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Wednesday, 6 November 1996
Page: 6712

Mr ALBANESE(6.16 p.m.) —I am disappointed that, with the government's last speaker on the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Bill, we have come down to the member for Dickson (Mr Tony Smith) outlining his conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, he left out the Communists under his bed, but everyone else was in on this grand conspiracy to stop the Hindmarsh Island Bridge going ahead. It is interesting that that view has been put forward before the House this afternoon because we all know—and the coalition knows—that there is nothing to stop the Hindmarsh Island Bridge going ahead right now.

This is just a publicity stunt. It is part of the government's campaign of code against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. It is part of a code which says, `We'll single them out for special treatment.' But it will not be special treatment in terms of lifting up the most discriminated group in our society. It is not about that; it is a different sort of code. It is about applying two sets of standards.

The member for Dickson had the hide to raise the fact that the head of ATSIC is on $200,000 a year. Effectively, she is the equivalent of a departmental head. Really! This week we have had questions to the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) about the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who is known in my stated as `Max the Axe', who is on over $200,000 and picking up 50 grand for a part-time job as chair of a committee in Victoria, appointed by the Victorian government. That is okay because he is part of the establishment! We do not talk about excessive salaries in the bureaucracy there. We do not talk about how much those people are earning. We have the Prime Minister standing up and saying, `Oh, well, he can't get his super.' Then we had him coming into the House and saying, `Well, he can get a bit of his super but he can't get all of it.' We continually hear two standards being applied on the basis of race by this government.

We have already indicated that the opposition believes that this piece of legislation is completely unnecessary. If you want to achieve the coalition's objective of getting the bridge built, whatever the cost, it simply can go ahead. It is just a stunt to demonstrate to developers that they can now feel relaxed and comfortable about the prospect of future projects without having to worry about minor details such as the protection of significant Aboriginal sites.

We have already spoken about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984. It is very clear that the minister has discretionary power. Elizabeth Evatt noted in her review of that act:

The Minister can protect the area or site by making a declaration. This is a discretionary power. Even if the area is significant according to Aboriginal tradition, the Minister has to consider the report and take account of all interests, before deciding whether or not to make a declaration to protect the area or site. There is no right to a declaration of protection.

What is the point of this act before the House now? The government clearly has the numbers; it clearly has an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. The basis of putting this bill forward can be viewed only as being an ideological one.

Last night the person who wrote the legislation, the former minister, Clyde Holding, indicated very clearly the history of the bill to this House. The history of the bill was that the minister did have discretion.

Unfortunately, this is a stunt, but it is a stunt at the expense of the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia. The coalition has a shameful record in relation to the Hindmarsh Island Bridge issue and with this bill is further demonstrating their commitment to disenfranchising indigenous people in this country. With this bill the Ngarrindjeri will suffer the brunt of coalition ideology, which shows no respect to the spiritual beliefs of the original peoples of this nation.

The coalition is not even prepared to investigate for themselves whether or not there should be protection for the site. They are introducing this legislation to override the Commonwealth Heritage Protection Act in one specific case so that they can ensure they get the result they want. Surely the job of Senator Herron as Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs should be to protect Aboriginal heritage, not to deliberately set out to undermine it and have it destroyed.

Throughout this entire affair the coalition has shown its ideological motivation again and again. I was interested to read, for example, a press release from the Minister for Defence, the member for Barker (Mr McLachlan), last month in which he attempted to attack my colleague, the member for Banks (Mr Melham), about the opposition's position on this issue. Because it is the fashion, all the polls that the government is doing are showing that there is a political incentive to get stuck into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—that it is popular out there. The member for Banks has not walked away from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; the Labor Party will not be walking away either. I am proud to be associated with the member for Banks in his stance on this and on other issues.

Members will no doubt recall that the member for Barker was forced to resign from the front bench last year over his involvement in copying and distributing information about the secret spiritual beliefs of Ngarrindjeri people. What a disgraceful affair that was. It is this kind of hypocrisy which marks the government's approach to indigenous affairs. The action of the South Australian Liberal government in staging the farce of a royal commission into the spiritual beliefs of a community of indigenous women, at great expense to the taxpayer, was shameful. In what other community has there been an inquiry into the community's spiritual beliefs? What other one?

Over there you have got a mob called the Lyons Forum who have a particular spiritual belief. You can imagine the reaction of people like the member for Menzies (Mr Andrews) or the member for Mitchell (Mr Cadman) if we said, `We're going to have a royal commission into your beliefs; into whether you can prove the Holy Trinity exists.' What if we said, `We're going to have a royal commission into Islam,' or into any other religious or spiritual belief? It simply has not happened. There would be outrage if anyone suggested it. But, for the indigenous people of this country, it is fair game, open slather. You can accuse them of whatever you like. It is expected that it is all part of making that community accountable. Once again we see that the standard that is expected of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a different one from that which is expected of those who have arrived in Australia, bringing their spiritual beliefs, in the last 200 years.

No other section of our society has to endure the contempt for its religious beliefs that has been shown by the coalition to indigenous people. Last year, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Michael Dodson, spoke about the Liberal Party's obsession with Hindmarsh Island when he said:

The right to religious freedom and respect for spiritual beliefs lies at the heart of human rights. It is a right which all Australians are obliged to respect, and all Australians entitled to enjoy. And that principle holds, irrespective of whose beliefs are at issue, or on what basis those beliefs are held. What we have in [the South Australian] royal commission is the abuse of the human rights of Aboriginal people masquerading as lofty legal procedure. Pull off the mask and what you see is nothing short of state sanctioned racism.

Pull off the mask and what is revealed is a royal commission which has been called at the behest of a political party with its nose out of joint.

Take note of this. It is not the Labor Party he is talking about; it is the current government. He went on to say:

A political party with its nose out of joint, a media industry desperate to drum up a scandal, and worst of all, that element of Australian society still determined to invalidate indigenous cultures and annihilate indigenous peoples.

I find it increasingly difficult not to be cynical about the fine rhetoric of cultural diversity. We can freely sing our songs and tell our stories—especially if those songs and stories can be marketed for a tidy profit. But the moment that the protection of those songs and stories may come into conflict with the economic interests of non-indigenous society, we are told they have no place.

It is both astonishing and contemptible that in this [international year of tolerance] the right to practice one's religion and freely hold one's beliefs can be called before a royal commission.

A report by Justice Jane Mathews was tabled by the current Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron) in the Senate in September this year. In it, Justice Mathews referred to the sincerity of the applicants. She said:

It is necessary as a preliminary matter to assess the applicants' sincerity when they say that the Hindmarsh Island area is significant for them, particularly as the dissident women in the royal commission generally disclaimed any knowledge of the island as a significant place. I must say that in general I was satisfied of the genuineness of most of the people who made oral submissions to me when they asserted the significance of this area to them.

Justice Mathews went on to talk about the documentation which had been placed before the royal commission by Elizabeth—Betty—Fisher, who was an amateur historian. Mrs Fisher indicated to the commission that she had been told of the existence of women's business at Hindmarsh Island in the late 1960s by a Ngarrindjeri elder, Rebecca Wilson. Mrs Wilson is now deceased, and so is obviously unable to forward any evidence. This report actually looked at the validity of the notes that were made at the time—that is, in the 1960s—by Elizabeth Fisher. The report tabled by Senator Herron in the Senate in September says:

Mrs Fisher's original notes were included with the applicants' representation. At a time when it appeared that the issue of `women's business' was still a live one, I took the step of submitting this material for scientific analysis in order to determine its age. Had the notes been written in pen, the ink could readily have been dated. However pencil is not susceptible of dating, so it was only the paper which was analysed.

The analysis proved to be a time consuming affair. It was not until the last weeks of the reporting process that the results came to hand. These are set out in Appendix 12 to this Report. As the Minister will see, the results generally favour Mrs Fisher's account that she wrote these notes in the late 1960s or early 1970s. One of the two groups of pages is said to date back to at least the early 1970s. The other set was less easy to date and the findings are inconclusive. Nevertheless it appears not to be of recent origin.

So I say to the member for Dickson that, when he speaks about facts being put before the parliament in this debate, there is one which has not been refuted by the other side.

This bill really is typical of the coalition's approach to indigenous affairs. It is no wonder that someone with views like Pauline Hanson's could find themselves preselected by the Liberal Party. The member for Oxley (Ms Hanson), I am sure, will be voting with the government on this issue because the whipping up of racial hatred has been supported, in code, by some on the other side, either by their failure to speak out against those views or by the preaching of code by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) in seeking to deny Australia's history and in seeking to allege that somehow Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders did not have it all that bad and that the education system is to blame for preaching the facts that occurred with the invasion of this country more than 200 years ago.

To introduce a bill which is specifically designed to override the existing legal rights of a particular community, rights to which all other Australians are entitled, and to do it in the way in which it has been clearly put before this parliament, this legislation not being necessary for the Hindmarsh Island Bridge to go ahead, it is little wonder that we see this attack as purely ideological.

I am very happy to be associated with the former minister, Robert Tickner—and we can debate which ministers' decisions were right or wrong—because he worked for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with nothing but great motivation, nothing but the best intentions and nothing but hard work in a portfolio which no-one gets any thanks for. To suggest, as those on the other side have, that he had some ulterior motive in putting this forward and in his actions on Hindmarsh Island Bridge really is a disgrace. It is just appalling. I do not step away from my association with Robert Tickner as a minister and as someone whom I am pleased to call a friend.

It is no accident that since 2 March we have seen racial intolerance increasing in this society. Compare the actions or the silence of the current Prime Minister with the actions of the former Prime Minister. At the same time in his prime ministership, when this Prime Minister is talking about not talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, as if everything was okay, Paul Keating was giving a speech at Redfern, the greatest speech on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs ever given by an Australian leader. In it he acknowledged the past—he did not run away from it—and he said:

. . . we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life; we brought the diseases and the alcohol; we committed the murders; we took the children from their mothers; we practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice and our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask: How would I feel if this were done to me?

With the bill before the House today, I ask: would the government have the courage to move a bill such as this—talking about spiritual beliefs being rubbish, the sorts of speeches that they have given—against the Christian community, against the Islamic community, against the Hindu community or against any other section of our society? If there were an attempt to do this against the Christian community, all of us on this side would have the same view we have on this issue, but we would be joined by those on the other side because it would be an outrage. It is not a legal case. Spiritual beliefs are not something which you can simply cast an objective legal view over. That is not the way it works, and I suggest that it should not have worked in this case.

Not only is this bill unnecessary to allow the building of Hindmarsh Island Bridge; it demonstrates the government's attitude, which has been pretty poor to date and shows no signs of improving in the near future. If it is the case that the amendments moved by the shadow minister saying that the Racial Discrimination Act should not be overridden by the bill are unnecessary, then vote for those amendments. This is your chance to prove how fair dinkum you are. At worst, it is unnecessary. That is your argument. But there has been no argument that it should not go ahead. (Time expired).