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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15033

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (4:22 PM) —This motion is about division. If the opposition were not about exploiting division on this question and on like questions, they would not be promoting the sorts of divisive debates that we have heard today. To use, as the Leader of the Opposition has used, the Prime Minister's statement of wanting to govern for all of us, as well as his promise to commit himself very genuinely to the cause of true reconciliation, in the context of betrayal, leaves open only one view; that is, that the opposition want to exploit the views of the Prime Minister in a way which can achieve political advantage for themselves. Of course, then to go on and accuse us of division in indigenous affairs, of a failure to apologise in relation to claims for compensation, in relation to a failure to administer effective programs for the benefit of Aboriginals, indicates what the opposition want to do with these particular questions.

In my comments today it is important to make clear that this division by the opposition will not in any way deflect the government from its objectives in relation to ensuring that we have better and more effective relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australian community. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that he supports the reconciliation process but he sees it as one that will continue beyond the year 2000 when the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation ceases its work. The fact is that the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has been working, in accordance with the requirement of an act of parliament, to have ready for tabling in the parliament a report on reconciliation. That report will set out a means of giving effect to proposals that were contained in a document of reconciliation which was submitted in draft form but which, when finalised, is to be launched on 27 May at the Sydney Opera House. The council will also spend time in the remaining six months of its term seeking commitments to that document from a range of stakeholders.

The government has indicated its support for the reconciliation process. It has indicated its support for consultation in relation to the document of reconciliation. All of that commitment was greeted, when we had resolutions in this parliament, by the opposition saying, `Yes, we accept the generality of your support for these matters but, in relation to specific areas, we do not think you have gone far enough.' In other words, what the opposition was seeking to do was to distinguish itself by setting out areas of difference. In other words, it was seeking to divide. Of course, the Prime Minister saw it as being important to indicate, in line with advice that he had been receiving from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation—a council that the member for Banks is a member of, and where he would know that there had been caution expressed time and time again about whether reconciliation could be achieved, and where there had been caution expressed in relation to a number of issues in which it was considered that it was not possible to set down, at this point in time, definitive views that would necessarily achieve a broad consensus within the Australian community—the council itself was setting out that these matters were `unfinished business'.

In that context, when the Prime Minister was informed that there are issues where the council itself does not believe that it will be able to produce a final document which will be definitive on all issues, which will achieve `reconciliation of all Australians', the Prime Minister was condemned for simply putting on the public record his recognition that reconciliation will not be magically achieved by a particular document put down on a particular date. We remain committed to working for reconciliation. But when reconciliation has to be about a meeting of minds of the whole Australian community, if you are going to bring all the Australian people on board you need to do so in a way which is unifying and which recognises some of the difficulties that you are going to have in bringing on board all the Australian people.

But the government does support the aims of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. We acknowledge and respect our indigenous people and the way in which they have worked constructively in relation to these issues, and we are appreciative of all the others who take a genuine interest in these matters and want to work positively to see a resolution of them. We are committed to working in partnerships with other government organisations, with business, with peak organisations and with community organisations to achieve a genuine outcome from this process of reconciliation. The Prime Minister has indicated to the council that we will look at ways and means of supporting an ongoing process which the council itself believes will be necessary after it has completed its document of reconciliation.

I want also, in the context of this debate today, to draw attention to the double standards in the way in which the Labor Party has handled the issues relating to separated children. The fact is that the issues that we are dealing with are not new issues; they are issues that were very much alive when the Labor Party was in office. They are issues the Labor Party in office would have been able to deal with by way of any statement of apology that it wanted to make at that time and by dealing with the litigation that the Prime Minister referred to that came to the High Court—Kruger and Bray v. the Commonwealth. The fact is that the issue of compensation was very much alive. It could have been dealt with by the Labor Party in office. But, as the member for Denison made clear in his own comments, the Labor Party dealt with it by giving it to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to have it off the agenda until after the election that was due had passed. That is what it was really all about. The same opposition has been playing a duplicitous game on this question of compensation. It knows that, within the Australian community, if you were dealing with very large numbers of claims from people who were saying they were separated—whether it was justifiable or unjustifiable—the amount of money would be very large indeed.

Mr Kerr —British child migrants—

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Denison!

Mr RUDDOCK —The Labor Party in office ran away from that issue. They allowed the litigation to run. They held out, and continued for a time to hold out, the view that the issue here is the issue of an apology. They even had the audacity from time to time to say that, if an apology were made in the form they wanted it, litigation was likely to stop and compensation as an issue would disappear. That is what they were holding out.

Mr Kerr —That is right.

Mr RUDDOCK —But now we see a much clearer picture emerging—and it is one that the Labor Party will have to think through very clearly, particularly in the run-up to any future election—that is, what are they actually proposing now? I notice the words that the Leader of the Opposition was using today in relation to this issue are what the Aboriginal communities now want: `material recompense'. That is not about words; that is about money—that is about financial compensation. The member for Banks has today been arguing that the Commonwealth should settle the current litigation because it would be cheaper than arguing all the claims in court.

Mr Kerr —It would be.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Denison has twice drawn my attention in question time and now twice in this debate. I will not be as generous again.

Mr RUDDOCK —The case, if it yielded an outcome which involved compensation, may open the possibility for other suits, but the case disposed of in relation to culpability will close the issue off.

Mr RUDDOCK —Yes, it will. The case would close the issue off, if this is the best case to be argued by all the organisations that have hunted up hill and down dale to find people on which to launch a test case—and that is what the organisations funded by the Commonwealth, generously, to assist in relation to Aboriginals have been doing over a period. I would be reasonably satisfied that it would be unlikely that you would find cases which would present a range of circumstances more auspicious than those that are presently before the court upon which others might be able to be predicated. But, if the opposition are arguing that these matters ought to be taken out of the hands of the court and settled by a general offer of compensation, then that is what they need to be prepared to spell out in policy. It was not what they were prepared to do in government, and that is the basis upon which they ought to be judged. I have been fascinated over time in relation to this issue of apology about which the opposition appears unwilling to recognise the generosity of the Prime Minister's personal comments by way of apology—

Mr Albanese —You're joking!

Mr RUDDOCK —in relation to separated children. Of course, I am sorely disappointed that the opposition see fit to disparage the resolution of this parliament, which was a resolution of sincere and deep regret for the events that have occurred in the past. But when I listened today to the comments of the Leader of the Opposition about where apologies have been given, I was very interested in the experience in relation to the `apology' that was given in Canada, because I recall well the criticism that was offered from those who said it did not go far enough. And I can well recall the situation where in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—

Mr SPEAKER —Member for Grayndler!

Mr RUDDOCK —headed by Bishop Tutu, brought down its report and found it roundly condemned by the National Party and by the ANC—

Mr Albanese —Howard opposed sanctions.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Grayndler is warned.

Mr RUDDOCK —because each of them was unwilling to recognise that there were comments that reflected upon their involvement in the recent past. If you look at the experience of the Pope in relation to the apology offered by the Catholic Church now, you find exactly the same: a situation in which an apology—well meant, well conceived, well constructed—is still seen by some as not enough. It would not have mattered whether the Prime Minister had used the word `sorry'; there would have been people in the Labor Party arguing that he had not expressed sincere and deep regret for the events of the past. There has been a confected anger over these issues, and the confected anger comes from those who seek to make an issue of these matters for the purposes of division, and that is where the Labor Party stand on these matters. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Beazley's) be agreed to.