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Wednesday, 30 August 1989
Page: 636


Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(6.06) —At the conclusion of my remarks earlier in the day I was moved to observe that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill offers no benefits to the Aboriginal community. It offers no benefits to the wider community. In fact, it is a piece of legislation which will plunge us all again into a political imbroglio which will do irreparable damage to the cause of the Aboriginal people and will stunt their growth in terms of development in the whole range of areas which are crying out for improvement. It is a political statement by Mr Hand. It is not a piece of legislation that has the support of the majority of the Aboriginal community. In fact, it is a piece of legislation that has very modest support from any group in the community.

I do not question Mr Hand's motive. I believe that his motive was altruistic. But there is none so dangerous as he who knows he is right. This Bill does not come into the Parliament, it does not come into this chamber, as the result of the maturation of consultation, cooperation or goodwill, or the manifestation of the aspirations of the Aboriginal community; rather it comes to us as the manifestation of the preconceived obsession of Minister Hand who, well prior to becoming Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, harboured, first of all, uniform land rights, which he was unable to achieve through his own Party, notwithstanding cruel and broken promises made to the Aboriginal community. So he replaced that aspiration, first of all, with the preamble that is in the Bill which tells us that members of the Aboriginal community were the prior owners of Australia in a legal sense. He is saying that Aborigines are entitled to repossession and compensation, but he is unable to achieve that for them, so he is simply stating it as a fact and putting it in the Bill as if to cleanse himself of some of his eastern seaboard middle class guilt. We ultimately have this piece of legislation before us which is a substitute for something he would rather have had. It is the creation of a new political system. It is superimposing on our present social, economic and political structure a new political system which embraces, in the mind of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Hand), economic, political and social reforms. It is a token piece of legislation fraught with enormous dangers in respect of development-the development of the Aboriginal community and Aboriginal people individually.

It does not come to us as the result of consultation. Mr Hand exhorts us to believe that it is the result of consultation. He tells us in his exhortations that no piece of legislation has ever come to the Parliament as the result of more consultation. The difficulty is that Mr Hand does not know the difference between talking to Aboriginal people and talking at them. I have been overwhelmed by Aboriginal groups who have complained about Mr Hand flying into their community, climbing out of his aeroplane, haranguing them about what he believes is good for them, getting back into his aeroplane and flying out again-leaving them confused, frustrated and with an enormous sense of anxiety because they have not been party to discussions. They have been privy only to the aspirations of this Minister.

It seems to be the ongoing sin of this Government that it feels compelled to continue to make political statements rather than arrive at effective achievements for the Aboriginal community. What has it done in respect of health? What does this Bill do in respect of Aboriginal health, Aboriginal education, Aboriginal housing, or the enormous problems confronting a wide section of the Aboriginal community in respect of the abuse of alcohol? What does it do about their frustrations because of their inadequacies in terms of their integration into the communities and towns in which they live and their integration with the towns upon whose outskirts they live in abominable circumstances? Absolutely nothing.

One only has to go to the Kimberley in Western Australia to see graphically, first hand, how this Government has failed to address the fundamental problems affecting the Aboriginal community. The poor, the sick, the suffering, the alcoholics, the kids who sleep in the street and the children suffering from malnutrition-they are not interested in a political statement which gives them ATSIC. They are not interested in a new political structure. They are not interested in a new voting system. They are not interested in a phoney, pretend self-determination. They are interested in immediate needs.

By way of an example, the Kimberley represents 2 per cent of the population of Western Australia. It also represents 50 per cent of recorded incidents of venereal disease in Western Australia. What has this Federal Government done about it? What has it done in respect of funding? One can pick any one of a number of towns, and they are all precise, pristine examples. I turn to Fitzroy Crossing as a good example. It has a school with 386 children. It has not even got a school nurse, yet it has in the classrooms in the junior school kids with venereal disease and hearing and sight problems. The Government can spend millions of dollars launching ATSIC upon them, but cannot address those fundamental problems.

There was a test carried out in the 1987-88 period of 34 contacts who had venereal disease-in fact, they had syphilis. It was found that 75 per cent of them had contracted the end stage, in other words, the stage where the disease affects the brain. That is a modest number to test, but it is symptomatic of the problem that confronts the people in the north-west of Western Australia. The community health sisters are absolutely run off their feet. In the Kimberley region they each have roughly 400 clients. So, of course, there is no environmental health. There is no preventive medicine. There is no counselling. There is no family planning. There is no assistance for pregnant women. There is no counselling support or help for mothers with young babies. But there is lots of money to spend on ideals.

One only has to look at the problems in respect of alcohol. The Kimberley, the Pilbara, the Gascoyne, the Murchison and the Goldfields of Western Australia are not unique. This is a problem across Australia, manifest, I suspect, as a result of the frustrations of the Aboriginal community because of the perception that Aboriginals are offered little hope for the future. How many institutions across Australia are provided to offer assistance for this enormous problem, which is beginning, in many respects, to engulf whole communities? None. This is a problem that spreads throughout the communities. There are children suffering from malnutrition because of a lack of food, never mind nutrition. Young men are dying in their late teens and early twenties simply because of alcoholism, with kidney failure, liver problems and heart attacks. If they were white and living in the metropolitan area they would have the Salvation Army, the Jesus People or the other wonderful voluntary organisations that look after these people, but because they are in isolated areas they receive none of those benefits. This Government, which purports to be caring, compassionate and concerned and gives us this legislation as a manifestation of that, does nothing for them.

What does it do for them in respect of education? Nothing. To demonstrate that we have equality in this country, little Aboriginal children who can barely speak the language are put in grade 1 with white children, whose prerequisite for going to school is to be able to speak English as a first language. They are asked to compete on a daily basis. And we wonder why Aboriginal children spell `emu' as `hemeru'; it is because that is how they say it. They cannot speak the language but each year, in the cause of equality, they are pushed through to grade 2 to grade 3 to grade 4 and leave school at the age of 15 or 16 with absolutely no education because their fundamental problems are not addressed. If they did get an education, where would they find a job? What skills are there for them? What training is there for them? What jobs are they offered? Nothing. One may wonder why one finds all these young men and women hanging around towns and receiving social welfare benefits of some sort, the men permanently drunk and the women permanently pregnant, without any assistance, without any help, without any guidance and, least of all, any support from government agencies.

One may go to almost any hospital in an area which has a large Aboriginal population and one will find the majority of the patients admitted are suffering from causes which are the result of a lack of proper attention. The number of children in these hospitals because they failed to thrive is staggering. They are admitted to hospital, given nourishment and support, sent back out again, and they come back later on. The level of infant mortality is staggering. But is it addressed? Of course, it is not addressed. They are some of the fundamental problems that I would have thought this Government ought to be addressing.

One can go to almost any town in Australia where there is a high Aboriginal population and look at the housing conditions, and without exception one will find that they are absolutely deplorable. There would not be a member of this Government that would live in any of those homes, but they are good enough for other people. Suddenly, to make themselves feel good and comfortable and warm inside, they will build homes, intermingled in the community in these country towns, and put in them Aboriginal people who, but perhaps two or three decades ago, lived in their primitive tribal circumstances and expect them to suddenly flourish and to live side by side and to be accepted as part of the social fabric of the community. When they are rejected and they turn to alcohol and violence and all those sorts of things as a manifestation of their deprived circumstances, we wonder why, we set up committees, we have reports and we have government findings. But never do we address the fundamental problems.

Mr Acting Deputy President, in the few moments I have got left, let me simply say this about this Bill: it purports to replace the Department of Aboriginal Affairs-as I say, it is simply a political statement-but it bears no relationship to the geographic or the demographic distribution of the Aboriginal people. As Senator Peter Baume observed to me this morning, when the various boundaries for the regions and the zones were drawn, kin and skin were divided: there seems to be just no common feature, except that the draftsman has purported to find lines that for some reason have a commonality. I do not know what it is, because it is not skin, it is not kin, it is not language, it is not culture, it is not clan, and it is not groupings. The people who are put into these regions-put in, I might say, by the arbitrary lines of the Minister-bear no common relationship with each other. As the zones are drawn and the commissions are appointed, they will represent everybody but really represent nobody because of the arbitrary way that the Government and the Minister have drafted the legislation.

This legislation really does not in any way give self-determination. It ought to be called the Aboriginal protection legislation, because the Minister can do anything from appointing commissioners to deciding whether or not a ballot has been effective. He is the one that decides these things. I have to say that the legislation is a fraud; it is a failure; it is a blight on this Government. In my view, it will only cause chaos, turmoil, disillusionment, disappointment, and ultimately absolute frustration for the Aboriginal community who are having it foisted upon them as a result of the ideological bigotry of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who in his ambition might be altruistic but who in his manifestation is totally incompetent.