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Friday, 18 August 1989
Page: 387

Senator GILES(9.35) —I also have great pleasure in speaking in this debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill. I had the honour of chairing the relevant Australian Labor Party platform committee during the period before the 1988 conference when the earlier stages of the planning for this Bill were being explained to Party members and receiving unanimous support. I was around at the time when the principles were being articulated, when the ideology was being adopted and, like my colleague Senator Faulkner, I am proud to be associated with that ideology. In this day and age to sit in the Senate and listen to statements such as those that have been made by some members of the coalition during this debate has been an extremely painful and somewhat salutary experience to those of us who believed, who hoped, who prayed at times, that the Australian community was moving towards a position where we could acknowledge the rights of every individual in this nation and, above all, the rights of the original owners of this nation.

We were subjected last night to some diatribes which, on the whole, are not worthy of comment, but a few of the inconsistencies that have come through from the coalition's case, I think, do bear a little discussion, a little analysis. The general tenor of what we are being told by the coalition seems to be-though I am confused here, I must admit-that Aborigines really are not in a position to adopt the self-determination which many of us believe is their route to dignity and self-esteem, to which they are entitled. On the other hand, we are told that there is a growing sophistication not only amongst urban Aborigines but amongst rural Aborigines and those who are quite remote from urban centres of population. We are not quite sure what this means-maybe that their sophistication is developing from such a low base that it will be another century before they are capable of self-determination, or maybe that there is some different set of criteria which apply only to them. I would describe Australian society generally as growing in sophistication and would not care to make any distinction between parts of our community simply on the basis of race or skin colour.

We have had claims of the impotence of regional councils under this legislation. On the other hand, we have had claims that regional councils would override the interests of smaller communities. Once again, one is confused, and I feel that probably the Opposition is confused and not understanding at all well what the legislation intends. We have had much in the way of paternalistic rhetoric. Protection, says Senator Boswell, is what Aborigines need. That is what some of our grandparents and great-grandparents believed, and the results of that philosophy are there for everybody to see. The sooner everybody in this nation can recognise that the needs of Aborigines are ones that they themselves strongly and clearly articulate, the sooner we will be in a position to accede to those needs, which, as I hear them, are for dignity and for self-esteem.

There has been a fair bit of analysis of the legislation so I would like today to demonstrate, if I can, and I think it will not be difficult, that not only is our Aboriginal community very capable of self-determination, but also it is in a very good position to take advantage of the new structures which we hope to see in place before very long.

In the past 12 months, with the enormous amount of turmoil that has surrounded Aboriginal politics, some have implied, if not actually said, not only that the Hawke Government and Labor governments generally have done nothing for Aborigines but also, by association, that Aborigines have done nothing for themselves. You and I know, Mr Acting Deputy President, as I think many others do, that nothing could be further from the truth. Over the last 20 years those of us who have long enough memories, those of us who take the trouble to get out to our Aboriginal communities on a regular basis to see what changes are taking place, have seen quite extraordinary changes.

We know perfectly well that the needs of our remote communities are very similar to those of remote communities everywhere else in the world. I have just visited six Asian countries and was struck by the fact that the agenda there for getting services and the `benefits' of civilisation to areas that are remote from the centres of population is very much the same. Always among the imperatives are a clean water supply-water for drinking, water for sanitation-hygiene and the capacity to dispose of rubbish, a not inconsiderable concern when one looks at the areas in which many of our Aboriginal communities are located. Another imperative is the need for electricity and not just for lighting, heating and power for households, though that is a great advantage in many cases, but primarily so that they can store fresh fruit and vegetables. It is an immediate advantage to communities to be able to provide their children particularly with fresh fruit and vegetables. A well run store can be a source of income for the community and many have demonstrated how the community store has financed a truck or even a plane which will put that particular community into closer contact not only with its sources of supply but also with its sources of emergency health care.

An all weather airstrip is crucial to many very remote communities. It may sound like a bit of a luxury but in the monsoon belt where for six months of the year communities may be cut off from their sources of supply by heavy rains and flooding, an all weather airstrip is crucial for dealing with medical emergencies as well as for ensuring that supplies can come in. All the other obvious things-housing, education and health-are crucial as well. Also, in common with developing nations, we have the imperatives of education, especially for the women, to help them to understand what is good nutrition for their children and how to space their families, and income generating activities. There we have the agenda which one finds in very many places.

Now to the allegations that we have done nothing. Senator Faulkner suggested that there may well be a hidden agenda behind the virulent opposition to this legislation. One of the most crucial things for Aborigines-their possession of their land or their identification with their land-may well be one of those issues that are so disturbing the minds of those who oppose the legislation. We have not moved as far or as fast as we could do on land rights, and this I am the first to admit. But Aboriginal people now have title to about 12 per cent of Australia compared with less than 2 per cent for the indigenous population of Canada and less than 4 1/2 per cent for the indigenous population of continental United States.

In my own State of Western Australia, since 1983, at which time we elected a Labor government in Western Australia as well as federally, 34 Aboriginal communities have received living area excisions from pastoral properties and vacant crown land. This is quite an achievement. Twenty-eight of these excisions have occurred since 1987 when the Commonwealth Government established in Western Australia the Aboriginal communities development program, a five-year $100m agreement. The Commonwealth and Western Australian governments have jointly funded this agreement. Each government will contribute $50m each year over a five-year period to 1990. A further 61 excision applications in Western Australia are currently under negotiation. There are currently 29 Aboriginal pastoral stations in Western Australia.

We come now to questions of infrastructure, those issues about which I have already spoken. The examples of programs that have been operating now for some years are the accelerated community infrastructure program, providing funds to provide water supplies to 23 communities and sewerage disposal to 13 communities. Expenditure has been set out for 1987 and 1988 for those purposes. I referred earlier to the difficulty of sewage disposal in some communities. For example, until quite recently the community of Jigalong in Western Australia, established in a purely arbitrary area 40 miles from the nearest water supply, was having enormous difficulties with the disposal of its rubbish let alone its sewerage. It is no wonder at all that the incidence of ear, eye and chest infections, particularly amongst the children, was so high. The people in that community were simply unable to live in any satisfactorily hygienic circumstances. They simply did not have the facilities.

To see Jigalong of course would be to understand exactly what I mean. It is on rock hard ground in a very remote locality. To dispose of rubbish meant putting it on a truck and just driving it off into the desert and dumping it out there-hardly a satisfactorily state of affairs. This community like many others now has a reliable water supply. During the `wet' other communities are completely surrounded by water for long periods and during those periods usable water is at a premium. I was at one community some years ago to be told by the people that they were running short of clothes. This I found hard to understand until they told me that there was precious little water for drinking, simply no water for washing clothes so when their clothes were dirty they simply were discarded. They had somehow or other to find new clothes and this was at a time when they had been cut off for some time by the floods.

We have a town campus assistance program. In 1986-87 12 camps gained tenure to their land, 20 had water supplies installed or upgraded; 23 camps had appropriate waste disposal systems installed or upgraded at a cost of the better part of $6m. Many people are moving to outstations, of course, creating more infrastructure difficulties but we are providing assistance for them, particularly in the provision of adequate water supplies, which are the most important of their requirements. Our accelerated communities development program in the first two years provided $6.81m to upgrade water, sewerage and power facilities to communities.

Another program called the priorities communities development strategy is designed to break the back of the disadvantage suffered by the most impoverished communities. We are doing some prioritising here, providing $49m over two years to meet the critical needs of housing, essential services and other facilities. The most impoverished communities do tend to be those that are most remote, not invariably but quite often. Fifteen targeted communities plus all the Torres Strait Island communities will benefit from this program, examples of which are Brewarrina in New South Wales, which will build 32 houses, renovate 16 houses and totally upgrade the water and sewerage systems as well as providing stormwater drainage, footpaths and street lighting.

Under these programs we have installed water to town standards in more than 20 major communities, reticulated sewerage systems in 12 major communities, power supplies in 12 communities, improved roads and built airstrips. This is only a beginning in regard to the many needs of the many communities but, provided we maintain this impetus, in time we will be able to see, as I have seen over the last few years, the standard of living of people in the communities in Western Australia, in the vast majority of cases, very greatly improved. Environmental health is a matter of considerable concern and we are proud in Western Australia of the program that is being conducted by our Aboriginal Health Service to train predominantly young people, but some of a more mature age as well, as medical aides; people who are identified by their communities as potential leaders, who go to the city for 12 months for a program, carefully crafted by the Aboriginal Medical Service, and who are provided with the skills and knowledge which they take back to their communities. This program has the capacity to greatly enhance the standard of health in those communities.

The statistics available regarding Aboriginal health are not particularly satisfactory in epidemiological terms. A time frame of six years, which is the only period over which we have had reliable figures, is far too short to provide realistic measurement of mortality and morbidity rates. We are obliged nonetheless to recognise that the standard of health of our Aboriginal population is very poor by comparison with the population generally. The Australian Institute of Health is responsible for developing comprehensive national Aboriginal health statistics and is seeking cooperation from State and Territory health authorities. We have known for a long time that infant mortality is regarded as the principal indicator of health status, and this is an indication too of how poor the data has been in the past. In 1971 the only States we knew about or that we had any figures from at all were Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The average infant mortality at that stage was 99.5 infant deaths per thousand live births-an enormous tragedy. By 1986 this had reduced once again, on the basis of what statistics were available, and bearing in mind the accuracy of those statistics, to 24 per thousand live births. That is still far too high; there is no doubt about that, but the problem is yielding to the many quite dramatic changes that have occurred during that time. The number of Aboriginal medical services in existence when we came into government in 1983 totalled 27. That has increased to 62 in 1988-89 and this in itself has been a very significant factor in the improvement of Aboriginal health generally. Many of these services of course are so highly regarded in the communities in which they exist that they are used by the whole of the population, even in quite large towns. They are the clinics of choice for everybody, not only the Aborigines.

We have implemented a national education training program to reduce diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle diseases. It is one of the great hidden tragedies of our Aboriginal history that so many Aboriginal women die at quite an early age, between perhaps 25 and 40, of diseases which in the general population are considered to be diseases of old age. I refer to diabetes particularly, of course, and heart disease, and in many cases the effects of alcohol exacerbate early deaths in these women. Plenty of attention has been given to the deaths of young men, especially when they die in gaol, on the roads or in other violent ways. But the young women tend to die quietly. Many of our dear friends have succumbed much too early in life to what we now talk about as lifestyle diseases. One can make an educated guess that they as children suffered from poor nutrition, that their mothers were very poorly nourished and that their chances from birth, in fact, have been severely prejudiced.

The establishment of antenatal and obstetric care for Aboriginal women is absolutely crucial. This should be provided not only in the traditional Western fashion. We are becoming more and more conscious of the fact that in some cases Aboriginal women wish to have their babies delivered in the same way as their mothers and their grandmothers were-in their own lands and using their own traditional methods. Western medicine, and Western obstetrics particularly, face the challenge of trying to find ways of providing the safest possible conditions under which women can be cared for prenatally and postnatally and being sensitive to the desires of these women and the traditions of their communities.

An immunisation program for Aboriginal children against hepatitis B has been implemented. We know now that up to 90 per cent of Aboriginal children in western New South Wales, for example, have been exposed to hepatitis B by the age of 16, and that 12 per cent become active sufferers and carriers of the disease. Our programs to improve ear health and hearing services for Aboriginal children are particularly crucial. It may not be widely known, but hearing loss amongst Aboriginal children subsequent to chronic ear infection is very widespread. The establishment and support of 45 Aboriginal substance abuse programs throughout Australia is another initiative of the last few years. This program has been accelerated subsequent to the inquiry that was conducted by a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs.

Another very important issue in Aboriginal health and the health of remote communities everywhere is the necessity to eradicate parasites and, of course, improving the health of dogs is crucial here. There has already been a documented reduction in the number of young children requiring treatment for skin disorders such as scabies in communities such as Kalano and Burunga where the program has been operating for some time.

Achievements in education have been slow but steady. I made inquiries the other day about the students who I knew were studying medicine at the Newcastle University. I was told there were now 20 in the course and that several of them are close to graduation. Back in the early 1970s we could identify those individuals who actually had tertiary degrees by counting them on the fingers of one hand. The number of Aboriginals participating in tertiary and further education courses has doubled between 1986 and 1988. The number of students enrolled in courses leading to higher education has increased by 50 per cent between 1983 and 1988. The number of Aboriginals graduating from tertiary institutions has risen quite dramatically from 73 in 1983 to 149 in 1987. In real terms, these may not be enormous figures. I know that 149 people does not sound like very many, but in a total community of, I think, 2,230 people, it is not inconsiderable. When one appreciates the fact that these are individuals who have struggled through primary, secondary and tertiary education, individuals of considerable stamina and talent who invariably will make an enormous contribution not only to the welfare of their own people but to Australian society generally, one gets an idea of just how probable it is that Aborigines, given the opportunity, through our new legislation, of self-determination, to work through their own policies and to decide their priorities and how they should be implemented, will be extremely effective.

Employment expenditure is an extremely important aspect providing the capacity to be in the work force, to generate income and not to be reliant on social security benefits. There has been a great deal of advance in this area.

In the few minutes available to me one other issue I would like to touch on is Aboriginal broadcasting. Among other advantages, their own languages are being used to get information to them and it gives them the opportunity to be involved in their government. We have been pursuing a detailed strategy for the development and extension of Aboriginal broadcasting and telecommunications. As a result, 30 Aboriginal groups are now producing more than 180 hours of programming of public radio throughout Australia each week. In addition, four regional resource groups produce more than 60 hours of programming for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). These groups employ 65 Aboriginals. I had the great joy of being at the official launching of the Western Australian Aboriginal Media Association about 12 months ago.

Those people were in a position to produce a program in `Language' that was targeted at Hall's Creek. I have mentioned deafness among children subsequent to chronic ear infections. It has been very difficult to treat these ear infections. Even getting to Aboriginal families with children who needed this treatment was quite difficult, although we had excellent specialists available, providing their time, able to travel and so forth. As a result of one broadcast in their own language, the people in Hall's Creek suddenly realised that a specialist would be available to look after their children's ears. How significant this was in ensuring that these children did not proceed to deafness. They were advised what they should do about it and when they should take the children to Hall's Creek for treatment. Suddenly this whole community was aware of how the problem could be dealt with and what they should do about it. That is a simple and very obvious way of getting health education to our Aboriginal community; it is happening through Aborigines themselves, through the development of skills, through the preparation of programs and through the encouragement we, as a government, are able to give them to start to deal with what previously have been intractable problems.

In closing, I reiterate that I and my colleagues have every confidence in our Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand), in his legislation and in the Aboriginal community to make the best possible use of what is far-seeing, innovative and highly principled legislation. I wish it every success.