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Thursday, 6 April 2000
Page: 15459

Mr LIEBERMAN (3:56 PM) —How unfortunate it is for us to sit in the House and hear the shadow minister talking for the alternative government, for the Labor Party, in such terms when he had a wonderful opportunity to put aside the divisive politics so identified with the shadow minister and some of the members of the Labor Party and to write a new page in a relationship of conciliation and of negotiation with all members of parliament. But he missed the opportunity, and that is a shame. I do not think he is beyond redemption, because I know in his heart he is a good man. But he has, for one reason or another, accepted the responsibility of being a shadow minister in this important portfolio and of believing that the normal strategies of opposition should apply to having that important shadow portfolio—the normal policy of the opposition to oppose, to discredit and to show that the government of the day is not performing.

In fact, in relation to reconciliation and looking after and improving the position of Aboriginal people, the shadow minister should not be taking those traditional opposition techniques and should be adopting a much more conciliatory and supportive role. He does not. I do not believe there is one member of whatever political colour in this parliament, in the Senate or the House of Representatives, who would genuinely believe that what the member for Banks said so unfairly about our Prime Minister is in fact true. For the shadow minister, the member for Banks, to say that our Prime Minister, John Howard, has diminished his office and is actively seeking to confuse, to divide, to mislead and to abandon is wilful, irresponsible, totally unjustified and harmful to the most disadvantaged people in Australia—our indigenous friends, our brothers and sisters, our Aboriginal people.

Many of them do not have the opportunity to sit down in full council with all of us and to swap notes, because they live in isolated areas. Many of them, unfortunately, are not completely able to read and to understand the English language. So they rely on the word passed from one to another. When a white shadow minister says to Aboriginal people the things that we heard the white shadow minister, the member for Banks, say today, it causes them great hurt and concern and a feeling that their security, so long threatened by the decisions and actions of white people, is going to be further threatened.

All of us in this parliament should be working to support the Prime Minister—and I would like to say the Leader of the Opposition—in the quest to achieve policies and programs that will overcome the disadvantage of our Aboriginal fellow Australians and achieve true reconciliation. Let me illustrate one of the most unfortunate things about the policy, attitude and approach of the opposition to true reconciliation, to show that their words are hollow and are not justified. Their criticism of the Prime Minister is dishonourable. Last year our Prime Minister put forward in a referendum for the people of Australia to consider a preamble to our great Constitution. The words the Prime Minister asked the Australian people to endorse in an amendment to the Constitution were:

... honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country.

I had no trouble voting yes for that and I guess most of us in this parliament would have deeply wanted to support the Prime Minister in that. I thought that we would have seen the member for Banks, the alternative minister for Aboriginal people, the shadow minister, in the trenches with the Prime Minister wanting to support the campaign for that amendment to the Constitution. No, that was not to be the case. It brings no credit to the member for Banks that he went against his own party's policy, his own leader, in October last year and called for the Australian people to vote no to that amendment to the Constitution.

I think those words and those actions speak for themselves. I strongly wish that the member for Banks would come into the parliament next week and apologise—apologise for the lost opportunity—and, hopefully, announce that the opposition would support the Prime Minister if he were to put the preamble question again to the Australian people at an appropriate time. Even though I am leaving this place at the end of this parliament, I will be out there in the trenches hoping that sort of referendum question will be recommitted. I am proud that John Howard wrote it and believed that it ought to be in our Constitution. I think the member for Banks is a big enough man to come in next week and say, `I'll cut a deal with you on that.' I hope he will. I am giving him a chance to do that.

So many words have been said over the last few weeks. This week has been a difficult week—let us be fair and honest—in dealing with a most complex and sensitive issue. The Prime Minister today showed great humility when he said in question time he was sorry that the words that were used in the document had caused hurt to some people. I accept that; why can't the member for Banks? Why can't he accept it? Let us move on to the future. Tim Colebatch—and I do not always agree with Tim, but I have known him for a long while—wrote in the Age today an article giving both sides of politics a blast on reconciliation. I enjoyed reading it, Tim. He supports the need for us to look to the future and not dwell on the past. He does say after criticising us:

Despite the conspiracy theorists, there is no reason to doubt John Howard's statement that he cares as much about Aboriginal Australians as he does about other Australians ...

That is the nub of it. Surely that is the nub of it. For as long as the opposition continues to try to convince sections of Australians that the Prime Minister does not believe that sincerely, we are going to be retarded in what should be a unanimous quest for true reconciliation. It is a matter of logic. If the argument is sound, if we all believe we should achieve reconciliation and if writers like Tim Colebatch, who often criticises the government, know that the PM is sincere about that, why don't we get on with the job of doing the things we need to do such as helping to settle the final terms of the reconciliation document?

The Prime Minister is working very hard on that document. I know the member for Banks has made a contribution and continues to do that, as does the parliamentary secretary who is at the table, my colleague the member for Murray. There are a lot of good people out there. There is Gus Nossal, who I have known for years. He is a great Australian. Gus is one of those fellows who you just like to be around. He is putting his heart into it. Then there is Evelyn Scott and all those people. They do not want these stupid divisive political strategies. It does not help them in their task.

John Howard has said this problem is so deep, there is so much to be done, all of the government has to take responsibility. I was reflecting before I spoke today that the Prime Minister has got nine key ministers involved in a whole of government approach dealing with the urgent issues of reconciliation. Let me quickly mention some of them. There is Peter Reith. What a fantastic job he is doing with the partnerships program in employment and training. There is David Kemp, with his efforts in literacy for Aboriginal people. What a fantastic effort. I am very proud of it.

Then there is Philip Ruddock. What could you say? How does he get through the workload? You see him loaded down with all those files. Ruddock spends probably all of his waking time subconsciously on the issue of reconciliation as well. You know he is dedicated and he is making good progress. John Herron has had a hard time this week but he is a dedicated man. His insistence that we concentrate on health, housing, unemployment, education and training is right. Those are the issues that all Australians want us to focus on as a whole government.

Tony Abbott in employment is making a great contribution, helping Jocelyn Newman to develop a situation where Aboriginals have true potential to get off welfare. How would you like to be born doomed to stay on welfare until the day you died? You would not. No Australian would like that. Tony Abbott and his team are working to help the Aboriginal people there. I think Michael Wooldridge is Australia's best ever minister for health. As a former state health minister, he has negotiated fantastic agreements with the state health ministers. On health issues, we need to work together as a family—state, federal, local, all of us. Wooldridge has been at the leading edge in Australian health politics in developing effective agreements that will provide performance. My good friend Barry Wakelin is about to bring a report in—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Indi has had considerable latitude in the use of people's names. I ask him to now refer to members by the correct title.

Mr LIEBERMAN —I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Grey is about to bring in a fantastic report on health for Aboriginal people. It is going to be a beauty. I have heard the member for Grey talk about it. Just wait and have a look at it. It is very practical, I am sure. Daryl Williams, the quiet achiever, the first law officer, spends so much of his time under John Howard's direction working to assist with the indigenous issues of Australia. As Treasurer, Peter Costello has supported the allocation with the PM of more than $2 billion this year to programs to help our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. I could go on and on.

But why didn't the member for Banks, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge some of that? That is all he had to do. Next week I want the member for Banks to come in—and I will move a suspension of standing orders for him—and get up and acknowledge just some of it. That will be the day. Put your heart in it and forget the divides of politics. It does you no good. It does Australia no good. We do not need it. We have copped a bit of criticism this week for some words that I would never have used. The Prime Minister said that he did not like them either. That is what he was virtually saying today, and he apologised. We deserve criticism when that happens, but don't make it the focus, for God's sake. The focus has to be the welfare and the future of all Australians, and that includes the Aboriginals of Australia. They deserve better. I think my time is just about up, but I am looking forward to the next contribution from a member on the opposition side who might get up and say, `We'll cut a deal with you. We agree with you. Let's turn the page. Let's start this afternoon.'