Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Friday, 19 November 1993
Page: 3276

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) (12.49 p.m.) —We are debating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1993. One of the most important amendments proposed in this bill creates a separate Torres Strait Regional Authority which will now have powers and functions similar to ATSIC in relation to Aboriginals and Islanders in the Torres Strait. The Senate is debating such an amendment for the second time. Four years ago when ATSIC legislation was before the Senate, the coalition moved amendments to give the Torres Strait Islanders separate recognition in a regional council. This amendment gives the Islanders their own form of ATSIC.

  For a government which casts itself in the role of leading a reconciliation process, it has been very strong on rhetoric yet very slow to do the obvious—it has taken up to four years just to do the things it had to do for the Torres Strait. Following my question in the Senate earlier this week to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Ray, it is now on the public record that the federal government has opened a dialogue with the Torres Strait Islanders on the means to achieve greater self-government. Following discussions between the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Mr Tickner) and Torres Strait Islanders, the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) wrote to the Queensland Premier and the Torres Strait Island Coordinating Council to propose a preliminary meeting.

  The bill before us today is seen by the Islanders as just a first step towards a form of self-government, having free association with Australia. It is, therefore, relevant to anticipate what those future steps might involve and what support is to be given to them by state and federal governments. There is a lot of confusion within the government ranks about the level of commitment to Torres Strait self-government. On Wednesday Senator Ray said:

. . . there are many complex issues that would have to be discussed before this matter could be brought to fruition one way or the other, including the philosophical concept of whether it is the correct thing to do even before we settle the details.

Yet an article in the Australian on 5 November entitled `Islander self-governing by 2001: Tickner' states:

Visiting the Torres Strait to discuss moves for greater self-determination with island leaders and community groups, Mr Tickner told the Australian self-government by 2,001 was "highly likely" provided Torres Strait residents established a uniform goal.

It is obvious that the Aboriginal and Islander affairs minister has already committed himself and the government to seeing this process through. Meanwhile, Senator Robert Ray and the rest of the cabinet are left behind to muse over whether it is the correct thing to do or not—I include Senator Collins in this; I wish he would pay attention.

  The Chairman of the Cape York Land Council, Mr Noel Pearson, seems to know more about the commitment given to the islands by Mr Tickner than the rest of the government. In an interview with Paul Lyneham on 10 November, Mr Lyneham asked:

. . . and your statement today that Mabo has laid the basis for some future form of self-government within the nation—that's going to unsettle the horses as well, isn't it?

Mr Pearson replied:

It is nothing to be alarmed about. There's discussions particularly taking place in the Torres Strait where the real agenda is self-determination for the indigenous people of that region. You have to recall the fact that there are self-determination arrangements.

Senator Ray was at pains to explain that self-government for the Torres Strait was a long-term aspiration and the substantial details of the proposal by the Islanders have not yet been put forward. Yet only yesterday the Chairman of the ICC, Mr Gaetano Lui, told ABC radio that the ball was fairly in the government's court. Both federal and Queensland governments had been sent their proposals. Mr Lui complained about the lack of response from the state minister, Anne Warner. The desire for self government by the year 2001 was also expressed in the regional council's Torres Strait development plan. The Islanders believe they have reached a negotiating stage with the government. Mr Lui said that the time for consultation is over.

  Mabo has given Islanders a position of strength, and the federal minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has led them to believe that the government is right behind their self-government aims. Having had the Mabo glory taken away from him by the Prime Minister and the Special Minister of State (Mr Walker), Mr Tickner is now seeking political glory on his own. The problem is, as Senator Ray pointed out, that there are many complex issues to be discussed. In his enthusiasm to make a name for himself, Mr Tickner may be guilty of overlooking these complexities and, indeed, the welfare of the Islanders themselves.

  Gaetano Lui has mentioned that the Islanders were looking to learn from various types of self-government, such as that used by the Cook Islands and Norfolk Island, in setting up their own form of self-determination which, in his words, would then become a model for Aboriginal people—I think we could say Islander people. I have been invited to the islands many times and I have spent much time with Gaetano and his family, including Mr Gaetano Lui senior, one of the true elder statesmen of the island. I have always been greeted with great warmth and hospitality. I have visited many of the Torres Strait Islands and talked with the elders and councillors. Gaetano is a personal friend of mine, and he has sent me the regional council's decision and recommendations on self-government.

  The first step is accomplished by today's bill—the setting up of a separate regional authority for the Torres Strait Islands. The second stage is the devolution of other Commonwealth funds for services in the Torres Strait to the new authority. The third stage is the devolution of the Queensland government's funds for services in the Torres Strait to the new authority. I quote from the regional council's recommendation:

The next stage will be to include the standard government function of maintaining peace, good order and government, ultimately leading the authority to become an essential model for a centralised form of government having free association with Australia.

What person amongst us does not yearn to be master of his own destiny, to control the forces around us to our own liking and beliefs? It is understandable that the Torres Strait Islanders wish to distinguish themselves from the Aboriginal-dominated ATSIC. The coalition has always supported them on this view. I claim it an honour that I moved an amendment when the ATSIC bill went through, and I had the support of the parliament.

  It is understandable that the Islanders should wish to take part in streamlining and making delivery of government services to the Torres Strait more efficient and useful. But is the desire for self-government, with free association with Australia, going to allow the Islanders to control events around them to their liking? What significant restraints on their activities will they lose? What freedoms will come from free association with Australia?

  Gaetano Lui has mentioned the Cook Islands several times as a possible model for self-government. Firstly, it is important to remember that the Cook Islands were only ever New Zealand's to administer on behalf of the United Nations until the act of self-determination in 1965. The Torres Strait Islands, on the other hand, are as much a part of Australia as is Sydney or Melbourne; they are as much a part of the state of Queensland as is Mount Isa or the Gold Coast. Norfolk Island is a quite separate case. It was not part of a state but was a federal territory. The legal and constitutional implications of setting up self-government with free association with Australia are quite different, and in the case of the Torres Strait Islands would be very cumbersome. Norfolk Island was originally inhabited by Pitcairn Islanders, who in those days had no association with Australia. They do not consider themselves as part of Australia.

  Unless the Queensland government relinquishes the Torres Strait Islands to the Commonwealth as a territory, a referendum would be necessary to set up another state. The regional council's aim of providing the standard government function of maintaining peace, good order and government, suggests a reference to a territory or a state rather than a local government. I have been advised that the Islanders' call for self-government, based on free association with Australia, goes far beyond the Norfolk Island model, and it suggests an even more autonomous state being not part of Australia.

  The Islanders say they would still want Australia to look after foreign affairs and defence. This is like the Cook Islands, where they have their own parliament and free association with New Zealand. There are some 17,000 Cook Islanders living on the islands and another 20,000 in New Zealand. Income is mostly from tourism and remittances from relatives in New Zealand. The New Zealand government provided budget support in terms of a cash grant of $8.5 million—that is not a lot of money—in 1992-93 and $8.3 million this year. There is also an allocation for projects and training assistance, which was $5.5 million in 1992-93 and $5.2 million this year. They also receive several smaller packages from places such as the United Nations, Australia, the US, and so on, but they would not add up to much more than $1 million.

  The budgetary support for health, education and social service is being phased out. There is a commitment to self-reliance by the year 2008, when New Zealand will no longer be required to give the Cook Islanders any budgetary assistance. The Cook Islanders are moving steadily towards independence, with all the responsibility and financial problems that will entail.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2 p.m.