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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10451

Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (10:43 AM) —in reply—I thank the honourable members who have contributed to this debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 , and also thank particularly the opposition for their cooperation in expediting the bill.

I want to say how pleased I was to hear the contribution from the honourable member for Indi, Mr Lieberman. The honourable member for Indi is following in the steps that I followed at one stage in this parliament by chairing the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. I know my colleague the member for Aston, Mr Nugent, has also had a long period of involvement with that committee and in these matters.

The honourable member for Indi has been very much involved in pursuing, as this government has, the best ways and means of ensuring that Aboriginals are able to play a meaningful role in the decision making that affects their own lives. And particularly through the consideration recently of some of the issues relating to the reform of Aboriginal land rights law in the Northern Territory, he has had a focus on consultation and involvement.

This has been the hallmark of this government and former governments. There is nothing new about the emphasis on Aboriginal self-management or upon individual self-determination. This is a view supported by the government. It is part and parcel of the way in which previous ministers such as Ian Viner, Peter Baume and Fred Chaney implemented programs when the Fraser government was in office.

I find it very beneficial when we have contributions from members of parliament with considerable experience, like the member for Indi. I welcome the contributions from newer members, such as the informed contribution from the member for Kalgoorlie, who was able to outline, in a very comprehensive way, some of the programs of the government, particularly in the area of training, and the impact that they are having, and the cooperation that is now being seen in the areas of cross-cultural training through the Leonora-Laverton program, which he enumerated. I thank him for that contribution.

I welcome also the contribution from the honourable member for McMillan, because he showed perspicacity in his comments—something that is not often understood by other members of the opposition. He recognised that, ultimately, education, health, housing, employment, and particularly training, are keys to Aboriginals being able to have the capacity to make those decisions in relation to their own lives. That is a very good starting point. He may not know everything that has been done; he may not have the detail of that in his mind, but it is a good starting point for him to focus on those programs and to assist the government with the initiatives that they are taking in this regard.

It is important to focus on training, but you cannot focus on training until you have really started with basic education—literacy and numeracy. They are the sorts of issues that have been very comprehensively dealt with in the programs that my ministerial colleague the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, David Kemp, has been pursuing. It is important to recognise that there has been some movement. As one who has examined these matters over a long period of time, when I look back at what I saw when I was fairly new in the parliament more than 20 years ago, as I visited many centres around Australia, and when I visit those same places today, it is important to recognise that there remains very considerable disadvantage, but there has been change, and it has been positive.

Without that change, the Noel Pearsons of this world, having regard to the education that he has received, would not be there—and he is not alone. When I started in public life 26 years ago, I recall there being two Aboriginal graduates—Charles Perkins and Margaret Valadian. Today, we are talking about thousands of young Aboriginal graduates. That is a very significant shift in a very short period of time. Of course, today, we see year 12 retention rates that have quadrupled over a period of time. We see post-school qualifications doubled to 13.6 per cent. We have seen higher education enrolments trebling. We have seen the proportion of indigenous people in professional occupations rising from 14 to 22 per cent.

These shifts do not occur without a good deal of effort and commitment. But it also ought to be recognised that when you are coming off such a very low base—and it is acknowledged that that is where we were—these sorts of changes are going to be generational in terms of ultimately bringing all Aboriginals to the same sort of standard of living that Australians generally are able to enjoy. That is where we want it to be. That is what we are seeking, and we are seeking it through very practical programs, but also by trying to address the issue of self-esteem, particularly through the approach that we have taken in supporting reconciliation.

Some of the steps that have been taken recently by the parliament, and the support that has been given to the work of the Reconciliation Council, are all incremental, but are going to be very positive in terms of creating an environment in which the programs that are in place—and bear in mind that they cost in the order of $2 billion—are able to have a positive impact.

It is in that context that I want to thank honourable members for their contribution to this debate. The debate is really about implementing ATSIC's section 26 review. I found a high degree of awareness amongst members of what we are doing here: simply ensuring that, when you have an ATSIC chair elected from amongst the members, the place that he or she would have otherwise occupied as one of the regional councillors and zone commissioners be able to be filled in the normal way, so that those people who have given up their representative to assume this leadership role will not be left unrepresented.

We have an election under way. That election is going to be an important one. This will be the first time in which ATSIC is able to elect its own chair. These changes are necessary to ensure that it is able to be conducted and that these aspirations in terms of the new structure are met. I am delighted at the support that is being given to the bill and the expeditious way in which it is being handled. I commend the bill.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.