Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15013

Mr BEAZLEY (2:38 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, do you recall saying on election night 1998 that you wanted:

... to commit myself very genuinely to the cause of true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia by the Centenary of Federation.

Isn't it a fact that in the last five weeks you have abandoned this goal? You have refused to act on mandatory sentencing, with which you say you do not agree, and now you deny the existence of the stolen generation. Why are you reneging on the very first promise you made in this term and dividing the Australian community for your own political purposes?

Mr SPEAKER —I warn the Member for Denison! Before I recognise the Prime Minister, the latter part of the question did seek to advance an argument. I do not know that it need be responded to, but I invite the Prime Minister to respond to the first part of the question.

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I want to start with the end part of the question because it goes to motive. Despite the language in which it was clad, the purpose of the Leader of the Opposition's question was to maintain differences of opinion over indigenous affairs as a divisive political issue in the Australian community. The Leader of the Opposition comes into this parliament this question time as the man outraged about the behaviour of the government, yet in reality he is the person who seeks to use this issue to divide the Australian community. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that on 26 August last year the members of the Labor Party joined the government in unanimously supporting a resolution dealing with the issue of reconciliation, which amongst other things said that the House:

... acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our history.

Those are the words that were put forward by the government. Those words were supported by those who sit opposite, and those words are designed, amongst other things, to have contemplation of the events relating to the forced removal in earlier years of indigenous children. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that that particular paragraph encapsulates the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of the Australian community. We might differ and argue about other approaches to reconciliation, but recognising that the treatment of indigenous people does represent the most blemished chapter in our national history is something that I think most Australians agree upon.

The Leader of the Opposition implies in his question that the government has abandoned the quest for reconciliation. Let me tell him that the government has not abandoned the quest for reconciliation. The government believes very strongly that the goals of reconciliation are very important national goals that this government will continue to pursue. It is not easy to achieve reconciliation. I am not expressing my own words on this. I think I am expressing the words of many reasonable indigenous leaders who have said that the process of reconciliation will in fact take years. That is the view of the Chairman of the Reconciliation Council, it is the view of the Chairman of ATSIC, it is the view of many commentators on indigenous affairs and it is certainly the view of the government.

Last week I had the opportunity to launch an indigenous program dealing with literacy and numeracy, commiting $27 million for a program to address one of the proven and admitted causes of indigenous disadvantage in the Australian community: the fact that indigenous Australians' levels of literacy and numeracy are even worse than those of other Australians. This is something I describe as practical reconciliation. That was criticised by some—not many—within the indigenous leadership, but the great bulk of them saw it for what it was: a practical gesture on the part of the government towards the goal of reconciliation. We remain committed to those sorts of things, and the Leader of the Opposition knows that we are committed to those things. The Leader of the Opposition knows that we are putting unprecedented levels of resources into attacking the health problems of indigenous Australians. The Leader of the Opposition knows that there are not racial motives in the policies of this government. The Leader of the Opposition knows that the government is not endeavouring to divide the Australian community on this issue. The Leader of the Opposition knows that it is not the intention of the government on these issues to create division within the Australian community. We have an honest difference of opinion on the issue of a formal apology. It remains the view of this government that a formal national apology is not appropriate. It remains the view of this government that the motion of sorrow and regret contained in the resolution to which I referred a moment ago is the appropriate response of this national parliament to that issue.

That is our view, honestly held. I accept that there are other views in the Australian community that are different, but ours is not a view based on any kind of racial prejudice, it is not a view based on an assumed superior reading of Australian history; it is an honest view as to what the appropriate response is. These are difficult issues. I think all Australians regret many of the things that occurred in the past. There is an overwhelming desire on the part of the Australian community to work to address the root causes of Aboriginal disadvantage: the lack of appropriate standards of education, of health, of employment opportunities, and of housing. They have been the priorities of the government I lead over the last four years, and it is a continued application of those priorities that will give to the indigenous people of Australia a greater opportunity in life and the opportunity to participate fully within the mainstream of the Australian community. I do not think it contributes to the appropriate level of debate in this community for the Leader of the Opposition to seek, as he has done, to impute improper motives to the government. By all means, let the Leader of the Opposition tell me what is wrong in this document. Let the Leader of the Opposition tell me what is wrong with us providing, this year, $2.2 billion, a record amount, to address Aboriginal disadvantage. Let the Leader of the Opposition tell us what was wrong with the literacy and numeracy program that was brought down last week. The Leader of the Opposition talks about division, but the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow minister want to reopen one of the most divisive debates in recent Australian memory, and that is the debate on native title.

Mr HOWARD —The Leader of the Opposition wants to reopen the debate on native title. We believe the debate on native title was resolved by this parliament elected by the Australian people. One of the reasons we rejected the findings of the United Nations committee last week was that, amongst other things, that United Nations committee called for a reopening of the native title issue. I cannot think of anything more divisive than to reopen that issue. All of us knew that it was a potentially explosive issue within the Australian community. All of us knew that when the government reached an understanding with Senator Harradine—no thanks to the Australian Labor Party—we had avoided the consequences of that. The Leader of the Opposition on this occasion has sought to make miserable political capital out of this issue. He ought to be condemned for doing so.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for the Northern Territory is warned.