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Thursday, 17 September 1987
Page: 270

Mr SNOWDON(5.50) —I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Address-in-Reply debate. Mr Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment as Deputy Speaker. I ask you to pass my congratulations on to Madam Speaker on her election to her high office. I also commend the honourable member for Hawker (Mrs Harvey), the honourable member for Forde (Ms Crawford), the honourable member for Denison (Mr Kerr) and the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Lavarch) for their fine contributions to this debate. I regard it as a great honour to stand before the House as the member for the Northern Territory and as a Territorian. My thanks go to the people of the Territory for having the confidence to elect me as their representative to this House. They can be assured that I will be strident in my efforts at representing the interests of all territorians.

My success in the election on 11 July would not have been possible without the support of my Party, my friends, my colleagues, those who worked on the campaign and my family. I extend my appreciation and thanks to all of them. I pay particular tribute to my partner, Elizabeth, who at the height of the election campaign, gave birth to our daughter Frances, our first child. Many have asserted, but I can assure them that it was not the case, that this was a blatant attempt to grab the granny vote.

I come to this place with a background as a teacher and a research worker. Immediately prior to my election, I was an employee of the Central Land Council in Alice Springs. I have lived and worked in both the centre and top end of the Territory as well as in some of the remote communities. In teaching, I worked for a number of invigorating and stimulating years with high school students in Darwin. As a researcher I had the honour and privilege to work with Dr H. C. `Nugget' Coombs and Dr Maria Brandl on a three-year project examining the impact of government programs on Aboriginal children and families. My speech today will seek to draw on these experiences and will address a number of issues of concern.

The seat of the Northern Territory has a proud Labor tradition. The seat was formed in 1922 and from then until 1934 was held for the Australian Labor Party by Mr Harold Nelson. His son, Jock, a life member of the Party, held the seat from 1949 until 1966. More recently, John Reeves held the seat for the ALP in the first Hawke Government. The Northern Territory is a unique electorate. It has an area in excess of 1.3 million square kilometres, with a coastline of some 6,200 kilometres. Almost four-fifths of the electorate lies within the tropic zone. The electorate incorporates not only the mainland area and adjacent islands defined as being part of the Northern Territory itself but also Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. I place on record my indebtedness to the people of these islands whose support for me and the Australian Labor Party in the last election has been rewarded with a system of government that is both practical and concerned for their welfare. I look forward to visiting the islands as soon as is practicable.

The electorate of the Northern Territory is, if not the largest by area in Australia, then geographically the most dispersed. The demography of the Territory reflects its unique geographical composition. Aboriginal Australians, who comprise almost a quarter of the people in my electorate, share more than 40 different languages and dialects. The majority of these people live in small isolated communities dotted throughout the Northern Territory or on the adjacent islands. People from another 50 different nationalities call Australia home and live within the electorate. Some of these people are quite recent arrivals and there are those among them who have chosen to make their home in the Territory, having been forced to leave their homelands in circumstances of violence and turmoil. There is, for example, a large community of East Timorese people in Darwin, who arrived as refugees after the violent appropriation of their birthplace. All of these ethnic groups, no matter what their origins, have made significant contribution to Territory life and enriched the community as a result of their presence. The decision in Tuesday's Budget for the funding of a national languages program will be particularly welcomed by the Territory's ethnic community, but it will also be relevant to the Territory's Aboriginal population.

The cultural diversity of the Territory seat is one of its distinguishing, invigorating and endearing features. Another is the fact that it is the only electorate in Australia which has within its boundaries the whole of a State or Territory. The Territory population is growing rapidly and, while welcome and challenging, this growth places strains on the level of service delivery that can be provided. This Government has recognised these demands and continues to provide the Territory with almost 78 per cent of its revenue. On a per capita basis this is four times the amount provided to the States.

This dependence by the Northern Territory on the Commonwealth is, perhaps, regrettable and I will use every effort to promote the second economic development of the electorate and to lessen this dependence on Canberra. I do, however, place a caveat on that undertaking. It is my firm view that economic development must be equitable and undertaken in an atmosphere of social and environmental responsibility. In this regard I will vigorously oppose any regime for resource development which seeks to deny Aboriginal territorians the right to control access to or development upon their land. I will oppose attempts to vandalise our national parks. They are our greatest long term economic assets.

It is significant that the industry which has experienced unparalleled growth in the Northern Territory is tourism. Between 1983 and 1987, there has been an increase of 336 per cent in tourist visitation to Kakadu National Park and slightly more than 200 per cent to Uluru National Park. The number of visitors to Kakadu in 1987 will be 195,000 and to Uluru 180,000. It is expected that next year the visitation to both areas will reach 250,000. These tourists have been attracted to these areas by their unique cultural and physical values. These parks are of major international heritage value. The economic spin-offs to the rest of the Territory that result from this tourism are significant. I will be pleased to use every endeavour to support development which is consistent with the principles of equity and social and environmental responsibility.

The Territory economy reflects an over-dependence on resource development. The manufacturing base of the Territory is small, comprising only 6 per cent of Territory product in 1985-86 compared with a national figure of 19 per cent. I will vigorously support efforts to diversify the Territory's economy. In this regard, this Government's defence policy of self-reliance will be very important to the future economic development of the Territory and is to be applauded. Already it has resulted in substantial inputs to the Territory economy. By the time the Tindal base at Katherine has been completed, and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment has been relocated to the Territory, with the future possibility of an Army brigade moving to the Top End, at least $1 billion will have been spent and up to 10,000 service personnel and their families will have moved to the Territory. This expenditure will give much needed stimulus to the development of the construction industry and the manufacturing and service sectors in the Territory and provide long term employment and career opportunities for young territorians.

Hand in hand with providing employment opportunities the Government has a responsibility to provide young people with equal educational opportunities. I am concerned to work to ensure that such opportunities are available to all residents of the Territory, whether they live in the major urban areas or in remote and isolated communities in the Territory or on the Christmas or Cocos (Keeling) Islands. I am concerned to ensure that the educational services provided to them are appropriate to their needs and aspirations. Education should not be seen as a labour market program.

An issue which the Northern Territory administration is hoping to promote within the Territory is statehood. It has announced its intention to hold a referendum on the issue either late in 1988 or early in 1989. In setting its agenda for debate over the issue the Territory Government has earmarked as major planks to its campaign, the gaining of control over the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and having both Uluru and Kakadu National Parks transferred to its control. The inevitable result of such a campaign will be a divided community. Clearly, the hidden agenda of this proposal is to give the Northern Territory Government the unfettered right of access to Aboriginal land in the Territory.

If statehood is to be achieved in the Northern Territory it must be done with the support of all sections of the community. It would be grossly improper and unjust if statehood meant the subjugation of Aboriginal land rights against their will. My friend and colleague Bob Collins said in another place yesterday-I agree with his proposition-that statehood should not be provided to the Northern Territory unless it is done on the basis of equal representation with the other States.

It took 188 years for any government of this country to recognise in law Aboriginal rights to land. This recognition was given by this Parliament with the enacting of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In my view, it is important, as we approach the bicentennial of the invasion of this land by non-Aboriginal people, that we take special stock of our relationship with Aboriginal people. This is one issue which I believe to be of pre-eminent importance as we approach 1988. As a nation we have yet to recognise and accord Aboriginal people the justice that is their due. We have still to come to terms with the fact that it was only 20 years ago that the people of Australia gave this Parliament the power to make laws on behalf of Aboriginal Australians. It was only then that non-Aboriginal people deigned to recognise Aboriginal people as a race.

The year 1988 provides this nation with a unique opportunity to seek a reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians and recognise their calls for justice. It is time that this Parliament and the nation returned to the bipartisan approach to Aboriginal issues that characterised the passing of the 1967 referendum and the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights, (Northern Territory) Act 1976. It is time that, as a nation, we examined the history of our colonisation of this land and came to terms with the Aboriginal view. As the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Uniting Church in Australia Social Responsibility and Justice Committee and the Australian Council of Churches Commission for Church and Society have observed in their recent publication titled A Just and Proper Settlement:

Aboriginal people have been in continuous occupation of this land for a longer period than any other people, past or present, have occupied any other land on earth.

And as my colleague, the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and current Minister for Employment Services and Youth Affairs, and Minister Assisting the Treasurer (Mr Holding) observed in 1983:

The origins of Australia as the Western nation we know today are seen by indigenous people here as the end of the dreaming, not the birth of the nation. It was the beginning of dispossession, disease and death; in short the destruction of Aboriginal society.

The myths that have built up around the settlement of this country must be exposed. All Australians should understand, for example, that in the first 120 years of colonisation, somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of the Australian Aboriginal and Islander population was wiped out. It is probable that at least half a million Aboriginal and Islander people died in this period, either as a direct result of the wars that were fought between black and white people in this country, or as a result of the diseases that were introduced by colonisation.

It is not my intention to give honourable members a history lesson, but merely to highlight the gravity and injustice of the treatment that Aboriginal Australians have endured at the hands of non-Aboriginal people. It is worth pointing out that despite the assimilationist and welfare oriented programs that have in the past characterised the administration of Aboriginal and Islander affairs in this country, today the unemployment rate of Aboriginal people is six times the national rate; on average an Aboriginal person earns only half the income of other Australians; Aboriginal life expectancy at birth is 20 years less than that for all Australians; Aboriginal child mortality is three times higher than the national rate; up to 36 per cent of Aboriginal children aged under 10 years in some areas suffer from trachoma, compared to 1.6 per cent of non-Aboriginal children; many Aboriginal families live in sub-standard housing or temporary shelter; and the imprisonment rate for Aborigines is over 20 times that for the total Australian population. These shameful statistics mirror the lot of colonised peoples of the Third World.

While there is a view that non-Aboriginal Australians should not have to atone for the sins of their forebears, we are still not prepared to accept that this colonisation process, the historical continuum of dispossession, alienation and oppression which began in 1788 continues to this day. No longer do we, the colonisers, rely on guns and poison. The contemporary tools of colonisation are legislation and statutes, and these derive their power from the legal fiction of terra nullius, and to our refusal to come to terms with our obligations to Aboriginal Australians as the indigenous owners of this land whose rights have never been ceded. To the best of my knowledge we remain the only former British colony not to have recognised the rights of the indigenous people either by treaty or through the Constitution.

This nation cannot pretend to wear the mantle of maturity until the indigenous rights of Aboriginal Australians are given formal recognition and the demands by Aboriginal and Islander people for compensation for lands stolen and for social and cultural disruption are addressed. In my view, this should involve appropriate amendments to the Constitution.

I would remind honourable members that calls for the recognition of these rights are not new. It is worth noting that in February 1975, in the other place, the following motion, moved by Senator Bonner and seconded by Senator Withers, was unanimously passed:

That the Senate accepts the fact that the indigenous people of Australia, now known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were in possession of this entire nation prior to the 1788 First Fleet landing at Botany Bay.

And urges the Australian government to admit prior ownership by the said indigenous people and introduce legislation to compensate the people now known as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for dispossession of their land.

The fact that this Parliament has yet to enact such legislation epitomises the plight of Aboriginal and Islander people in this nation today. It is time that the politics of division in this country were put aside so that at last the injustice of the Aboriginal dispossession is recognised and dealt with in a way which is satisfactory to Aboriginal Australians.

You have before you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a person who, while working with the Central Land Council, was seen as a dreaded white advisor, a non-Aboriginal employee of an Aboriginal organisation, a person vilified by many within the community and particularly, on some occasions, by those sitting opposite us. The so-called white advisers are regarded with derision by those who fantasise about what Aboriginal people can or cannot do or should or should not do. Such people are unwilling or unable to recognise that Aboriginal community based and controlled organisations such as land councils, health services and resource agencies are responsible to and run by Aboriginal people.

My colleagues the honourable member for Denison and the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Tickner) both have experience of working in an Aboriginal organisation and both have experienced the derision and abuse of being a white adviser. These attacks serve the purposes of those who are ignorant or who seek division, not the recognition that Aboriginal people, like other Australians, have the right and the ability to employ, manage and direct staff. This attitude is typical of the institutionalised racism to which Aboriginal Australians are continually subjected.

In the Northern Territory, various conservative politicians have sought to capitalise on this type of racism to divide the community for electoral purposes. Sadly, they have found welcome allies in sections of the Northern Territory media. Such divisive campaigns of vilification have no place in a country which, as a minimum requirement, ought to live up to the many international treaties and conventions to which it is a party. As His Excellency the Governor-General indicated, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand) have placed the issue of Aboriginal rights firmly on the political agenda. The royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody is of particular significance. It has rightly pointed out that a major task is to promote a positive attitude in the community generally to Aboriginal Australians. For this to happen it is important that the institutionalised racism that has for so long been at the core of this country's dealings with the indigenous population is exposed. This requires that political community and industry leaders acknowledge the injustices of the theft of Aboriginal land and the colonising of Aboriginal people. I conclude, Mr Deputy Speaker, by quoting from an eminent Australian author, Xavier Herbert, who, you will recall, in addressing the issue of Aboriginal land rights, said:

Until we give back to the black man just a bit of the land that was his, without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him-until we do that, we will remain what we have always been so far, a people without integrity; not a nation by a community of thieves.

Debate (on motion by Mr Shack) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 6.09 to 7.30 p.m.