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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15030


Mr MELHAM (4:10 PM) —The Australian people deserve better. They want more of their Prime Minister. This Prime Minister had an opportunity during question time, and during the 15 minutes in answering the censure motion, to come out and clearly disown the following offensive and insulting paragraph in this Senate submission by his Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs:

There was never a generation of stolen children.

That is the input of the submission to the Senate committee by the minister for Aboriginal affairs and his Prime Minister. It is the first time in three years that this argument of statistics has been used. Is it any wonder that the community is outraged? This Prime Minister uses dog-whistle politics on these issues. He came into government on the basis that he would govern for all of us, and that we would be comfortable and relaxed. We now know that that is qualified. At every opportunity there have been olive branches. He mentioned getting a bit of a bake from a character on Channel 9 this morning. That was Charlie Perkins. Where was he in 1996? He was part of John Howard's distinguished persons group. He gave John Howard the tick in the lead-up to the 1996 election, and he has since walked away from him.


Mr Snowdon —He was also part of Hewson's kitchen cabinet.


Mr MELHAM —As the member for the Northern Territory rightly said, he was also part of Hewson's kitchen cabinet. What is disturbing is that this government was given another opportunity, particularly by the Senate, for a dignified response to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report. Let us not forget that, before this report came out, the government went out and put the drip on the authors, Sir Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson, and it was in denial mode. This government was asked to submit to the Senate committee a submission in relation to an inquiry that is looking, other than through the court system and through the legal system, to finish off these cases—to finish off this sad chapter in our history. And what is the government's submission? No retreat, no surrender, no admissions.

He talked about Joy Williams in New South Wales. I will tell you what Bob Carr and his government did, Mr Speaker. They did not force her to go into the witness box. She did not give evidence in person—an affidavit was tendered. The New South Wales government actually allowed affidavit evidence in that case. It did not go to strict proof. It compressed the nature of the case, and it did not require the trauma of evidence in the witness box. That is what Bob Carr and his government did. What did this mean-spirited Prime Minister do? He sent up a QC to the Northern Territory to cross-examine, up hill and down dale, people who are victims. The bill now is more than $10 million, a fraction of which it would have cost to settle the case. What is the underlying basis of this grubby submission to the Senate? It says:

There already exists at common law an avenue for the consideration of legitimate compensation claims and it is unlikely that a statutory scheme would be more effective or efficient, unless the bulk of claims were to be accepted at face value, with consequent financial implications as indicated. Such a scheme would also be divisive and humiliating for the unsuccessful claimants.

So it is all about money. It is the government that is obsessed with compensation. The submission then says:

The cost of a proper judicial assessment of such claims is not inconsiderable—reflecting the complexity of researching, reconstructing and adjudicating distant events—but that cost is insignificant compared with the potential compensation costs of a less rigorous process.

It is the government that is obsessed with compensation. When the human rights commission report on the stolen generation talks about reparation, it talks about counselling and about bringing families back together—adopting the Canadian approach. We have a precedent: the Canadians. It is not as if we are in isolation. They had a royal commission. What was the response of their government? An apology, an unqualified apology, a statement of reconciliation given on 7 January 1998. Their commissioners crossed the country, collecting five volumes—3,500 pages—of evidence and 440 recommendations. And what did they do? Give an unreserved apology. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 children attended the schools that were investigated in Canada. That is what we judge this Prime Minister on: on what the Canadians did. They spent $350 million in support of a community based healing strategy to address the healing needs of individuals, families and communities arising from the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools. That is the Canadian approach—and they have moved on. What happened in relation to the question of litigation? This is the Canadian government approach:

With respect to civil suits which allege physical and sexual abuse, the Government of Canada's preference is to pursue resolution of these lawsuits in a non-confrontational manner outside the court system. As much as possible, this protects the privacy of individuals and avoids the stress of a courtroom setting. It also means that the Government is ready to accept its responsibility in those cases where allegations are substantiated and the relative liabilities of all parties (e.g. religious organisations and the federal government) are clear. With these cases we are moving to settle out of court if all parties can reach agreement.

The attitude of this government is knock down, drag down court cases further exacerbating the problem. But do you have a minister—and this is why there is outrage in the community—who is in there on their side, who is listening and responding to them? Not the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. He is out there insulting them—using statistics that are an insult. That is why there is current outrage. It was not my commitment but the Prime Minister's who, on re-election night, wanted to genuinely commit himself to the cause of reconciliation. With respect to accuracy, Budget Paper No. 1 on statement of risks at 4.31 talks about 2,200 claims for damages and, if they are successful, compensation in the order of hundred of millions of dollars. On page 51, the figure is now up to $3.9 billion. Where does this come from? How accurate is that?

The Prime Minister spoke today about the resolution last year in relation to the stolen generation. Again, he is selective about what happened in this parliament. The Labor Party did not support that motion. We moved an amendment and, when that failed, we remained silent, because that is what the stolen generation asked us to do. We remained silent as our protest, because we were given two hours and we were ambushed because of the backroom deal with the Democrats. Generosity of spirit! That is why the Prime Minister deserves to be condemned. It is he who offered this. This was his promise. And what is happening now? It is always `shoot the messenger'. The UN committee are copping a serve now. We will not see the government release their legal advice; the Attorney-General again hides from it. When an independent expert committee examined our 1993 act, the act was given a tick because it conformed with the convention. This government were on notice. The fact of the matter is that the Native Title Act does have problems in relation to international conventions, and the government have been pinged on it.

In terms of mandatory sentencing, statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week showed that in the Northern Territory 67 per cent of all prisoners are indigenous. Imprisonment rates for indigenous people in Western Australia are 21 times the non-indigenous rate. There is a crisis in our jails. People are being sent to jail, not for serious criminal offences but because the judiciary have had the discretion taken away from them. What do we have? A Pontius Pilate approach. What will it take for this government to act or for members of the government to cross the floor? Another death in custody. We had a $40 million royal commission. It said, `Imprisonment is a last resort. Look at alternatives.' This is not a law and order debate. Judges and magistrates in the Northern Territory have been given no discretion. But what does the Prime Minister do? He says, `I don't like mandatory sentencing, but I don't want to act.' Why? He is driven by low-grade politics, the politics of the conservative Northern Territory constituency that he does not want to upset and Richard Court, on mandatory sentencing. But give Richard Court his due. We have our differences on native title but, on this one, not even he can cop the minister for Aboriginal affairs's submission or the Prime Minister saying there was no stolen generation. That is the key to it. Richard Court is not one of ours. He is not one of the Labor Party's.

The fact of the matter is that the Prime Minister is the emperor without clothes. He blames us for asking questions in question time. How did it get on the agenda? Because his Aboriginal affairs minister and his advisers leaked the report to the press, and you have got headlines in the Adelaide Advertiser: `Sorry, you didn't exist'. And we are being blamed. This government is inciting, provoking indigenous Australians. This Prime Minister also, when he did his exclusive interview with the Australian, abandoned his pledge to reconciliation. Why? What was his defence? Expectations were being raised for the May event—unreal expectations.

No-one expects him to apologise—but to go out on the basis of polling! And what does this submission contain? Opinion polling as the basis for defending why there is no apology from the government. Paddy McGuinness—I get on reasonably well with Paddy, but he has lost his way—is cited as a justification for questioning the statistics. It is not as if the human rights commission did not question. It said at page 36 it was not possible to state with any precision how many children were forcibly removed, even if that inquiry is confined to those removed officially. Here is the nub of why they could not do it: because this government did not cooperate with them. The Attorney-General took a submission to cabinet and it was pulled because it did not suit the Prime Minister and his advisers. So a modified submission went after the event to the human rights commission—that is the story—in October 1996 after the deadline, and it did not provide them with any facts. That is the real story. The government did not cooperate with them.

Three years after the event, we have this invention that a stolen generation is not a generation unless all the kids were taken. So the generation that suffered through World War I was not really a generation that suffered, because all our kids were not killed on the battlefields of World War I! What a nonsense. That is why this Prime Minister deserves to be censured. We expect better. He offered better. His covenant with the Australian electorate, if he was to be elected, was a covenant of trust. He was supposed to raise hopes and expectations and grow in office, not diminish in office and diminish the nation. It is no accident that since the 1967 referendum we had a great history in international forums that spanned Labor and Liberal governments. Malcolm Fraser led the charge against apartheid and even he says we should say sorry. This generation can say sorry, and it will not cost a cent, because we did not do it: it is empathy.

But the Prime Minister cannot empathise because he has not got it in him. Low-grade politics drives this Prime Minister. The time for action has well and truly passed. There is no doubt now; it is beyond doubt. There is no reasonable doubt when it comes to this Prime Minister. On every issue in relation to minorities and the disadvantaged he goes after them, he divides them and he uses them for political gain. He does not protect them. That is the job of the Prime Minister, especially in a free market economy, to protect people and not to use them as political fodder. (Time expired)