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Thursday, 1 June 2000
Page: 16844

Ms WORTH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs) (1:16 PM) —In this debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2000-2001, I would like to say a few things about reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. I was honoured to be present for the day at Corroboree 2000 last Saturday and to walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the Sunday. I thank Dr Evelyn Scott for her personal invitation. I have no doubt that the weekend's events will go down in the history of this country as a symbolic milestone as significant as the abolition of the White Australia policy and the 1967 referendum when Aboriginal people were given constitutional rights. I personally wanted to be involved to represent my family and the vast majority of the people of my electorate, particularly the more than 1,200 indigenous people who live there. This was probably one of the largest gatherings of this country's leadership, including political, industry, church, community and indigenous leaders.

Reconciliation means different things to different people. It is my firm belief that 212 years after white Europeans came to this country the vast majority of our population want to acknowledge past injustices and do their best to rectify them, with goodwill between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. For some that simply means friendship or mateship. For others it means being more actively involved in improving the lives of individual Aboriginal people. While the issues are complex and challenging, the government has made some gains, but there is still more to do.

Education is a powerful factor in improving people's quality of life and increasing future prospects. The government recognises the need for educational quality and that this will not happen overnight. However, gradually the participation rate of indigenous people in formal education and training has increased to about 2.6 per cent. This is pleasing, given that indigenous Australians comprise 2.1 per cent of the population. Earlier this year, in an historic step towards self-empowerment for indigenous people and in an effort to improve indigenous educational achievement rates, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp, announced Australia's first indigenous literacy and numeracy strategy. Over time, initiatives such as this will help give indigenous children a better start in life.

For a number of years now I have had a strong interest in Aboriginal health. I see good health as a prerequisite to a good education. Specific funding under the Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services program has increased 51 per cent in real terms since 1996-97 to $187 million in 1999-2000. There is now a plan in place involving the states and territories. Reaching these agreements is a significant step in itself. As the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Dr Wooldridge, once said, quoting an Aboriginal friend of his: `For the first time we are all in one car heading in the same direction.' While there is still so much to achieve, there are a number of good news stories related to increased birth weights and immunisation rates; the reduction of sexually transmitted diseases; and the management of renal disease.

I found Corroboree 2000 a very emotional experience. There were some powerful speeches and there was song, dance, tears and laughter. Dr Evelyn Scott said:

Well meaning Australians participated in taking children from their families, destroying indigenous languages and cultures, and banishing whole populations from their traditional lands to alien lands on missions and reserves. This period of assimilation continues to have a devastating impact on the lives of indigenous peoples. There is still discrimination, legal and social, against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

And who could argue with these sentiments? When Mick Dodson spoke of his generation he was also speaking of my generation, and this is when I felt the tears in my own eyes, because he said, `Removing kids was all the go when I was born.' He told of how his grandmother was taken at a young age and placed in a mission in Western Australia. His mother and two of his sisters finished up in the same mission and they both spent considerable time in orphanages in Broome, despite the fact that they were not orphans. His father was jailed for 18 months for breaching the Native Administration Act of Western Australia by cohabiting with his mother.

I find it a tragedy that as a young person growing up I did not know these things were happening. They were not spoken of, but they are now and it is important that they are. How would any one of us feel if we were taken from our mother or if our children had been taken from us? My eldest daughter telephoned me this week to tell me just how she would feel if her two small children were taken from her. I have known Audrey Kinnear for some years but have found out only in the last week that she was taken from her mother in the Maralinga lands when she was aged four. It must have taken strength and courage to talk publicly of such things, and I was pleased to see Audrey last night at the dinner to honour Neville Bonner and to give her a hug and to tell her how sorry I felt.

I spoke by phone to Barbara Flick, who is now based in Broken Hill and is working on the coordinated care trials at Wilcannia. Some years ago when I was writing a paper on Aboriginal health, Barbara took me to places like Bourke, Brewarrina, Walgett and Wilcannia. I told her I had been thinking of her this week. She was optimistic, talking of some of the wins indigenous people are now having in health and how Michael Wooldridge is the best health minister she has ever worked with. She told me how society is changing and how about 40 years ago in country New South Wales she did not talk to most white people and they did not talk to her. In shops, indigenous people had to wait until white people were served before approaching the counter. She, along with the other `little black kids', as she put it, hid under the stairs of the local town hall, like Cinderella, and admired white girls and women when they arrived in their ballgowns. She told of how she and other indigenous people sat in the roped-off area at the local picture theatre. She told me how her mother had been taken from her grandmother and how her grandfather was a veteran of World War I. Cheerfully she told me how much things have changed: how she now speaks to the people to whom she once could not and how they speak to her, and how when she was young she would wake up and feel black and now she wakes up and feels Australian.

There is still dreadful disadvantage contributing to substance abuse and poor living conditions. We must do our best to change these things. It is with the knowledge of what has happened in the past that we can move forward. It will be through understanding and empathy that the healing can take place. Australia is a big country and it is one country and there is room for all of us to live with trust, tolerance and respect. I commend the bill to the House.