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Wednesday, 3 May 1961

Mr FREETH (Forrest) (Minister for the Interior) . - The honorable member for Wills (Mr, Bryant) has his head away up in the clouds on this particular subject, and I have no doubt that he is quite happy to have it there. I give him credit for full sincerity in his approach to this. I have no doubt that he would not worry about a select com mittee. He is prepared to brush aside any problems which exist in this matter but I charge some members of his party with going to the absolute depths of political hypocrisy in their approach to the matter, because all the members of the party sitting opposite agreed that it was desirable to appoint a select committee to examine this matter. If they agreed to that, then they admitted that there were problems, because a select committee would be quite purposeless unless there were problems to be examined. Honorable members opposite agreed to the appointment of this select committee to examine these problems and report back to the House. Now they want to anticipate a possible result of the select committee's examination.

Mr Pollard - Why not have a couple of irons in the fire?

Mr FREETH - The honorable member asks, " Why not have a couple of irons in the fire? " Why not leave the existing provisions as they are until at least these problems have been examined?

Mr Bryant - Why did you choose 31st October as the date by which the select committee must report?

Mr FREETH - I shall give the honorable member some information about that in a minute. Since he has chosen to accuse us of playing politics in this matter, let me remind the committee that the present provisions in the act were introduced by the Labour Government in 1949. The gentleman who was then the member for Kalgoorlie was a Labour man of very wide experience of the problems in regard to natives. He said at the time that the situation bristled with difficulties. That was the view of the Australian Labour Party then. The present honorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley), who regretted that natives all over Australia could not be given a full right to vote, and who is still a member of this Parliament, agreed that the situation was regrettable, but he accepted it.

The governments of Western Australia and Queensland were consulted in this matter by the Commonwealth Government in 1946. In that year, there was a Labour government in each of those States, and both of those Labour governments agreed that there were tremendous difficulties. I agree with that view.

Mr Pollard - Time marches on.

Mr FREETH - Indeed it does, and that is a good thing. Our appointment of a select committee is a good thing, too. If the honorable member will forbear for a moment, I am just coming to the point that, because time has marched on, we think that it would be a very good idea for this Parliament to give a lead in discussing the problem with the governments of Queensland and Western Australia. In the eyes of the world, we would do ourselves small credit if we gave natives a vote at Federal elections and the State governments took umbrage at our going over their heads and said: " We were not consulted. We will not change our attitude. Natives shall not have a vote in State elections, because there are too many problems involved." If this select committee does nothing else but go to Western Australia and Queensland, discuss with the governments of those States the problems which stand in the way and overcome those problems to the point at which the State governments, having looked at the problems, agree that solutions can be found and the electoral laws can be improved, the select committee will have achieved something.

We have taken the lead from the State governments in this matter. We have been forced into this position because the governments of Queensland and Western Australia do not give full voting rights to aborigines. It is very easy to say that we are discriminating against aborigines simply because they are aborigines. We are not in fact. The two States where the great problems exist are the States of Queensland and Western Australia. There are relatively few problems in the other States because there are relatively few aborigines and therefore all these problems of the possible exploitation of natives do not arise. The problem of giving the aborigines the right to vote, and thereby rendering them liable to a fine if they do not enrol and liable to a fine if they do not vote, does not arise in the States where the aborigines are numerically insignificant.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) cited the case of the Australian Capital Territory and spoke of the magnificent aboriginal vote that was recorded at Wreck Bay. There is only one full-blood aboriginal in the Territory, and there is a number of half-castes, who have the right to vote in any event.

Mr J R Fraser - But only one voted Liberal!

Mr FREETH - That is right. Surely Opposition members rise to the heights of political hypocrisy when they, within a few days of having conceded that there are problems which should properly be examined by a select committee, say that the Commonwealth Electoral Act should be amended in order to give aborigines full rights to vote, regardless of what the select committee may find. Opposition members have tried to get over this inconsistency by saying that, in effect, we are altering the existing act in relation to its application to the people who are described in section 39 as aboriginal natives of Asia, Africa and the islands of the Pacific, and re-enacting the provision with respect to aboriginal natives of Australia. That is perfectly true, but there was a legal difficulty which was brought to the attention of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to-night for the first time, I believe. The difficuly was that there are in Malaya, for example, some people who are regarded there and in other parts of Asia as aboriginal natives of that area and who are not among the people whom we have described in this act as aboriginal natives. In order to remove this difficulty, we approached the problem in another way, and the section has been redrafted in order to provide that people who come to Australia on a temporary entry permit in the ordinary way under our immigration laws, and who previously would have been denied the right to vote, shall not bc enrolled and shall not be entitled to vote, even if they stay for six or eight months, or whatever may be the duration of the permit. That is the explanation of the omission of the reference to aboriginal natives of Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands from the proposed new section of the principal act.

The fact that at this stage we are content to leave the situation as it stands in regard to aboriginal natives does not mean that there is not, as the Minister for

Territories (Mr. Hasluck) intimated, a tremendously strong feeling that something should be done to improve the situation of the Australian aborigines, Mr. Chairman, lt does not mean that we are discriminating against aborigines merely because they are aborigines. In both Queensland and Western Australia, aborigines can obtain a vote. In all the other States, they already have the right to vote. We give aborigines in Western Australia and Queensland the right to vote if they have not a preponderance of aboriginal blood - in other words, if they are half-castes or have less than half aboriginal blood. That is different from the definition of the term " aboriginal native " in those two States. There is, as I have said, a tremendously wide recognition that something should be done in an endeavour to make further progress in dealing with this problem. But no Opposition member has dealt with the very real problems that exist. Do all honorable members opposite suggest that merely because the governments of Queensland and Western Australia are blind and obstinate on this issue, and will not budge from an entrenched position, we should forget about the matter? Of course we should not.

Mr Bryant - The Labour Government in Western Australia tried to give aborigines the right to vote two years ago.

Mr FREETH - In 1946, when Mr. Chifley raised the subject at a Premiers' Conference, the Labour Government in Western Australia refused to give any concessions beyond what it had already given. So did the Labour Government in Queensland. If the honorable member for Wills is trying to derive some political advantage from this, he will find very cold comfort in the records of the Labour governments in those two States. The plain truth is that we are taking the lead in this matter. We are looking at the problems and we hope that they will be thoroughly examined by the select committee and that its report to this chamber will enable this Government to do something about the matter.

The honorable member for Wills suggested that there was some sinister significance in the choice of 31st October as the date by which the select committee must report. Does he think that the committee will require longer? If the committee chooses, it can make a report next week or the week after. However, I hope that it will at least study the problem thoroughly. The setting of a specific date some time ahead at least prevents the committee from coming back and saying, " We have not had time to study the matter properly. We want an extension of time." If the committee does its job properly, there is nothing whatever to prevent it from making a report within one month, two months, or three months, as the case may be.

Mr Beazley - Have the Government representatives on the committee been appointed yet?

Mr FREETH - If they have not already been appointed, they will be appointed within the next day or so. I give the honorable member that assurance.

Mr Pollard - Will the committee go overseas in the course of its inquiry?

Mr FREETH - It has been given power to move from place to place. I do not know whether that power extends to inquiries overseas. I need a little constitutional advice in order to answer on that point. 1 suggest, Mr. Chairman, that members of the Australian Labour Party are really trying to have a little bit each way on this issue. They agree that there is a problem and they have supported the appointment of a select committee, but now they want to kick the ground right away from under the committee's feet and forestall its inquiry. That, of course, would be quite an absurd thing to do.

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