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Friday, 18 August 1989
Page: 407


Senator KNOWLES(11.36) —Today we are debating the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission Bill. I say that quite clearly because people who listened to Senator Cooney's contribution might have wondered what exactly we were debating. This Bill for the restructuring of Aboriginal administration remains no more acceptable to the Liberal and National parties since it was revamped and, in the style so typical of this Hawke Labor Government, railroaded through the House of Representatives last May in the early hours of the morning. We have seen that with a lot of important legislation in the last few years. Because the numbers are in the House of Representatives, Bills come in one door, do a quick turnaround, and shoot straight back out again.

A piece of legislation as important as this should have been debated properly in the House of Representatives. For that reason, I take great exception to the contribution, minute as it was, from Senator Devlin this morning. He accused the coalition of simply filibustering on this Bill. That could not be further from the truth. Our concern about this legislation is absolute. I do not know why he made that accusation, when one looks at the contributions made this morning and who made them. Many of the people who made contributions from the government benches this morning have previously admitted that they have little or no contact or experience with any Aboriginal community. That is a very sad reflection on their supporting such a gross piece of legislation. At least the people who have spoken from the coalition parties have direct experience and see the Aboriginal communities on a regular basis.

My colleague Senator Peter Baume, who has responsibility for the carriage of the passage of this Bill for the Opposition, has an enormous degree of background in Aboriginal affairs, as he was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the former coalition Government. It is my pleasure to be able to support my colleague Senator Peter Baume and my other colleagues in the outstanding contributions that they have made to the detail.

Changes made to the original legislation do not alter the substance of a Bill that is fundamentally flawed. It confuses advocacy with administration and welfare with self-help. Aboriginal Australians will have to adapt to the structure rather than the other way about. That is one of the fundamental differences that we have. This Bill still contains a preamble that, at best, is an exercise in political self-indulgence and, at worst, could open the door to racial divisions upheld by the legal force. Neither the Minister nor the Government has been able to show that Aboriginal Australians have been adequately consulted as to the final form of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). There is no doubt that other Australians with a legitimate concern for the direction of Aboriginal policy have not been consulted at all. It is beside the point for the supporters of this Bill to claim that ATSIC is not an Aboriginal parliament because it does not have the literal power to make laws. What it will involve, however, is a combination of representative and administrative roles-an inherently political body charged with the administration of $500m worth of public money and assets worth $1 billion. It cannot be denied that these are major characteristics of the Government.

The Opposition cannot endorse the absorption of the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC), which for all its errors represents the ethic of enterprise and self-help, into what is otherwise the administration of social welfare. While the Government has bowed to pressure and removed the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies from the main Bill, the same arguments apply for the separation of the ADC from welfare assistance and from representative mechanisms that, to some degree, are certain to be politicised. Thoughtful Australians cannot fail to be concerned when the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand) talks of self-determination as if it meant nothing more than the self-management that all of us would see as the desirable outcome for Aboriginal Australians. Once we speak of self-determination, referred to in the preamble of this Bill, this Parliament could be giving effect, having regard to its actual legal definition, to the right of a specific territory or race to choose its own form of government without the consent of the nation to which it belongs. Last year Professor Colin Hughes warned:

We should not be in the business of creating a sub-nation with a sub-Parliament, with enormous powers to claim land and other property as its own.

Whether or not this is the intent of the Labor Government, it is most certainly likely to be the outcome of this very flawed legislation. Not only is the concept of ATSIC dangerous, but its whole representational structure has been called into question as inappropriate for those 60,000 Aboriginal Australians who are attempting to remain within their traditional social organisation.

This Hawke Labor Government has failed to heed such voices as that of Pastor Paul Albrecht, who states that the system of councils being set up and I quote:

. . . are in fact destructive of what is left of the Aboriginal culture and social organisation, because they not only ignore but also actively denigrate existing Aboriginal leadership, responsibilities and structure.

Pastor Albrecht states that these councils:

. . . are solely funded by government . . . they are elected and operate on non-traditional lines, and therefore are not controlled by the people they are supposed to represent, nor are they accountable to them.

If that is not a cause for concern, what is? The truth of this allegation is now borne out by the moves within the Northern Territory to break away from the major land councils which clearly have failed to provide appropriate representation for many traditional communities.

I have very little confidence that the 60 regional councils and the 17 zones specified in this Bill will function so as to convey the wishes of traditional Aboriginal communities to the governmental structure, let alone deliver them the outcomes that they actually need. The entire Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia containing thousands of Aboriginal Australians, some within traditional structures and others in what can only be described as a state of social breakdown, will have the same representation on the Commission as the Torres Strait area or Tasmania. Where is the equality in that? Tasmania, with a single region containing a few thousand Australians of sometimes tenuous Aboriginal ancestry who for generations have been integrated within the general community, gets one-third of the zonal representation of Western Australia, which has 38,000 Aborigines in 13 regions.


Senator Peter Baume —Was this not the Government that opposed malapportionment of electorates?


Senator KNOWLES —That is quite correct; that again is something that the Government has failed to address. We are being presented with a system in this Bill with an in-built bias towards the interests of urban Aboriginals that is likely to give a disproportionate voice to irresponsible extremists.

The coalition maintains that ATSIC has been formulated without proper consultation with Aboriginal Australians, despite the protestations of the Minister that he sat down under innumerable trees some 18 months ago. Many of us have sat down with Aboriginal communities, many of us have talked with them at length, but so few of us have come up with this harebrained idea that Minister Hand has come up with. It was made very clear in the dissenting report of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs that the consultative process has been totally inadequate. Aboriginals were asked for their approval only on an in-principle basis, with a firm understanding in their minds that there would be further discussions. What happened with the further discussions? They did not eventuate.

The facts are clear that over the last 12 months there have been no such further consultations, nor have the Aboriginal Australians been given the opportunity to consider different models of service provision and self-management. More serious are the allegations that Aboriginal communities were, to put it as politely as possible, encouraged to agree with the proposals of a government that dispenses specific and direct funds. It is indeed admitted by the Minister that in the course of his consultations in the early part of 1988 he made off-Budget commitments of $808,000. Even if we accept these funding proposals, there is surely a flagrant impropriety in dealing with consultation and funding conjointly. It does not augur well for the future integrity of ATSIC.

The chairman of the Aboriginal Development Commission, Mrs McPherson, was reported last December as stating that the `Toyota dreaming was well and truly in operation', on the evidence of prominent and knowledgable Aboriginals, so that enticements were part of the consultation process, with measures taken to conceal the fact. The actions of this Government can only be described as treating Aboriginal Australians with contempt, with `paternalism' far too inadequate a word.

The intentions of the Minister in this legislation have to be judged against the record of his actions. For this reason the Senate should recall that on 11 May 1988 he arbitrarily dismissed those ADC commissioners that he was empowered to remove for no better reason than their disagreement with the ATSIC proposals. Moreover, these very same commissioners, originally appointed by the Hawke Labor Government, received no acknowledgment of their services and were thus treated like wrongdoers, pawns in a political numbers game. What did we end up with? We ended up with Hand picked commissioners.

Let us not forget, either, that these people were subject to press reports implying their responsibility for the disappearance of $670,000 in public money. While Estimates committee hearings revealed the falsity of the allegation, the new Board of the ADC never saw fit to issue a denial to clear the names of its predecessors but, more importantly, neither has the Minister.


Senator Peter Baume —Payback.


Senator KNOWLES —It could be summed up with no better word. Again, it is relevant to this debate to remember that Mrs McPherson was subjected to a motion of no confidence from the Hand picked ADC commissioners for having given evidence to the Senate Select Committee without their consent, an action referred to the Senate Committee of Privileges. What audacity will be displayed next to try to gag people from giving evidence to a Senate select committee? There can be no question that those who the Minister lacked the power to dismiss have been subjected to harassment and humiliation. It is a sorry record that undermines and discredits his professed concern for Aboriginal Australians. None of us, whatever our difficulties and deprivations, needs this kind of authoritarian messiah. Ministering angels should not wear jackboots-that is Minister Hand. Are we supposed to accept on trust from this Hawke Labor Government that ATSIC will magically improve outcomes for Aboriginals Australians, whose living standards so notably fail to improve, despite the vast sums of public money spent on their behalf? If that is so, and if that allegation is correct, why do the Aboriginal communities not believe it? It is a con. It is a bluff.

While the record shows that $4 billion has been spent under the Aboriginal heading by this Government since 1983, unofficial calculations have put total spending at a current annual figure of $1.2 billion, or $40,000 per average Aboriginal Australian family. Yet the statistics taken from the last three sets of census data show that the real median income of Aboriginal Australians over 15 years old declined over the decade 1976 to 1986 and Aboriginal income per head remained at little more than half the national level. Such figures do not show how many Aboriginals suffer from dependency upon the welfare dollar directly or indirectly, not having attained genuine self-management, which would enable them to participate in the social mainstream.

Because ATSIC has been formulated in true Labor centralist fashion, without consultation with the States, we can expect that the present wasteful duplication of services will continue. It is interesting that Senator Giles, a senator from Western Australia who gave a speech in this chamber this morning, failed to mention-and other Labor senators have also failed to mention this-that on 16 May this year the Labor Premier of Western Australia publicly stated his lack of confidence in the Aboriginal policy of his Federal colleagues, attacking the duplication of services and stating that Federal policies `tried to assuage the middle class Vaucluse guilt'. This is something that the Liberal and National parties have been pointing out for years.

Western Australia has only recently received an object lesson in the abuse of power from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs when on 12 April he solemnly declared that part of the site of the old Swan brewery near Perth was a significant Aboriginal area under serious and immediate threat of desecration. While I have no intention whatsoever of canvassing the rights and wrongs of the brewery redevelopment, it is relevant to this debate that the Minister saw fit to override and overrule the State Government at the behest of some radical activists within the Aboriginal community. The Minister ignored the fact that a prominent Aboriginal figure, Mr Ken Colbung, with full knowledge of Aboriginal law and customs, not necessarily shared by the protesters, had warned that the activists were bringing Aboriginal tradition into disrepute. Moreover, genuine doubt has now arisen that the brewery site is the same area that in the last century was recorded as being significant to Aborigines. The Minister launched his thunderbolt not only at the wrong time but also, yet again, in the wrong place.

Australians should be in no doubt that this Labor Government will use its powers to halt developments whenever radicals choose to do a bit of grandstanding with support from a person such as Michael Mansell, who knows nothing about the traditions of real Aboriginals but whose stated objective is the separation of half the Australian continent in a self-governing Aboriginal state. Michael Mansell is probably whiter than I am, but he professes, like other white advisers-like Stephen Hawke, the son of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), up in the Kimberleys-to advise Aboriginal communities. It is nothing short of a disgrace and cannot be allowed to continue. Needless to say, Mr Mansell has been quick to get in on the Swan brewery act. All the way along the line it is the person with an extremist agenda who stands ready to benefit from the irresponsible policies of this Hawke Labor Government towards Aboriginal Australians.

The contents of this Bill cannot be divorced from its preamble, which expresses an outpouring of guilt, not shared by the majority of Australians who believe that Aboriginals may well deserve practical help to raise living standards but who do not accept the stupid lie that Australian prosperity is somehow the cause of Aboriginal poverty.