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Wednesday, 27 November 1985
Page: 2423

Senator KILGARIFF(10.48) —Today I looked at the annual report of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for 1984-85 which was on the list of papers to be discussed in the Senate. As happens so often at this time of the year when the sittings of the Senate are coming to a close, we have such a rush of reports coming in from so many departments that we never really get the opportunity of discussing them. It is not my intention to discuss this report tonight other than to say that I commend the authors of the report because I believe that it is very comprehensive. I have not doubt that the matters discussed in the report will bring about many debates. Certainly I find that much of the report is very realistic and I believe it takes a quite accurate approach to the situation today.

I refer tonight to an issue which was raised by the Secretary of the Department, Mr Charles Perkins, in his preface to the report. Mr Perkins said that Aboriginals are finding themselves in a situation of hardening community attitudes. He comments that this has been the unfortunate reality of the past twelve months. I wholeheartedly agree with him and I believe that it is extremely unfortunate, but to a degree it is not unexpected.

In the Northern Territory, in particular, community feelings are running high over issues such as Aboriginal land rights. I have indicated over recent months and weeks that I will be introducing a private member's Bill to rectify the problems as I see them within the present legislation. I envisage that my amendments, if successful, would go a long way towards ending the confrontation and ill-feelings over land rights in the Northern Territory, for I believe that my Bill is a fair one. However, I do not want to dwell tonight on my proposed legislation; instead I wish to raise another matter which I think is having an impact on community attitudes in the Northern Territory today, as it did yesterday and as no doubt it will tomorrow if the problem is not overcome.

I refer to the matter of anthropological evidence used in Aboriginal land claims and the fact that until now the bases on which anthropologists have reached their conclusions have been shrouded in secrecy. I think that it is understandable that people in the Northern Territory have not always been satisfied by the decisions reached by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner regarding land claims, because there has been no disclosure of the evidence. For instance, no field notes gathered by the anthropologists representing the claimants have been produced.

There was a lot of interest and support for Mr Justice Michael Maurice, the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, when he took steps earlier this year to obtain the working documents of some of the anthropologists involved in the Warramungu land claim. I am referring to a large area of land near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Mr Justice Maurice made the point, in ordering that certain field notes and other documents be produced, that it was doubtful that any land claim heard thus far in the Northern Territory had involved so many people having so many diverse interests.

The Warramungu people are claiming about 10,000 square kilometres near Tenant Creek. When we are talking about that amount of land, I think we are entitled to be sure that it is being granted to the true traditional owners. In order to achieve this aim and to be sure we have to examine the basis upon which those expert witnesses have reached their conclusions. The flow of information in these land claim cases is very much in the control of the applicants and their advisers. It is they who decide who will give evidence and what material will or will not be put before the Land Commissioner. It is not beyond the realms of possibility to say that not all of the right people have been called before the Commissioner, that the composition of groups called is such as to stifle real discord and disagreement, and that embarrassing points have been judiciously glossed over.

With the controversy which surrounds many land claims, I believe that the Commissioner is entitled to ask for all the information-I mean all the information-which will assist him in determining the traditional owners of the land. When I speak of controversy, it is not just controversy between Aboriginals and the rest of the community, but between different Aboriginal groups which are represented by opposing interests and for which evidence is given by various anthropologists. Recently, there was a lot of disagreement between the anthropologists, all supposedly specialists in their field, over the question of who were the rightful owners of the Katherine Gorge. It is an interesting scene when conflicting viewpoints are put forward by anthropologists.

When even the anthropologists cannot agree, surely it is time to examine closely the basis for evidence coming before the Aboriginal Land Commissioner in the Northern Territory? However, as I have said, there has been strong opposition to this suggestion from some anthropologists and the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority of the Northern Territory. Supposedly, the anthropologists do not divulge their field notes because of the confidential nature of the information which they may collect from their Aboriginal sources. While this may be the case, I believe that surely the Land Commissioner in the privacy of his chambers ought to be permitted to examine those notes to assist him in his deliberations. Even so, the confidential nature of these notes must be minimal. The most recent development since this request by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner for the document to be made available is that a court order from the Federal Court has been issued restraining him from obtaining them. The order is still in force and a further hearing of the Federal Court early next year will hear an appeal from the Northern Territory Government against the decision.

Frankly, I believe that it is time for a house cleaning. On the general theme of reducing community opposition to land rights, I think that it is worth noting the remarks of Mr Justice Edward Woodward, the architect of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, who, speaking at the twenty-third Australian Legal Convention earlier this year, called upon Aboriginal groups and their advisers to moderate their demands for more and more land. Mr Justice Woodward said that claims for land not based upon traditional ties were similar to heritage claims for areas to be set aside as nature reserves and should be dealt with in the same way by State and Territory governments on a case by case basis. Mr Justice Woodward even went so far as to suggest that in some cases Aboriginal groups should consider handing back some land. He said it was clear-this opinion is held by him and by many people-that the tide of public opinion had turned since the early days of the push for land rights, and public sentiment was not with Aboriginal aspirations to the extent that it had been in the past. That is perhaps what Mr Charlie Perkins was saying in his preface to the DAA report which has been tabled today. I think that is something which is recognised by people, both black and white, by many politicians and by the people living in areas such as the Northern Territory where there is a substantial Aboriginal population.

There are very many problems, and I believe that action must be taken to put an end to the mistrust and confrontation among Aboriginal people, their advisers and others in the community. Part of the answer to the problem lies, I believe, with those claims that the Aboriginal people are making. Perhaps they should consider moderating their demands. Hopefully, we could achieve a more conciliatory atmosphere in places such as the Northern Territory, where the Aboriginal land rights Act has caused so much continued division.