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Thursday, 10 March 1966

Mr SPEAKER - Is the motion seconded?

Mr Erwin - I second the motion and reserve the right to speak later.

Leave granted for debate to continue.

Mr. BEAZLEY(Fremantle) {11.46]. - The honorable member for Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth) has reminded us that there are differences in State policies in relation to Aborigines. I remember that when the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines called at Woodenbong in the north of New South Wales the members of the Committee saw there a number of Aborigines who had come down from the Cherbourg native settlement in Queensland. That settlement was a place where, I would say, the material conditions of Aborigines by normal Australian standards for Aborigines were unusually good. The housing was better than at most of the other places one might visit in Australia. The standards of nutrition were good. But one had no feeling of definite purpose as to what positively was going to happen to the people for their advancement, how they were going to fend for themselves in society. They appeared to be in a kind of protective custody. At Woodenbong, on the other hand, the housing was disgraceful, employment was intermittent, conditions were not good, the morale in the community was not high.

I asked one man why he had come down from Cherbourg to Woodenbong and his answer was: " I would rather have freedom than good conditions ". Such a statement does, I think, qualify a man for the franchise, but in addition to that it seemed to to me a tragedy that there should have been among so many a sense that they had to choose between freedom and good conditions. There was no doubt that in the formal sense of constitutional rights, the right to vote and freedom of movement about the State, Queensland had a policy very different from and much more highly restrictive that the policies of other Stales. In terms of the ultimate survival of the Aboriginal people I do not say that Queensland policy would have been behind that of the other States; I merely remark that I could not see what the Queensland authorities were doing to enable the Aboriginal people to get off the footing onto which they had been manoeuvred. The Aborigines in that State at that time had no sense of freedom of movement within the State; in that sense they were at that time without some aspects of independence and dignity.

This is a constitutional debate. A constitution is a living document to determine the actions of government in a community. I think the honorable member for Mackellar has a great heart, first for attempting to amend the Constitution at all and, secondly, for trying to amend it in respect of the Aboriginal people. The section which he proposes to eliminate from the Constitution - it contains the restriction on the power of the Commonwealth to legislate for the Aboriginal people - reads -

The Parliament of the Commonwealth shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

In the 1891 draft of the Constitution this passage read quite differently, and I want to refer to the implied censure of Australia by New Zealand resulting from the original form of words. Last night in the film that was shown in this Parliament House there were references to Sir George Grey, and I am glad to see the beginnings of a revaluation of his position in history, because I think that when we study fully the history of our country, which in this respect is tied in with that of New Zealand, we are going to see in Sir George Grey the greatest figure of imperial statesmanship in our 19th century history in the senses in which imperial policies have survived the test of the modern conscience. I think it is due very largely to him that provision was made for a democratic franchise for the Senate - a remarkable achievement in 1891 when legislative councillors as a matter of course were elected according to property qualifications. He was representing New Zealand at the Constitutional Convention as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The original draft gave the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to -

The affairs of people of any race with respect to whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws not applicable to the general community; but so this power shall not extend to authorise legislation with respect to the Aboriginal native race in Australia and the Maori race in New Zealand.

I have no doubt that what Sir George Grey was trying to do was to throw a defensive screen around the Maori people, to defend them from the kind of Aboriginal policies that we pursued in Australia, and when New Zealand withdrew from the negotiations designed to include it in our Federation the provision was left in the draft except that the reference to Maoris was eliminated and the Aboriginal people were the only ones then referred to in the limitation of power.

One of the men who stood for this limitation was Sir John Forrest who, as an explorer, had been very dependent on Aborigines to help him locate water and so on. When he referred to this section he said -

I cannot for the life of me see why we should desire to give the Federal parliament control of any person, whetever may be his nationality or colour, who is living in a State.

I think he conceived a defensive role in relation to Aborigines, and he was not even in favour of the Commonwealth having the Authority to repatriate the Pacific Islands labourers, which was the field of power where the real interest centred in this debate at the Constitutional Convention.

Whatever the origins of this, however, the fact remains that the provision continues as a prohibition on the Commonwealth from legislating for the people of the Aboriginal race other than those in Commonwealth territories. The honorable member for Mackellar has, I think, a quite unique and vital distinction in the politics of Australia in this respect, because in his persistent work which led to the establishment of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies he extracted from the Government of the Commonwealth the first gesture of a basic respect for the Aboriginal people in 50 or 60 years. I will make a reference later to earlier gestures, which unfortunately did not live on in history, by the Government of Queensland at the turn of the century and by the Government of South Australia early in the century.

Basically all Aboriginal policy is drifting. The mind of no government in Australia and no political party in Australia are really focused on the Aboriginal people. The way in which a minority people is treated is the touchstone of national character. The true test of our respect for a minority race is whether we want them to be a distinctive people making a distinctive contribution. New Zealanders are proud of Maoris; Maoris are proud to be Maoris. Whatever failures there may be in New Zealand policy, or injustices in New Zealand policy, these fundamental and essential achievements in the vital realm of the mind are there. Our policy, which we proudly claim to be one of assimilation, is an unconscious revelation to the world that we are not yet capable of New Zealand's maturity. We are not proud of the Aborigines, although there are many reasons why we should be, and almost no policy exists in either the Commonwealth sphere or the State sphere of encouraging Aborigines to be proud of themselves.

I remember a friend of mine who taught at the Forrest River School. He was teaching Australian history to Aboriginal children and he suddenly realised that his teaching of history was totally rejected by the children.

He sat down and asked them why, and they said: " You teach us about Australian explorers but you never refer to the Aborigines who we know guided them, showed them how to find water in desert places and helped them. " As a result this young man, whose name is Harry Venville, conducted researches into this question and was astounded to find the extent to which the statements of the Aboriginal children about the dependence of Australian explorers on Aborigines were true. But he was cheered to find that these Aboriginal children had a pride in themselves as a people and demanded their place in Australian history. I would say that this was the greatest compliment to the effectiveness of his own teaching, if he could foster self respect, that could possibly be made.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies is the first sign of a real respect on the part of the Commonwealth Government. It is the achievement of the honorable member for Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth), but there is credit due to the acceptance of it on the part of the Government. Every State is utterly indifferent, except perhaps in museums, to Aboriginal music, Aboriginal customs, Aboriginal religion, Aboriginal languages, Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal art. Queensland and South Australia in the 1890s and early in this century respectively took some interest, and Queensland appointed a brilliant ethnologist, Walter Edmund Roth, whose work on Aborigines in the 1890s and early in the 20th century was a vital part of the history of this country and of the Aborigines. The Queensland Government did attempt to pursue a policy based on an enlightenment proceeding from a real study of the Aboriginal people. South Australia backed the Baldwin Spencer expeditions before the First World War. Apart from that - let us face it - the States have treated Aboriginal life as unworthy of notice. This is not to say that there were no policies; but all policies envisaged the Aborigines as potential black Europeans.

There was no attempt, after Roth and Baldwin Spencer, to get in to find out who the Aboriginal people were, or who they themselves thought they were. Australians policy has been directed towards the destruction of the self consciousness of the

Aboriginal people and the policy of assimilation is now a continuation of the destruction of that self consciousness. In most cases in the States the new policy is not, in my view, a policy at all. It is an attempt to avoid the charges of apartheid and discrimination and does not go beyond that in any real creative sense. We will give them drinking rights. We will give them fornicating rights, whereas it used to be - as it is in South African law - an offence for interracial fornication to take place, although we never denied inter-marriage. We will give them voting rights and they may vote every three years for Tweedledum or Tweedledee who normally are equally indifferent to their needs. All these reforms cost the Treasury virtually nothing. We have now an Arbitration Commission decision on wages. If we ask for statistics on tuberculosis or leprosy we are told that racially segregated statistics are not kept and we are proud of the fact that we do not racially segregate our statistics. We cannot see races, but we can now identify Aborigines as a distinctive group to whom for three years we can pay lower wages. We can see Aborigines when it comes to a question of wages, but we cannot see them when it comes to a question of health statistics. But we need separate statistics about the Aboriginal people if we are ever to measure the effectiveness of policies and make moral assessments of policies. I have no doubt that in this group of Aborigines in the Northern Territory over whom one blanket definition is now thrown, some individuals are worth full wages now, but we assume that they disqualify as a group. It is based on no evidence whatsoever presented by the Aboriginal people themselves. White government officials appeared before the judge and white union officials appeared before the judge; but did he go to see the skills of the Aboriginal stockmen?

Mr Snedden - He did go to see the skills. There were very many inspections.

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