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Wednesday, 30 August 1989
Page: 579

Senator STONE (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(12.02) —I rise to speak at this time on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill because Senator Jenkins who, I think, was scheduled to speak before me has apparently decided not to do so again. If I may say so, this symbolises the general confusion of the Australian Democrats towards this legislation.

Senator MacGibbon —She is out taking a poll on what she should do.

Senator STONE —As Senator MacGibbon suggests, the senator from the Australian Democrats is out taking a poll on what she should do. I cannot confirm the accuracy of that suggestion, but it sounds reasonable.

Let me return to my point on this matter. It is not so long since we understood that the Australian Democrats would be adding their voices to those of the coalition parties in this place in opposing this Bill, I will not say root and branch because that has never been the position of the Australian Democrats, but at least to the extent of joining with us in bringing to bear an appropriate power of analysis-if I can put it that way-on the details of this Bill. Of course, that would not satisfy the coalition parties, who regard this Bill as fundamentally flawed, and I will come to that point in a moment. It had been our hope, at least, that in putting forward the manifold amendments which we shall advance when we reach the committee stage we would have have had the support of the Australian Democrats in, at least, a large part of that process. We now understand that is not to be the case, although I understand there are one or two amendments which the Democrats may either propose themselves, or join with us in proposing. One should be grateful for these small mercies no doubt. I will come back to that aspect of the matter too.

Let me turn to the nub of the matter. We have before us a Bill which has grown out of a process now approaching two years in length-certainly well over 18 months-commencing with the presentation by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand) of his paper to the Australian people setting out what he felt to be the appropriate way to go in this area. It was a paper, if I may say so, remarkably devoid of any reasoned, coherent thought and rational construction as to why the existing machinery for the handling of Aboriginal affairs in Australia-that is to say, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the Aboriginal Development Commission and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies-should be abolished, although the last of them is not now to be abolished, and replaced with this fantasy from Mr Hand's imagination, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

At no time has the Minister ever deigned to inform the Aboriginal people-let alone the Australian people more generally-as to why this should be done. After all, one might think, if one brought a more commonsense approach to these questions and not the ideological approach which Mr Hand brings to bear upon all questions from his position as leader of the left wing faction of the Australian Labor Party-since, clearly, the administration of Aboriginal affairs policy is less than satisfactory, to use words in diminuendo-that the appropriate course for the Minister to take was to set about improving the administration of his own Department; to set about improving the delivery of services of the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC), and to set about improving-if he expresses dissatisfaction with it, as he apparently has in the past, although he is not now pressing the point-the performance of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. As I said, one might have thought that would be the commonsense way to go. Not a bit of it! Mr Hand has preferred to put forward this massive new development, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. He has put it forward without seeking to justify doing so, without providing a coherent explanation for his actions and without telling us what it is that this new commission is supposed to do that could not be done by an improved administration of his own Department and an improved performance by the Aboriginal Development Commission.

Far from setting about the improvement of those two bodies for which he has ministerial responsibility, on the contrary, the Minister has totally neglected the administration of his Department. He has barely made contact with his Department since assuming the portfolio after the last election. He is almost unknown in his own Department, except at one remove and through the media. His recently resigned departmental secretary, Mr Charles Perkins, who, of course, has not been faultless by any means in the administration of that Department, nevertheless, has justifiably been able, now that he is free to do so, to make some perfectly proper and fair complaints about the performance of his Minister and his lack of access to him in the course of his own performance of his, Mr Perkins's, duties.

Quite the contrary, rather than setting about improving the administration of his own Department, and, if dissatisfied with the performance of the Aboriginal Development Commission, putting in place in that Commission people who could make it perform better-improving the quality of its staff, and so on-what did the Minister do? As Senator Teague and others on this side have cogently told us, what he did was sack every member of the Commission whom it was within his power to sack. Indeed, he would have sacked the Chairman, Mrs Shirley McPherson, had it been within his power and he has, in the end, managed to get rid of her also.

So, far from setting out to build constructively and to deal seriously with the administrative responsibility with which he had been entrusted, this Minister has set out on a wrecking expedition. He has wrecked the Aboriginal Development Commission and, indeed, in terms of this Bill, he now seeks to abolish it. As we know from recent revelations in the Press, he seeks to abolish it in practice even before this Bill becomes effective-should it be, with the assistance of the Australian Democrats, that it does become effective. He has, as I say, totally neglected the administration in his own Department. That is the first responsibility of a Minister of the Crown. If he is dissatisfied with the performance of his own Department he should do something about it. Mr Hand has done nothing about it other than to repel the advice tendered to him by his Department and to retreat into his own private closet with his own private left wing activist advisers. He has exacerbated the situation. He has continued the breakdown of the administrative performance of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

As I said earlier, surely the first question that any sensible person approaching the Bill before us would ask is: what is the purpose of the Bill? What purpose is it meant to serve which could not already be served by the existing administrative agencies-the Department and the Commission-if their performances were improved, as any hardworking responsible Minister would seek to achieve. Since there is no obvious answer to that question, notwithstanding the hundreds of thousands of words that have been spoken on this matter to date, one must ask what is the hidden agenda behind Mr Hand's action in seeking continually for the past 18 months to foist this legislation upon the people of Australia and, indeed, to foist it upon the Aboriginal people themselves.

As other speakers have said in this debate, there has been a total breakdown of the consultative processes between the Minister and the Aboriginal communities in this country, a total reneging by Mr Hand on the promises to that end that he had previously given and hence, of course, a very widespread feeling of dissatisfaction amounting in some cases to outright protest, and even more than that in many of the Aboriginal communities concerned. Mr Hand, notwithstanding that-although his first duty is towards those communities-appears to be prepared to press on regardless and to ram this legislation through the Parliament as it has been rammed through the House of Representatives, with the use of the guillotine, in its present formation and, of course, also in its previous formation before the earlier Bill was left to lapse on our Senate Notice Paper.

A totally new Bill-the one now before us-was introduced by way of response by the Minister to the extremely critical and condemnatory report of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs which was tendered, I think, on 28 February of this year. My colleagues Senator Peter Baume and Senator Ron Boswell presented a damning minority report to add to the already-in themselves-very damning criticisms unanimously agreed by all members of the Committee including the Australian Labor Party members and the Australian Democrat member.

It is true that in the light of those criticisms the Minister has, as I say, introduced a new Bill. But let us not allow the Minister or anyone else to think that we have been fooled by the fact that he has undertaken this cosmetic operation and that we are going to roll over, put up our paws in the air and say, `Thank you very much'. We are not going to allow our tummies to be tickled because he has given us a new Bill-a new Bill with not quite so many flaws as the previous Bill, but almost as many.

There are so many things wrong with the current Bill that it is quite impossible, within the compass of the time available to me, even to enumerate them, let alone elaborate upon more than one or two of them. Let us start right at the beginning with the fundamentals. The whole fundamental approach of this Bill is flawed. That point has been very well brought out by a most interesting article. In last year's December edition of the IPA Review-the quarterly publication of the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. Professor Colin Howard, the Hearn Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne, in an article entitled Australia's Proposed Race Law, very cogently points out:

If and when the Bill comes to life again-

he was, of course, writing at the time when it was quite clear that the original Bill, so to speak, was in the process of becoming defunct and was under savage attack and was subject to serious questioning by groups, including the Senate select committee of inquiry to which I have just referred-

one thing above all should be squarely confronted. It is that the Bill aims to set up an organisation closely resembling a mini-parliament for the sole use and advantage of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. What this will mean is that a section of the Australian population will have been singled out by reference to race for separate representation based on a separate voting roll. If anyone suggests that this resembles apartheid, the answer will no doubt be made that in the first place the Bill does not deprive Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders of any rights they may already enjoy-

I am not absolutely sure that that is true, incidentally, in practical terms although, certainly in legal terms, that may be the case-

but on the contrary adds to those rights, and that the Government is trying to help them, not repress them. The fact remains that they are being singled out, and the process enshrined in law, on undisguisedly racial grounds.

Professor Howard goes on to say:

Some of the consequences may not be welcome. Among other things, a body will have been brought into existence with which the Federal Government can negotiate a treaty analogous to the Treaty of Waitangi reached between whites and Maoris in New Zealand a century-and-a-half ago.

I might digress for one moment to remark that, increasingly, all detached and objective observers of the New Zealand scene express increasing concern about the developments in race relations in that country between the Maori people and the non-Maori inhabitants arising out of the developments, including the legal developments and the developments relating to the ownership of land in particular, based upon, or purporting to be based upon, the Treaty of Waitangi. I return to Professor Howard's article:

Although there are supporters in this country of the idea of a treaty, there are others who legitimately have misgivings about it. It can be said, for example, that land rights have caused enough trouble already-

Again I digress for one moment to remark upon the furore which is consuming public debate in the Northern Territory at the present time because of the blundering and, at the same time, bullying actions by Mr Hand, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and the Labor Government in what they now propose in the provision of so-called living areas to particular Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory by way of Commonwealth legislation, by way of Commonwealth title and by way of overriding the properly elected government of the self-governing Territory. Again here in Australia is yet another example of trouble over land rights. That will not be the end of it. I return again to Professor Howard's article:

It can be said, for example, that land rights have caused enough trouble already without giving one side of the argument the status of a quasi-national independent community. It can be said also that in the long-run it is folly to enact a racial law which manifestly divides Australians instead of uniting them.

Professor Howard concludes his article by saying:

It is a fundamental cause for unease that, contrary to our professed political ideology, the ATSIC Bill if it becomes law, will have revealed us as being as racist as anyone else. We should not be in the business of deliberately creating a sub-nation with a sub-parliament with enormous powers to claim land and other properties as its own-

those latter claims will be the subject of very considerable debate when we come to the committee stage of the Bill-those enormous powers, as Professor Howard quite rightly describes them, written into the Bill, to `claim land and other property' as the Commission's own-

Whatever the motives, this is a recipe for racial disaster.

I have to say that I agree with all of that, without even coming to the constitutional questions, the addressing of which Professor Howard is obviously highly qualified to do. He is the Hearn Professor of constitutional law at Melbourne University. I go not to those strictly legal questions but rather to his comment that it can be said also that in the long run it is folly to enact a racial law which manifestly divides Australians instead of uniting them. It cannot be denied that this Bill and what will follow from it will manifestly divide Australians. It is already beginning to do so. It is only that the Government has by and large so far, I have to concede, been remarkably successful in keeping it quiet that the process of division within our community between Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginal Australians has not already become much more heated than it has. I promise you, Mr Acting Deputy President, the longer this Bill proceeds-and if, as I fear, it is enacted-the longer we go on with the processes and procedures that will flow from it, the more divisiveness there will be created. Indeed, there are those who would argue that that is precisely the hidden agenda behind this Bill: to create divisions within the Australian community where none need or should exist.

As Senator Peter Baume said when opening the second reading debate for the Opposition, the test of this Bill is not whether it makes some minor improvement in the conditions affecting the lives of Aboriginal Australians in this country. I say in passing that I do not believe that the Bill will do that. But if that were all it did, it could not possibly be justified that we should be proceeding with this waste of parliamentary time and with this massive upheaval of the whole existing administrative structure. A far better course would be to effect those minor improvements by cleaning up the Minister's own rotten administrative act and his own appalling performance as a Minister, if that were all the Bill were to achieve. As Senator Peter Baume has quite rightly said, the test of this Bill is whether it will produce a major improvement in the conditions under which Aboriginal people live in this country, whether there will flow from it major improvements in Aboriginal health, Aboriginal welfare and Aboriginal living standards.

Senator Crichton-Browne —It's not all about that; it's all about politics.

Senator STONE —As Senator Crichton-Browne quite rightly reminds the Senate by way of interjection, this Bill is not about those fundamental needs of the Aboriginal people of this country. It is about politics. Have the Aboriginal people of this country not suffered enough at the hands of successive governments? I do not absolve previous governments, both Labor and coalition, from some fault in that regard for bringing their own paternalist views to bear upon the situation and the problems of Aboriginal people in this country. I can only say that what the Minister proposes in this Bill is a quantum leap in the application of politics to practical problems.

What have we seen as we have watched the level of Commonwealth spending in this area grow to where it is now about $800m per annum? What have been the tangible results? I do not want to say there have been no tangible results. But I do want to say that the results have in no way justified the expenditure of the enormous sums of public moneys involved and have in no way justified the call upon taxpayers to those extents. Yet the Minister now proposes that these public funds should simply be handed over to be administered by this new Commission to be elected-if that is the right term-by 60 separate regional bodies each of which will elect 20 people. So we will have what Professor Howard rightly calls a mini-parliament of no less than 1,200 people, all of whom will no doubt be granted salaries, travelling allowances, living allowances and all sorts of other perquisites-all drawn from the public purse. I do not have much doubt as to the degree of political manipulation that will be brought to bear upon the communities involved to ensure that the people with the right kinds of political activist views are sent forward to be representatives in this mini-parliament. So much for the practical results.

In the brief time remaining to me let me not omit to note the passages with which the Bill before us today commences. Although the so-called preface is, I trust, to be excised from the Bill by way of amendment-one of the amendments which I understand the Democrats will be supporting-nevertheless we should not overlook the fact that the Government has included such a preface in the Bill that has come before us, the Bill which was guillotined through the House of Representatives in such a short space of time and with such little debate.

I think Senator Peter Baume described this Bill as perhaps the most important piece of legislation in the Aboriginal affairs area ever to have come before the Parliament. I would go further than that and say that it is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever to have come before the Parliament in the total area of our society and of our Parliament. Let us just look at one or two paragraphs of this preface. I do not have time to canvass it in full. The preamble states:

AND WHEREAS the people whose descendants are now known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia were the prior occupiers-

nobody could contest that they were the prior occupiers-

and original owners of this land . . .

AND WHEREAS they were dispossessed by subsequent European occupation and have no recognised rights over land yet recognised by the courts other than those granted or recognised by the Crown;

AND WHEREAS that dispossession . . .

and so it goes on. What do honourable senators think will be the end result of that process, of these words with which the Government has commenced this Bill? I will leave that to the judgment of the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Burns) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.