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Tuesday, 25 September 1973
Page: 1444

Mr BRYANT (Wills) (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) - by leave - I wish to make this statement in 2 parts, firstly as a general statement and, secondly, with reference to the particular case of Nola Banbiaga who is now at Maningrida. I take this opportunity to inform the House of the approach which I think it appropriate for me, as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and for the officers of my Department to take towards some matters of Aboriginal custom which have recently attracted public notice.

I am particularly concerned by the suggestion voiced in some quarters that the Government should intervene, directly and arbitrarily, to prohibit certain betrothal and marriage customs, or aspects of them, and even to disallow or abrogate arrangements which Aborigines have entered into amongst themselves, simply because the customs or arrangements are distasteful or repugnant to our ideas.

It is nearly always the case that incidents of this kind occur in communities which continue to live to a substantial extent in accordance with tradition although, as I will mention later, there is evidence that Aborigines widely are beginning to adapt that tradition, voluntarily, to their changed circumstances of life. But I believe it to be undoubtedly true that Such communities by and large, in respect of their own affairs, still want to live and as far as we allow them do live in accordance with their own law. Their betrothal and marriage customs are part of that law. What Mr Justice Blackburn held to be true of their land-holding and religion - that they governed themselves by veritable systems of law cognisable as such by our courts - is incontestably true also of their institutions of marriage. Indeed, in the world of expert scholarship, Aboriginal marriage systems have been recognised for well over a century as a classical instance of institutions governed by rules of general application and enforced by moral and jural sanctions. I am against interference from mere doctrine.

I need hardly point out that in the past a great deal of what Professor Rowley rightly described as 'the destruction of Aboriginal society' was brought about by our domineering and arbitrary interference with customs we did not properly understand, and all too often did not even want to understand. One would hope that our days of proud and invincible ignorance are over. We will have learned nothing if we do not now think twice or thrice before we interfere, unless for reasons of grave and compelling urgency. I do not think we have such reasons.

I mentioned earlier that the Aboriginal people quite widely are voluntarily adapting their traditional practices to new circumstances. There is a great deal of human and social wisdom amongst them in the ways they are going about it. They recognise that older and younger generations do not see things in the same way and many of them - both old and young - beseech me to let them work out their own adjustments in their own way without third party interference. As far as is humanly possible, that is what I want to do.

The aspects of Aboriginal marriage arrangements which offend Europeans seem to be polygamy - or to give its correct name, so my experts tell me, polygyny - so called child marriage and what is often called the promise system. Let me say a few words about each, to put them in perspective, because there is a lot of misinformation about them. Polygyny was apparently never universal amongst Aborigines in the sense that every man had more than one wife at a time, or even in the course of a lifetime. Where the matter has been studied carefully it would seem that fewer than one man in two had more than one wife at a time. Some men no doubt had egotistical and sexual reasons for taking several wives, but others acquired them as a social duty. They were expected to give security to the widow of a dead brother or, in some cases, another relative, and other men, especially the older, took an additional wife or wives to support them in their declining years. But, in any case, multiple marriages are now clearly on the way out. The 'problem' is solving itself. This is not simply because the Christian missions, as they are entitled to, expect their adherents to be monogamists, but because there is a distinct shift of sentiment amongst Aborigines themselves, especially the younger ones. Having several wives is no longer as fashionable as, and in modern conditions rather more troublesome than, it used to be; widows need the social insurance of a man's protection less, and are often content to live as widows on the pension they receive and young women increasingly resist having to accept status as co-wives. Most mission authorities and settlement officials now wisely refrain from breaking up polygynous marriages of long standing.

It may be worth my pointing out a fact that few Europeans realise - that the stability of Aboriginal marriages does not suffer by comparison with ours. Certainly, for us to interfere arbitrarily with old-established polygynous marriages would be intolerably censorious and meddlesome. Insofar as it is a problem it will be dealt with by Aborigines in their own way and in all probability will in time disappear. The main point I desire to make is that most of the circumstances allowing or encouraging polygyny have changed, and that Aborigines widely realise that this is the case. Neither I nor my officers are going to harass them about the matter.

The betrothal of girls rests on some complex but ancient customs which we would do well to try to understand without prejudice. It certainly runs counter to some of our most cherished ideas, but many people who worry themselves about so-called child marriage do not realise the extent to which this misrepresents the Aboriginal custom, and even insults the Aborigines, who in some ways could teach us a lesson or two about the care of children. The Aboriginal tradition of child care was at least as solicitous as ours; it was less authoritarian; and in practical psychology it was possibly more perceptive. There was no bashed child syndrome amongst them.

Under the old-fashioned rules of Aboriginal society - and again I stress that they were rules of law in a strict sense - it was allowable practice to bestow girls by betrothal for eventual marriage before they were born, or in infancy, or at any time before they were of marriageable age, or even after that age. This practice was sanctioned by morals as well as by law. It was also possible to bestow a girl as a man's future mother-in-law. This is what the Aborigines describe as the promise system. The promise in fact amounted to a solemn contract publicly known and recognised as such. The contract of eventual marriage was less between the boy and girl concerned than between their family groups. Interestingly enough, though the paternal families were consulted, the arrangement was usually much more between the maternal families of the boy and girl. A promise of this kind, properly entered into and later solemnised, as it usually was, by a formal if brief ceremony, was a very serious and public pledge, and could not be dishonoured with impunity. To do so injured interests wider than those of the principals.

I fully recognise that the idea of young girls being required to marry men, often many years older, whom they may dislike, offends against our ideas of marriage, the liberty of the person, and women's status. Even so, I feel that we should tread very carefully here. Aboriginal society allowed, and still allows - I stress this point - girls and women who refuse to go through with marriages ordained for them ways of escape. It is simply inaccurate to picture them as men's chattels; it is also needlessly pejorative to talk about bride price; and perhaps I may point out too that only a few people in human history have attached the importance we do to romantic marriage and are so opposed to the idea of arranged marriage. I do not defend the Aboriginal attitudes. All I am doing is to suggest that meddlesome and morally censorious interference by us is not the answer to a tradition which a great many Aborigines, especially in the more traditional areas, still uphold strongly. Incidentally, the experts tell me that the durability of Aboriginal marriages under their system compares very favourably with our own.

But, as in the other matters I mentioned, the Aboriginal scene is changing in this respect, too. I thought it very interesting and significant that a recent congress of Aborigines in the Northern Territory decided, of their own motion, that promises of long standing would continue to be honoured but that in future young men and women would be free to marry by choice provided they kept the other laws of marriage. This encourages me in the approach that I as the Minister and the officers of my Department wish to take.

I believe that the Aboriginal people are at least as wise in respect of their own affairs as we are in ours. If we seriously intend to allow them to follow their own rules in their domestic and family affairs, and to adapt their style of life in ways and at speeds of their own choice and not ours - a principle to which the previous Government pledged itself - we must open to them fully the path of their own wisdom. I do not doubt that troublesome particular matters will arise from time to time. If so, I and my Department will discuss them with the Aborigines concerned with the utmost patience and goodwill. One hears a good deal about human rights. I remind the House that one of the most fundamental rights, of which we hear little, is the right to be different. The Aboriginal people, too, are entitled to that.

That brings me to the recent occurrence in Darwin. I have had inquiries made about the movement of the child Nola Banbiaga from her foster parents' home in Darwin to her parents' home at Maningrida. The inquiries are not complete but I believe Parliament is entitled to know the information so far available. On 23 August I received a telegram from Mr Athol Brown, Nola's foster father, advising of the dispatch of a letter to me, and on 27 August I received the letter from Mr Brown seeking my support to retain the custody of Nola. I immediately sought advice from my Department and advised Mr Brown of this. On 8 September Nola was taken by a departmental social worker, with the foster parents' consent to meet members of her family at the Bagot Reserve. While she was at the Bagot Reserve representatives of the Aboriginal Legal Service are reported to have arranged for her to be flown with her father to Maningrida. Inquiries are proceeding to determine the extent to which the departmental officers were involved in these events, and should those inquiries show any departure from their duty appropriate action will be taken.

Nola is one of many Aboriginal children who, because there were no essential medical, educational or other facilities available at their parents' normal place of residence, have been taken from their natural parents and reared in missions, orphanages, hospitals, institutions or private foster homes. The grief that this policy has caused the Aboriginal parents is equalled only by the grief of the foster parents who have been called upon later to surrender a child they have reared as their own. The effect of this policy on the child can only be guessed at, but there are outstanding examples of young Aboriginal men and women in our society who have overcome this trauma without loss of their cultural identity. But we should not impose this burden on any more children or parents or foster parents. New procedures must be developed to care for children found in this situation. It would be easy for me to claim that the custody of Nola is a civil matter as indeed it is; but as the Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs I accept the responsibility of putting right the wrongs of history and ensuring, by a vigorous policy of developing educational, medical and similar services in remote Aboriginal communities, that the practice of separating mothers from their children ceases. There are perhaps hundreds of children in orphanages and such institutions throughout Australia, as well as those with foster parents, who should be reconciled with their parents. I have asked my Department to initiate a program of reconciliation.

There are one or two comments I want to make. The Press reports of this occurrence - and I deplore the occurrence - were in large measure irresponsible and they were inaccurate. First of all, some of the leading articles in newspapers for whose views I often have respect even if I disagree with them, carried racist assumptions that the child, in going back to her parents, inevitably was in the wrong place and would be ill-treated. There is no evidence that this is the case. The life that Aborigines lead might well be austere, but to assume that they ill-treat children is quite wrong. It is a racist assumption and it must not be allowed to be perpetuated throughout the community.

The other thing was the wrong information. This caused me a great deal of concern, as it did everybody in the community. It was said that the girl was going back to marry a middleaged man. Nothing of the sort. It was said that the parents were nomads. They are not. It was said that the girl was put through certain initiation rites. She was not. These reports have had a very damaging effect on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relationships throughout the country. They have caused a great deal of concern to me and to many other people, and they have had all sorts of damaging implications, particularly in the Northern Territory. I hope that in future people who are reporting such events at least will take the care to get all the facts right and to base any comment upon assumptions which give consideration to the fundamental equality of the situation.

This is my own view: First of all, the child's welfare is paramount. There can be no other consideration whatsoever. When this matter came to me suddenly one morning, I was asked to make a decision whether she should go back to her parents or whether she should stay where she was. I said: 'First of all, the child's welfare is paramount, but I cannot possibly be asked to solve that sort of question in this sort of situation'. So I discussed the matter with the director of my Department in the Northern Territory and we decided that the best advice that we could give to the parents and the foster parents was that if they would take legal action and put the matter in the hands of the courts we would ask the courts to expedite the matter - we initiated that - so that judicial judgment could be brought to bear upon it. Custody cases cause a great deal of heartache in this country. Nobody is ever satisfied that the decisions are right. So, my indignation was absolute when I found that some people had intervened in a manner which seemed to constitute a breach of trust with the Brown family. I offer the Brown family my sympathy in the situation in which they find themselves. I found that somebody had pre-empted the situation and the girl had gone back to Maningrida. I suppose Maningrida is one of the nicest spots in the Northern Territory.

This problem is my inheritance. I have looked through the files. I find that this matter has been on the stocks for four or five years. For 4 years or more the parents have been asking for her back. I can only try to solve the problem. I do not blame anybody for not solving it in the past, except that I believe social workers as a profession should have taken much more effective steps to bring about a reconciliation between the foster parents, the parents and the child, and taken steps to make sure that what occurred in this case does not occur again. My own position is such that I will take every possible step to ensure Nola's welfare in the future. I make it quite clear that the legal position, as far as we can determine, is that the Government has no authority. The absolute authority, unless it can be proved in accordance with the law that- the child" is neglected, is in the hands of the parents. In these situations one has to take all sorts of actions. I took steps to ensure that physically the girl, for the moment, was in a sound situation. There has been some criticism of the steps I took, but I assure the House - I suppose honourable members would hold this view anyhow - that in attempting to solve these problems I do not propose to be imprisoned by the past or by any system. Human rights and the welfare of the people themselves will be mv first concern.

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