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Tuesday, 15 August 1989
Page: 45

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition) —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement and papers.

This statement by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is the latest in a series of statements and reports which touch upon the administration of the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. Most of the statements, if not all of them, have been prompted by the assiduous attention to this area of policy by a significant number of Opposition senators. It is almost invidious to start naming names because I will leave some out, but Senator Tambling from the Northern Territory is actually referred to in this report. Senator Short, who is behind me, has taken a very active interest, as have Senator Crichton-Browne, you, Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Boswell, and I, as the official spokesman in this matter. A number of others, such as Senator Stone, have given very solid service.

The reports encompass a tragic tale of maladministration and failure. The occasion of the tabling of this particular report, which is the end of the series of formal reports that we are to receive, and the receipt of the Prime Minister's statement is not the time to enter into a debate on the whole range of issues which have been canvassed and which will be canvassed again in the no doubt lengthy debate we will have on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) legislation over the coming weeks.

I do want to say that I do not think there is any doubt that the Opposition's pursuit of these matters has been vindicated in the various reports issuing out of the many inquiries, including this inquiry. I think indeed the Prime Minister's statement today admits as much. If honourable senators examine the report they will find under the heading `General observations' on page 6 it is stated:

. . . nothing I-

that is, Mr Menzies-

have seen in the course of my investigations throws doubt on the recommendations made by Mr Bruce MacDonald in his Report as delegate of the Public Service Commissioner on Allegations as to Certain Aspects of Personnel Management in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs . . . and endorsed by the Public Service Commissioner that a senior-level Task Force supported by seconded expert officers should be established to assist D.A.A. to improve its administration.

Before I make any other comments, let me make it quite clear that the Opposition's view about the maladministration which has been uncovered is that it is in no way to be laid at the feet of the public servants involved. The Opposition has at all times made it clear that it regards this as a singularly deficient area of administration at the ministerial level. Those of us who have had close experience of this portfolio-and you, Mr Acting Deputy President, were a Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, as I was too, in the late 1970s-would know of the many difficulties and we have not tried in our pursuit of these matters to disguise the real difficulties which are faced by any administration and any set of public servants.

The central charge that we have brought has not been a charge against Mr Perkins or Mr Gray, the present Secretary, or any of the other officers who have worked so hard in this area for some decades. The two officers that I have mentioned have certainly put 20 years and more of service into this area. It is a charge against the extraordinary failure of the Government to ensure that the Ministers, Mr Holding and Mr Hand, should devote attention to the key matter which needs attention from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Hand; namely, the examination of the impact of the highly expensive programs which were undertaken on the Aboriginal community in Australia, and the need to direct continuous attention to the propriety of administration in a most difficult area which is substantially administered by Aboriginal people themselves, by Aboriginal organisations and communities-often people with a legacy which has ill-fitted them for responsibility but in accordance with the generally acknowledged social theory that the best way to help a deprived and disadvantaged people is to give them responsibility for their own affairs and some assistance with resources to ensure that they can do something about their own situation. That course, which was really commenced in the mid-1970s and which has proceeded on a bipartisan basis, really puts an enormous obligation upon government, and I believe upon Ministers, to put in the sort of time-I know you did, Mr Acting Deputy President, and, indeed, I think it has been the pattern of Ministers in this portfolio-to try to keep a close contact with what is happening on the ground and not to accept any narrow part of the Aboriginal community as the source of advice, but rather to seek the widest possible advice and to keep in touch with the widest possible group of people.

We have seen the dismissal of the National Aboriginal Conference by this Government, the undermining of the Aboriginal Development Commission and the dismissal of the ADC commissioners when they disagreed with the Government. So many things can be said about the failures, but essentially I lay the blame at the feet of the Prime Minister and of the two Ministers-the Prime Minister for his grandstanding, self-indulgent approach to this portfolio which has given rise to intermittent involvement on a theatrical basis without an underpinning of careful preparation or concern for the practical outcome and, on the part of the Ministers, the chasing of mirages.

We have the Prime Minister's theatrical efforts in the Northern Territory when he re-awoke the question of a treaty which we confirmed by inquiry in the Senate. The Estimates Committee was not preceded by any detailed work by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. We had the embracing of national land rights as the central policy objective by Minister Holding under circumstances where anyone with experience in the area knew that that would never happen, that it was simply not a legal, constitutional, administrative or political possibility. The subsequent chasing of an entirely new approach by Minister Hand and the terrible dangers that the Aboriginal community now faces through ATSIC are matters which are of great concern to the Opposition and on which we have spoken and will continue to speak. In a funny way the Menzies inquiry into the allegations which went to certain individuals bears out the concerns which the Opposition has had.

Having laid the blame where we think it lies, mainly with the Prime Minister and the Ministers, let me turn to Mr Perkins. Charles Perkins is a man who, according to the Prime Minister's statement, was at the vanguard of Aboriginal people to have a degree. He was widely involved in working for the Aboriginal people and so on. All of that is a matter which is well known to me and which I accept. The Prime Minister said:

It is true that he has occasionally been a controversial figure . . .

I do not think any of us who have dealt with Mr Perkins would deny that. He was for any Minister at times a difficult working companion because he would be outspoken on matters which perhaps were not the province of a public servant but rather the province of those who were actively engaged in the political process. But it is a matter of satisfaction to me that Charles Perkins has been exonerated of any illegal conduct or any serious impropriety. There is some questioning of his personal involvement in the matter of the trip of Hetti Perkins when she was sent to New York as part of an artistic delegation. That is an area of judgment which is recorded. In Mr Menzies very careful way it is drawn out, and he reaches the conclusion, that no action should be taken other than that the matter should be drawn to Mr Perkins's attention. But it so fits in with the way this Government has approached Aboriginal affairs that we now have the Prime Minister saying all these nice things about Mr Perkins such as, `There is nothing wrong with Mr Perkins, but we sacked him'.

The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. Why did Mr Hand sack Mr Perkins if he did nothing wrong? I find the Prime Minister's statement rather sickening. Whilst Mr Perkins will get satisfaction from his public exoneration, he must be left in a very puzzled state as to why the Minister sacked him. This is a man who was difficult at times for our side of politics. Members of the National Party in here will recall some of his rather political statements relating to the National Party of Queensland. I can remember being in government and having to deal with the difficulties that Mr Perkins did at times create for the Government when he was serving as a public servant, but I appointed him to head up the ADC.

He was the Deputy Secretary to the Department when I was Minister and I worked with him in perfect harmony because, with the inspired leadership of the Department by Tony Ayers, the Deputy Secretary was able to work in a framework with his departmental head and Minister. He knew where he stood and where the rules were established and I believe that, subject to those occasional outbreaks-which I do not think occurred during my period as Minister-Mr Perkins performed in a quite extraordinary way when we consider that he is a man who, like so many Aboriginals of his generation, was taken away from his family to be educated in an institution, who put himself through university by playing professional football, who was one of the first, if not the first, Aboriginal graduate, and who has put in a pretty inspired 20 or 30 years. He was instrumental in raising the consciousness of white Australians with the freedom rides in New South Wales which preceded the great growth of interest in the plight of the Aboriginal people and was instrumental in drawing it to the public's attention. This whole statement of the Prime Minister is just so typical of the pathetic approach to Aboriginal affairs in this Government.

Now we have sitting in a front bench position but not on the front bench the senator from the Australian Capital Territory who chaired the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs which looked at ATSIC. It produced a fascinating report. I hope when the honourable senator is an old man he reads the things he wrote about the failures of consultation and the clear expectation of the Aboriginal community that there would be further consultation before this proceeded and in the end in some way rationalise that with the majority view of the Committee which sits so oddly with the evidence that was given to the Committee as described. I think that was a source of great disappointment to me and to other people in the Opposition. The truth of the matter is that this report exonerates the man who was sacked by Mr Hand. I think one is therefore entitled to ask why.

I do not wish to say anything which contests the positive things which have been said at this late stage, on the day when the Government can say as many nice things as it likes because Mr Perkins is leaving the Public Service today. He leaves having achieved the status of having been a departmental head, a member of the First Division and with a quite extraordinary record of achievement. It will be interesting to see what he does to add to that achievement now that he has left the Public Service. I certainly wish him well and I have no doubt that he will find other ways to contribute to the Aboriginal community.

It needs to be recorded that during the period of Mr Perkins's administration there were faults which are still being addressed in the administration of his Department. I think there is a fair description of the reason why that could develop under Mr Perkins's secretaryship because I agree with what is said by the Prime Minister at page 9 of his printed statement:

Charles Perkins believed that one of his most important roles was to keep in close touch with as many individual Aboriginal people, and as many Aboriginal communities, as he possibly could. Accordingly, he travelled extensively, and was able to bring to this and previous governments an invaluable insight into the concerns and attitudes of his people.

They are the Prime Minister's words and I think they accurately describe both the way in which Charles Perkins worked and the role which he played. But that is not new. That element of Mr Perkins's administration was clearly understood by all of us who worked with him. What that demonstrated, or made clear, was that there was a need to ensure that the orderly administration of the Department was guaranteed by those other people in the Department who worked with Mr Perkins. I do not think that any Minister can escape the responsibility for not knowing, if the Ministers claim a lack of knowledge or, if they did know, doing nothing about the failures of administration which are recorded in the Menzies report as they have been recorded in other reports. The truth is that the Ministers cannot escape one charge or another. The charge either is that they were not close enough to the Department to know that this maladministration was occurring or, alternatively, they knew and did nothing about it. I suppose none of the inquiries produced so far tell us which was the particular fault that the Ministers fell into. Any dispassionate observer of the administration of Aboriginal affairs under the Hawke Government would say that it is the shabbiest and least successful area of Government administration. I think we would base that on the facts which have been disclosed so fully over the last 12 months and more. I do not think any dispassionate observer could fail to note the focus, the concentration and the near obsession on totemic objectives-the things that I have already referred to.

Within the bureaucracy in the late 1970s clear advice was available on the unlikelihood that national land rights could ever be a realistic option for the Commonwealth. That was not based on an assessment of whether it was desirable; it was based on an assessment of how the Australian Constitution works, how the State administration works and on all the factors which would influence it. Clear information was available that on a constitutional, legal, administrative as well as political basis, it was not on. I remember one piece of the advice was that if people had national land rights which took the administration of Aboriginal land out of the hands of the States and if the States sought to not cooperate, it would be necessary for the Commonwealth to establish effectively a mini-State administration in those areas. That is the sort of advice that was available. Yet for 4 1/2 years into the life of this Government that mirage was kept alive; that distraction from the tasks which could and should have been undertaken was allowed to continue; and that deception of the Aboriginal people continued.

The other totemic issue-the issue of a treaty-was raised, as I said a few minutes ago, by the Prime Minister without any detailed consideration of its implications for Australia or the Aboriginal community and it was grossly irresponsible. These reports do not give us an expert inquiry into the role of the Prime Minister and the two Ministers. I will tell honourable senators that I do not think they will ever allow themselves to be subjected to that sort of inquiry, because I think Charles Perkins would come up smelling like a rose and they would come up smelling like something very different.

I welcome the statement in so far as it makes clear that the blame for the problems is not to be laid at the door of this public servant, who today is leaving the Public Service. I think it is a further, clear indication that the blame lies with the Australian Labor Party, and in particular the three senior members of the Labor Party that I have mentioned. I do not believe that it is proposed to prolong this debate today. Under those circumstances, I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.