept had to be changed twice a day. This was done by a system of bucketing from the sea to the pens. When the experts asked the locals: 'How do you know you are not going to run out of fish?', the answer was: 'We will not do that because there are plenty of fish here'. But no one studied the life cycle of fish, how quickly they reproduced or what damage we might do with the number of fish that were necessary to feed the number of turtles in captivity. Also, no one had explored the question as to whether there was a market for turtles, if we could grow turtles. It was known that there was only one overseas company which operated in this area.

Carr and Main said to themselves: 'We must process this; we must research it. Leave it as it is, release tagged turtles and see whether it is possible to breed. ' In regard to the feeding of turtles, it is not the natural dietary habit of turtles to live on fish for the whole of their lives. It is known that after a major portion of their lives turtles eat seaweed. They live by a form of agriculture, on seaweed. We found that unless we could develop an area where we could grow natural food on which to feed the turtles we simply could not go on in the way in which we had been operating. Therefore it was proposed that while we carried out this research we should develop a sea crawl. It was proposed to fence off approximately a mile of beach, and carry out research into the growing of seaweed which was edible by turtles and use cottage farming only to raise turtles to a weight of about 15 lb. I believe that this takes 1 lA years. Having reached that stage it was proposed to release them to the crawl.

Other questions involved were the conservation and preservation of turtles. There is world wide reluctance to take turtles for fear of denuding the oceans of them. Therefore we would find a reaction in the market if we tried to sell turtle flesh which originated from wild turtles. If we were to succeed in the market place we had to produce our own eggs and breed our own turtles. Therefore we had to establish a crawl of approximately a mile in the hope that the turtles would come up onto our beach. We could then keep them in captivity and reproduce more turtles. That was the proposal. As I say, it was my intention to put it into operation. The moment we depart from the Carr and Main report we are placed in the position of relying on people who are not experts in the matter. Things may go wrong whomever we rely on, but at least we took the best advice that was given to us.

The Carr and Main report said that Applied Ecology was constituted wrongly. It said that the Board should comprise 3 scientists, 2 businessmen and one representative from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Honourable senators may remember that on the receipt of the report I announced my intention to stick to the recommendations of the report. There was no place on the Board at that time for Senator Georges, Mr Neill or Mr Thorburn, because they did not fit into any of the categories of personnel that it was recommended we appoint to the Board. I took the proposal contained in the report along to the sub-committee of Caucus and subsequently to Cabinet. The sub-committee of Caucus was persuaded that, with the resignation from the Board of Mr Thorburn, there would be sufficient vacancies on the Board to enable us to appoint personnel as recommended by the Carr, Main and Smart report. The sub-committee of Caucus was convinced also that Senator Georges and Mr Neill had played a part in the reorganisation of the turtle farming project and pulled its financial position somewhat into line, and that there was a place on the Board for both of these people. In the period after the presentation of the Carr and Main report, but before taking it to Cabinet, I was looking for personnel for the Board. I went to Melbourne and approached Mr Smart who had some say in the preparation of the report. I naturally thought that he would be keen to ensure the success of his proposals. I approached him personally and asked him whether he would be chairman of the Board. So the approach made to Mr Smart to be chairman of the Board, which would have put Senator Georges off the Board, was made by me and not by Mr Dexter

Senator Georges - It was strongly supported by Mr Dexter, and every action that he took in connection with any decision made was directed to my removal and to my discredit.

Senator CAVANAGH -When I can get a word in, I will continue. The approach made to Mr Smart was made by me, and I am giving my reasons for approaching him. At the meeting of the Caucus sub-committee I was persuaded that there was a place on the Board for Senator Georges, and at that committee meeting Senator Georges assured me that when the Board was reconstituted he would resign as chairman of the Board and allow the position to be recontested. I then took that proposal for the reconstruction of the Board to Cabinet. My proposal was that the Board be comprised of 3 scientists, 2 businessmen and one representative from my Department. Included would be Senator Georges, Mr Neill and a nominee of the Queensland Government whom we hoped to get, and whom we thought to be essential. The proposal was finally adopted by Cabinet, and this became the composition of the new Board, with the exception of the nominee from Queensland. The Queensland Government would not release that particular individual for the purpose of taking a position on the Board. One other person failed to nominate. The Board has been operating and it has sent me its minutes on every occasion.

One item which has appeared in the minutes of Applied Ecology has given rise to some concern. It has arisen as a result of action taken following a letter which may have been written by the Department as a result of a minute from me to the Department asking whether the Board was functioning in the correct manner. This brings me to the 2 questions to which Senator Georges takes exception. The Board had a system of holding meetings on the islands, and this system was justified last evening as being in an endeavour to involve the Aborigines or the Torres Strait Islanders in the project. Of course, the Carr and Main report recommended that, while Applied Ecology should assist by research in the raising of the turtles to 1 5 lb, which takes 1 lh years, cooperatives consisting of Torres Strait Islanders should be established on each island for the purpose of raising the turtles in the crawl and getting them to marketable size. It was recommended that another marketing organisation should be established to comprise a representative from each of the Torres Strait Island co-operatives. This was how the Torres Strait Islanders were to be involved. But Applied Ecology, which is another research organisation, held meetings with the Torres Strait Islanders, and as a result of those meetings the Islanders became ambitious. They lost sight of the fact that any decision they made would depend on finance being made available from my Department. However, the aspirations of the Islanders built up as a result of meetings at which we were not in attendance. After receiving the minutes of these meetings, I wrote to my secretary on 27 May 1974 as follows:

I am very concerned at receiving the minutes of the first meeting of Applied Ecology and Torres Strait Islanders, and wondered how this formation conflicted with the Smart report on forming separate organisations on the Island for the cottage farming of turtles up to 1 5 lb weight.

I am also concerned that the future proposals of Applied Ecology include boat building and the raising of poultry and pigs. I do not think such activities were ever envisaged when the company was formed.

The minutes also mention that two more turtle farmers be placed on the payroll, which seems an extension of the farming activities and contrary to the Carr-Main report.

I would seek an opinion from you on the decisions contained in these minutes.

That minute indicates my opposition to what has been happening, and I have always tried to restrict Applied Ecology to being a research organisation.

Senator Georges - Read the letter I sent in reply.

Senator CAVANAGH - The one the honourable senator tabled last week?

Senator Georges - No, the one I sent in reply to that one you have just read.

Senator CAVANAGH - The honourable senator did not receive this letter. It was a letter from me to the Secretary of my Department. This is where the conflict lies. It is not true to say that the expenditure on Applied Ecology Pty Ltd was reduced to $27,000. It was reducd to that amount for one month. The balance sheet shows a total expenditure last year of approximately $541,000. If that expenditure were to be averaged out over the 12 -months period, it would be found that it was costing an average of $45,000 a month to run Applied Ecology. At no time during the year did we spend more than $250,000 funded to the university. This year, we have budgeted for an expenditure of $1,1 19,000. Over $lm will be spent on the project this year. I am not complaining about the cost if it can be shown that this is a viable proposition and if it can be demonstrated that we are doing no harm. A research body is not a profitable organisation. We must be prepared to pay for it. If it can give employment to islanders who would otherwise be doing nothing and be the recipients of unemployment relief, then it has served a purpose.

The next point I wish to make is that the whole question of the complaints about meetings being held in the Torres Strait Islands originated from me. Whatever Mr Dexter conveyed to others or with whatever enthusiasm he accepted the complaints, I do not know. But what was happening was getting away from what should be done in the opinion of the experts that I was relying upon so much to protect me at the time in case things went wrong with this organisation. Then we received further correspondence asking that Miss Margaret Valadian be appointed to the vacancy on the board of Applied Ecology. It was stated that her appointment was wanted for the September meeting- why, I do not know. Having met, spoken to and had much correspondence from Miss Margaret Valadian, I can say that she is possibly the best educated Aboriginal in Australia at the present time. She holds university degrees from universities in both Australia and the United States of America. Her knowledge, capability and personality are such that there is always a job in my Department for Margaret Valadian or a person of her capabilities. But I do not think she knows anything about turtle farms.

Senator Georges - She is a social scientist.

Senator CAVANAGH -Yes. She knows nothing about turtle farming. It is beyond my comprehension why we should put her on the board of Applied Ecology, which is dealing with turtle farming, just because she is a social scientist. It would be a different question if I were asked should we have another scientist who was an engineer, an expert in marine biology or some other profession adaptable to turtle farming. But just to bring someone in because she is an Aboriginal and has a good education is not right. In a letter dated 20 September 1974 I outlined my reasons for rejection of the appointment to Mr Cooper, the Secretary of the Board of Applied Ecology, as politely as I could. I stated:

I have considered the recommendation of the Board of Directors about further appointments to the Board, conveyed in your letter of 20 August, which my Ministerial Officer acknowledged on 22 August.

I am unable to agree to the appointment of Miss Valadian to the Board, since the only available vacancy at this stage is for a scientist. The Government's decision on the composition of the Board was that it should comprise the six persons recommended by Mr Smart in his report, namely three scientists, two businessmen and one person nominated by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, plus Senator Georges, Mr Neill -

The letter goes on to mention the individual in Queensland. It further states:

In regard to the six persons recommended by Mr Smart, there are already on the Board two scientists (Professor Trollope and Dr Radway Allen), two businessmen (Messrs Furzor and Smart) and an Aboriginal Officer of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Mr J. McGinness).

The letter goes on to mention the fact that the Queensland position was not filled and states.

.   . you will be aware that the Queensland authorities refused to let him accept the position; the position is not open for filling except by a comparable person on whom I can reach agreement with the Queensland authorities.

We are still hoping to fill that position. The letter continues:

Therefore, as I say, there is at this stage a vacancy on the Board for only one scientist. I await a recommendation from the Board in due course for the filling of this position. However, I wish to emphasise that the absence of this third scientist from the Board must not be allowed to hold up other developments or progress by the company; I regard the existing Board as complete for all practical purposes. 1 note the Board's recommendation that I invite Professor Main to be a consultant to the company. I am so inviting him, and will advise you of the outcome.

There is the whole clear position. We have reached the stage now at which we have a board carrying on as a scientific body. We hope to restrict its activity to scientific research. If it is possible, we will develop the other companies that we are financing and not Applied Ecology. But we did not have a Board composed of scientists to see whether we should start a brick making plant, as was suggested in one of the committees or whether pigs or something else should be raised in the Torres Strait Islands. We hope to have Torres Strait islanders involved in this development work in rearing turtles from the infancy stage to the marketable stage. So much doubt and opposition have been expressed in regard to this proposal from time to time that I could wipe my hands of the lot of it tomorrow and be finished with turtle farming. Then, we would not be subjected to the ridicule that we are subjected to today. But 1 10 farmers are getting a living out of it. There are 1 10 farmers who could be supplying a commodity to a world market if we could supply it at the current rate.

The highlight of this whole matter- I think it showed the opposition to it- was when I was waited on by 3 Island representatives from the eastern islands. They came to me in Brisbane asking me to finance a co-operative between the 3 eastern Torres Strait islands as they were sick of Applied Ecology and wanted to develop their own turtle farming.

Senator Georges - I would like to check out that statement with the minutes and the statement made by the chairman of the eastern islands group which appears in the minutes which were sent to you.

Senator CAVANAGH - I would say to the honourable senator who was interjecting: Ask George Moy, who led the delegation, about this matter. He was accompanied by 2 others. I was told that their wives and children were still bucketing water on a chain gang to fill tanks. They told me that they were still trying to keep the sun off the turtles with palm leaves. They said that if they did not keep the sun off them the turtles died. This is the state in which we are trying to raise turtles. It cannot go on. We have reached the stage where we must either scrap the project or set up the organisation as recommended by the experts who considered that question. That is my only defence. Senator Georges wants to get out of being chairman of the board. He was not doing any harm. I think at one time he did a good job.

Senator Withers - He was not doing much good, either.

Senator CAVANAGH - He was not doing any harm. But it is not a job for a politician; it is a job for a scientist. Senator Georges has now decided to blame and to persecute the Secretary of the Department who possibly has many defects and much dislike for Senator Georges. But the decision made in regard to Margaret Valadian was made against the recommendation of the Head of my Department because the Carr and Main report was my bible and will continue to be my bible. That is the case that I put to the farmers. I think that the efforts we are making need the cooperation not only of those on this side of the House but also of everyone who is interested in the welfare of Torres Strait Islanders if we are to get something into operation so they can be usefully employed.

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