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Thursday, 22 August 1985
Page: 138


Senator KNOWLES(10.38) —The purpose of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 1985 and the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1985 is to transfer the ownership of Ayers Rock to the local Aboriginal community. I rise to oppose this because I deny the right of this Government and this Parliament to give away the foremost symbol of Australia to one small group of Australian citizens. It might be hard for a Western Australian to admit that a part of Australia outside her own State has special significance, nonetheless it is true that Ayers Rock has special significance and it is true that our natural or man-made environment encapsulates our feeling for this country. For those who have never journeyed to see it-I have seen it-it is a national symbol of pride in this country that too often lacks emotional focal points for genuine Australian feeling. The Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, claims the feeling applies only to Aboriginals. I disagree. The actions of the Hawke Government in regard to Ayers Rock have therefore caused great dismay among people in our capital cities who previously thought that the land rights argument was of no concern to them.

The Australian Labor Party is busy telling us that we will still have access to Ayers Rock through the leasing-back arrangements made by the Aboriginal community to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. This does not alter the principle that something that is very special to the entire Australian community should continue to be vested in ordinary public ownership, as is the case with any other national park. It also raises the question of the equity of the annual payment to the Aboriginal community as part of the leasing arrangement. I shall deal with this matter later in more detail.

All the assurances by the Minister look threadbare in the eyes of many Australians when they read that Val Doonican was forbidden to make a recording on the rock. As recently as 18 March the Melbourne Herald was banned from taking photographs at Ayers Rock and publishing them. Australians will not tolerate this arrogant censorship of their own national heritage. Actually to go to Ayers Rock and see signs stating `You cannot take photographs' because there are sacred sites as well as homes in the area which cannot be photographed, is nothing short of absurd. Moreover, it a censorship which may owe as much to zealous officials of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service and to non-Aboriginal, even non-Australian, community advisers than to the local Aboriginal people themselves.

If the excuse is made that this community was reacting to unfavourable publicity from theWillesee current affairs program I can remind the Senate only that in a democratic society we have to learn to live with intrusive and sometimes biased media reporting. However, that can never justify any community or agency limiting full access to Ayers Rock.

Even if the Aboriginal Australians living near Ayers Rock had a long history of settlement in that locality I would still argue that ownership of a national asset should not be vested in this one group. However, it is emerging that these people do not have a true traditional link with this area but settled there in recent decades in response to the development of tourism. These people comprise members of several tribes with no necessary long historical link with Ayers Rock. In 1947 William Little first suggested that Ayers Rock become a national park. He stated that there had been no permanent Aboriginal settlement in the vicinity during the previous 30 years. According to the Brisbane journalist, Peter England, the original owners, the Jankuntjatjara, migrated southwards in 1917 under pressure from the Pitjantjatjara people. The people with the best claim to be traditional owners of Ayers Rock are those in a small community in South Australia known as Antakirinja Incorporated. The handover of Ayers Rock well illustrates the historical shams made to serve as the keystone of the Australian Labor Party Government's misguided Aboriginal policy.

Whether more and more Australians, overseas visitors or media groups will suffer some denial of access to the national symbol remains to be seen. What is certain is that one limited community will receive a financial windfall from the payments through the leasing arrangement. Truly, what was once a slogan of the extreme land rights activists `pay the rent' has now become a reality under the Hawke Government. Australians will ask why as taxpayers they should meet the cost of allowing access to a place that any Australian should be free to visit for any legitimate purpose. The local Aboriginal community will receive $75,000 each year as a direct grant and about $20,000 as a 20 per cent share of park entrance fees. While it may sometimes be reasonable to ask Australians to pay such fees for the upkeep of their heritage, it should not take the form of rental to a favoured group of their fellow citizens.

Let me be clear, I do not begrudge public assistance to this community which, like many others, suffers from poverty, poor health and inadequate education. What I object to is any kind of special payment based not on the community's need but purely on the fact that it lives near Ayers Rock. From a position of simple equity we must ask why this community should obtain payments that other Aboriginal communities elsewhere in the Northern Territory, in the north of Western Australia or anywhere else for that matter do not enjoy. Other such communities may have far greater need for assistance but do not have the possibility of enjoying some benefit from the tourist dollar such as that which will inevitably accrue to the Ayers Rock community, with or without this favoured treatment.

If it is argued that this leasing payment is, in effect, compensation for disturbance to a traditional lifestyle we are forced to return to the point that these people have settled at Ayers Rock in response to tourist development. We cannot be expected to believe that in the absence of tourism they would return to a hunter, gatherer existence.

This community is in the same position as that of Aboriginal land owners who are able to demand and enjoy mining royalties because of fortunate mineral discoveries. In Western Australia, even the ALP has been forced to retreat from the contention that any group should enjoy such a privilege. It was stated last year by the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell) in a letter to his colleagues in the ALP:

In the long run, mineral rights will have to be clawed back from the Aboriginals in the Territory and I believe that this move will have the support of all those Aboriginal people who do not have any minerals on their land.

I suggest that there is an exact analogy between mineral rights and this special leasing payment. In the same letter Mr Campbell attacked the decision to hand over Ayers Rock to the Aboriginals as `an example of extreme tokenism' that would only attract the hostility of the general community. Sadly, this is proving correct; yet we can hardly blame the Aboriginal people at Ayers Rock for taking privileges offered to them by a Minister of the Crown, at the urging of white advisers. The anger of the Australian people should be focused squarely on the politicians in the ALP and the Australian Democrats who support these policies and the zealots who pursue them at the grass-roots level.

We should, however, recognise that Aboriginal Australians are the victims and not the instigators of these disastrous policies. Rare as it may be, I agree again with Mr Campbell's statement that policies towards Aboriginal Australians should be based on their socio-economic needs rather than on supposed cultural requirements; not on a policy that seeks to salve the conscience of the guilt-ridden middle class. He also referred to the `mediocre white lawyers who have grown fat on land rights'. That is a clear recognition of the pernicious role of non-Aboriginal activists, whether motivated by self-interest or misguided idealism. I am only sorry that Mr Campbell did not back up his sentiments by voting with the Opposition when these Bills were debated in the other House.

These Bills are not an isolated example of tokenism and inequity. They are part and parcel of a declared policy to divide the Australian community on racial grounds and that will result before long in uniform land rights legislation. It is a policy based not on the carefully perceived needs of a disadvantaged section of the Australian community but on the warm inner glow of collective guilt. It exalts Aboriginality at the expense of common Australian feeling, even to the extent of trying to imprison Aboriginal Australians in their own past. The perpetuation of unjust tribal laws cannot be separated from the ALP's land rights policies just as those policies cannot be divorced from these two Bills. Heavy-handed and unfeeling assimilationist policies of the not too distant past can never justify the current overreaction that now tries to prevent Aboriginals from sharing in the broad stream of our national life.

In attacking the philosophy behind this legislation I cite two people who cannot be dismissed as either right wing conservatives or as being self-interested. The first of these is the late author Shiva Naipul, born in Trinidad of Indian descent, and hardly a white supremist. In an article in the New Republic of last April, aptly entitled `Aborigines: Primitive Chic in Australia' he made some observations that are highly relevant to this debate. The Northern Land Council barred him from territory under its control merely because he had remarked that Aborigines had not created a culture as sophisticated as that of the Chinese, Indians, Greeks or Egyptians.

Significantly, this banning occurred on the advice of non-Australian anthropologists and a lady of mixed race claiming to act in the name of the people. On his comment `You run a police state' the women replied `Yes, and we are proud of it'. It is sad to think that a man who had travelled extensively around the world, visiting some countries that are less than democratic, should encounter his first banning order in Australia. It illustrates also why we in the Liberal Party should be concerned at any possible denial or limitation of access to Ayers Rock and why we are concerned at the activities of those who profess to speak in the name of Aboriginal communities. Mr Naipul gave us a vivid description of one such community adviser whose mind was rigidly closed to any considerations that might shake his view and belief. He said:

Like all cultists, his behaviour was erratic, veering about as devotional duty dictated. You could never tell what he was thinking, because by his own admission he didn't think a great deal. A slave to his emotions, he merely served.

No matter how sincerely such people protest that they are truly the agents of Aboriginal communities, they are clearly exerting an influence.

Without any unkindness, Shiva Naipul also pointed out how the most aggressive exponents of Aboriginal separatism seemed to be people of mixed race rather than tribal Aboriginals. Policy makers are guilty of ignoring the basic truth that `either the Aboriginal is or is not a citizen of Australia. And if he is'-which is the case-`he must face the consequences'. I submit that this view of a perceptive outsider sums up the whole situation. In trying to make Aboriginals something more than ordinary citizens, we will only make them something less, as we did in the days when they had no right to vote or to be reckoned as Australian citizens. These Bills are just one more step in this whole destructive process.

Inseparable from the Hawke Government's land rights policy is the preservation of Aboriginal tradition, including their tribal law. It is the right of all Australians to decide how much of their traditional culture they want to maintain in accordance with the law of the land, and it is not up to governments to dictate. It is another matter for a government to give special legislative recognition, implicitly or explicitly, to the traditions of one group of Australians in their entirety. A warning was given in 1980 by none other than the Hon. Mr Justice Kirby of the Australian Law Reform Commission, drawing on the experience of the noted anthropologist the late Professor Strehlow: We cannot give recognition to a system of law that depends foremost upon principles of secrecy. It is a system of which the full knowledge is confined to a small group of elders and from which women are excluded. Traditional law is based upon religion, and when this evaporates into something rather less we are left with something of diminishing validity to the Aboriginal communities themselves. We should not in any way further the creation of `a legal no-man's land between white and black society in Australia', leading to a kind of synthetic adaption of both systems that some people will manipulate at will.

On the one hand there is a danger that some Australians will evade the normal constraints and consequences of their actions by invoking tribal law, and on the other we run the risk of allowing some of our fellow citizens to suffer unacceptable punishments imposed under principles that are alien to our concepts of justice. A number of Aboriginal people within Western Australia are concerned that such a development is occurring, encouraged by the land rights movement of which these Bills are a part. One Aboriginal Australian, Matron Sadie Canning of Leonora Hospital, has complained that our courts, in passing light sentences on Aboriginals, are in fact `giving the green light' to savage tribal punishments. She has stated:

There should be one law for all the country. Vengeance spearings and killings are increasing when they should be going out.

We should think very carefully as to that principle of one law for all Australians. Also relevant to this debate is her comment that `there's good and bad in every culture-and the bad side of Aboriginal culture is coming out. Culture is being rammed down people's throats at the moment'. At the same time the Aboriginals of the Goldfields and Western Desert Christian Movement have expressed their concern also with the comment that land rights involves a return to an unwelcome traditional culture. I submit that the Senate cannot give its approval to legislation that endorses land rights without, by implication, endorsing the drift to a debased form of tribal law that so concerns these citizens of Western Australia.

In assessing the provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill, we should note that the lease arrangements give a majority of six of 11 places on the board of management to Aboriginals nominated through the Central Land Council. Such a controlling interest cannot but raise doubts as to free access to Ayers Rock. Western Australian senators should realise that this legislation has obvious implications for the future of the foreshadowed national park at Bungle Bungle in the Kimberleys, given the fact that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation recommended in March of this year that it be jointly managed by the National Parks Authority and the Aboriginal community. I agree that this sandstone massif has a fragile environment that must be protected from indiscriminate access and development. I also agree that the development of Bungle Bungle as a national park should take into account the interests of Aboriginal people who are living there. It would, however, be a matter of concern if any Aboriginal community were to enjoy the kind of veto power or special privilege now being accorded in respect of Ayers Rock and the Uluru National Park. National parks should belong to all Australians and we cannot afford to lose sight of this basic principle.

In themselves, these Bills devalue the Australian heritage of us all by removing Ayers Rock from the common ownership of the Australian people. In their broader implications they are another stem in the tragic separation of Australian Aborigines from their fellow citizens, which is the inevitable result of Australian Labor Party and Australian Democrats policy. I urge the Senate to reject them.