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Thursday, 8 June 1995
Page: 1593

Mr TICKNER (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) (4.39 p.m.) —Having been furiously thrashed with a feather by the member for Hindmarsh (Mrs Gallus), I must say that many of my remarks will not only respond to what the member for Hindmarsh has said but canvass other matters of criticism that the opposition has levelled at me over recent days. Might I say that much of what we are discussing in this motion has already been canvassed in debate recently in this House.

  The first point I would like to make is that my obligations as the federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs are to administer a piece of legislation that is passed by the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia and the responsibilities that I have under that legislation are, indeed, onerous. They require me to act impartially; they require me to act prudently; they require me, in the case of an application for a section 10 declaration, to protect Aboriginal heritage, to commission an independent report.

  In fact, my track record shows that, in choosing independent reporters under the legislation, the people I choose are very much at arm's length from me. They have included the former Liberal minister, Fred Chaney; the former supreme court judge, Hal Wooten; and of course Professor Saunders herself. It is my responsibility not only to weigh up what are sometimes competing interests in the administration of this heritage legislation but also to protect Aboriginal heritage. Indeed, the case of Bropho v. Tickner in the Federal Court placed very strong obligations on me as the federal minister to protect that heritage.

  My role under that legislation has been consistently to try to find common ground, wherever that can be found, between Aboriginal people and developers who might be proponents of a particular development. Indeed, the track record shows that, in relation to the Broome crocodile farm, I attempted to achieve a mediation, but it was not possible because of the Western Australian government's intransigence on this issue. In the case of the protection of the Todd River and, at issue, a declaration there to prevent the construction of a dam, I attempted to try to secure agreement between the Northern Territory government and the Aboriginal people. That came to a rather bitter end with the now legendary Max Ortmann in the bed of the Todd River.

  I say these things because my administration of the act is under criticism in the motion—this very political motion, which is lacking in substance but has been moved by the opposition. So it is important, I think, that I make some threshold remarks about the general administration of the act. I also say, as I have said many times before, that the federal legislation is legislation that is only effectively used as a last resort—that is, when state or territory legislation is inadequate or is inadequately applied.

  I turn now to the question of the Hindmarsh Island bridge and the application that was made to me for heritage protection. In this case, as with all other cases, I chose someone to commission a report who was totally at arm's length from me. Professor Cheryl Saunders is an eminent Australian academic. She has, regrettably, been subject to, I think, very unfair and very damaging criticism by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) and by other members in this House—the member for Deakin (Mr Aldred). As the Federal Court said in its judgment in relation to the Hindmarsh Island case, she is a person of very great integrity, and the government rejects absolutely the slurs that have been made on her.

  I will not canvass the detail of matters that are currently before the Federal Court. Call me a conservative lawyer if you like, but I still have some regard for the judicial process and I do not intend to go into a whole range of issues that are before the court. But let me make it clear that the attacks that have been made on me in the course of the last two weeks have all been issues which have been the subject of a judicial inquiry. I repeat: the attacks on me in relation to my administration of the act concerning Hindmarsh Island have all been the subject of judicial consideration, almost without exception.

  Let me tell you the kinds of issues that have been raised in the media and trotted out by the shadow minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, the member for Barker (Mr McLachlan), the member for Mayo (Mr Downer) and the Leader of the Opposition himself.

Mr Tuckey —Did they have a meeting in a shed?

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The member for O'Connor. The member for Hindmarsh was heard in absolute silence, as will be the minister.

Mr TICKNER —That is why I think it is fundamentally important that, if the media are to write about the issue, they read the judgment of Justice O'Loughlin. While that judgment ultimately came against me on limited procedural points, the arguments trotted out by the coalition were argued in detail in the Federal Court. It was said, for example, that the fact that I issued a declaration for 25 years, contrary to the initial advice from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was somehow an abuse of process. That was rejected by the court. Justice O'Loughlin said that the decision was for me to make—and I followed the report of Professor Saunders on that issue.

  For days on end we had only some sections of the media trot out the argument about some alleged impropriety concerning the tops of faxes being cut off. Anyone in the gallery who wants access to the transcript of the Federal Court can come to my office and get it. They will see that all of these issues were raised in direct detail before the Federal Court. I have been subject to the most extraordinary judicial consideration in respect of this matter. The very layout of the kitchen at my house was the subject of evidence given before the court. The end result of all this was that His Honour did not uphold the assertions that were made.

  It was suggested that because the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission had given some advice to the applicants about matters within their responsibility this showed somehow that I was biased or showed some impropriety on behalf of ATSIC. This was expressly rejected by the Federal Court of Australia. It was said by the coalition and by a number of other people in the media and was written up, in the case of Mr Easdown, almost exclusively without any attempt to contact my office. There were page 2 stories in major selling tabloids damning me without even the courtesy of a phone call. In my public life, I have an obligation to uphold certain standards, as do members of the House. I would have thought the most fundamental aspect of a code of ethics of a journalist was to get the truth right.

  It was said that I had in some way, in a number of things, prejudged this matter because I had had a draft declaration prepared—again, a matter expressly considered by Justice O'Loughlin in the Federal Court. His Honour in fact found that that was a prudent course of action to adopt. It was said that, because I took action on behalf of the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Australia to investigate whether the Commonwealth would incur any liability, somehow or other that was an impropriety. Again, Justice O'Loughlin said that that was a proper course of action for a minister to take in the interests of taxpayers, and so it goes on and on.

  What I regret most of all is not the damage the coalition campaign has done to me. I have never had in all my years in public life—and there are many of them now—such warmth and such a show of support, not only from my colleagues in the Australian Labor Party but also from people I care about in the Australian community, including the leadership of churches and the leadership of community groups of great repute throughout, indeed, Adelaide and South Australia, and not only people in the trade union movement but also fair-minded Australians who respect the way in which this matter has been conducted. I take this opportunity to thank each and every one of those many people who have expressed that great support to me in the course of the last couple of weeks as this campaign by the coalition was mounted.

  Right to today, and indeed yesterday, I have dealt with this matter with the utmost propriety. I say categorically that the decision to commission a further inquiry under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act by Her Honour Justice Jane Mathews, President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Deputy President of the National Native Title Tribunal, was taken before any suggestion of any inquiry, or decision on the part of the South Australian government to conduct an inquiry. The decision was mine. I took the initiative and the reason I took that initiative, to be very blunt—this is the saddest part of all of this issue—was that I became convinced that the coalition would continually seek to use and fuel great division on this issue, that it would continue to inflict great damage on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that it would continue, as a calculated campaign, to try and discredit Aboriginal people and the heritage process.

  In my remarks thus far, I have responded in a very considered way in respect of a number of process matters that have been raised in the course of debate. I say in respect of the politics of this that no-one ought to be under any misapprehension as to what is driving this process. What we are seeing here is the Adelaide establishment using every trick in the book, including a royal commission into the spiritual beliefs of Aboriginal people in South Australia, to strike back at people who at least in some way contributed to the political demise of the member for Barker.

  That is what this is all about. This is the absolute core of the issue. We know why the member for Mayo is playing such an active role in this process—he, too, is another wounded soldier of the Adelaide establishment, another fallen soldier whose own transgressions in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs policy were the very reason why he lost the high office that he once held. This has been from day one a political campaign of the coalition in which the Liberal Party has been deeply involved. Its fingerprints are all over virtually all aspects of this grubby exercise.

  Let me say in relation to the inquiry that has been called that I will be dealing with that matter, as I always do, in a proper and prudent matter. It will be an arms length inquiry from me. It will be an open and transparent inquiry. It will be conducted fairly. All those who have any possible interest in the subject matter of this inquiry will be able to present their views. But I do say this: in the interest of good government in South Australia, the Premier of South Australia should not proceed with the royal commission that he has already announced.

  The Prime Minister (Mr Keating) will be writing to Premier Brown, impressing upon him the concerns that the Commonwealth has about his foreshadowed course of action and urging that the royal commission, with power to compel people to give evidence about their spiritual beliefs—virtually unprecedented in Australian public life—not be proceeded with and that the South Australian government cooperate with the Commonwealth in respect of its inquiry to end this matter once and for all.

  Earlier on I tabled two transcripts in respect of radio interviews given by two people who were referred to in the Adelaide Advertiser and elsewhere as having claimed that beliefs were fabricated. I did that in order that the media, which has not really had the opportunity to peruse these transcripts in detail until now, will at least set the record straight, and that includes the Adelaide Advertiser. It seems to me that much of what has been written in recent days about the issue of Hindmarsh Island has been based on a lack of awareness about what the Federal Court has said in respect of this matter and without the close scrutiny of a number of clear rebuttals of allegations that have been made by the coalition.

  Let me conclude with a plea to the opposition—I think at this point it will be one that will not be heeded. Eight months after the promise of the coalition policy on Aboriginal affairs we still have a total absence of any policy. I urge the coalition to stop playing politics with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to stop using Aboriginal affairs as a party political football, to review their policy and to do so with good grace and decency and, in the interests of this country, to move to the greatest extent towards cross-party cooperation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. That is not going to happen overnight, but it ought to in the interests of the nation. (Time expired)