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Wednesday, 24 November 1993
Page: 3570


Senator BURNS (4.58 p.m.) —In this, the International Year of Indigenous People, it is more than appropriate that the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission report be tabled in the Senate today. The issues raised in the report and the legal and historical context in which they are developed reflect both the major issues of profound concern to indigenous communities and also challenges which other Australians have faced in the past and will have to face in the future.

  The importance of the report might not be immediately apparent to many readers, but the issues raised in terms of rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will no doubt become important agenda items in this place and in other forums concerned with the rights of indigenous people. We have seen in the press in recent times new arguments and actions being taken by Australia's indigenous people. This report gives some of the intellectual and legal analyses on which these actions are being taken. On this I congratulate the commission.

  The capacity of the commissioner to fully understand his task is clearly shown in a number of areas. Senator Tambling referred to the way in which the report is set out. Attention is given to issues which are listed under various headings. Commissioner Dodson quotes what was said by Michael Duffy, the then Attorney-General, when speaking on the creation of the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Mr Duffy said:

But there continues to exist a need for us as a nation to regularly focus on the extent to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are able to exercise the basic human rights that the rest of the nation take for granted.

He then said that the creation of this office would provide this focus. One could have considered that it would have been appropriate to fill that position with someone of the Caucasian race with background knowledge and understanding and sympathy towards the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cause. The government did not do that. It appointed an Aboriginal, Michael Dodson. The commissioner states in the report:

Criticism of the Commonwealth by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner may be seen as `biting the hand that feeds you'. . .

That is not the way it was set up. The government was quite prepared to give a person that responsibility within a certain framework and expect him to undertake the task in an objective and proper manner. He goes on to say:

There must necessarily exist a certain structural tension between the performance of my functions and the Commonwealth Government.

That is an acceptable situation as far as I am concerned. People do have certain biases and they may have a certain emphasis on issues that others do not. They may have been affected by matters personally and thus have a deep feeling about a particular issue. He further states:

It is my strong belief that the criterion for selection should be amended to require any future Commissioner to be an indigenous person.

I accept that that is a reasonable proposition. However, I would prefer to see a situation where that was not so but where people took that into consideration and were wise enough to appoint somebody of that race and from that particular background.

  The Commissioner then goes on to recognise that there might be people who have an attitude towards him. He states:

. . . to be identified as an `Aboriginal leader' and appointed by the Commonwealth to a position of influence may be viewed by some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as being co-opted by government.

For instance, this could refer to selling out. I think this report dispels any thought that anyone might have in that direction. He certainly did not do that and he states that he is not of that view. He then goes on to say in the report:

It is of critical importance, if I am to genuinely fulfil my Commission, that I accurately reflect the experience and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout Australia. To this end, I will not only consult, as I am obliged to, with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission but will also consult with community organisations and individual communities as much as possible.

Again that shows his appreciation that his view is not the only one and that he is there to look after the interests of a wide group of people and races in the community and he says he is prepared to do so. He must be commended for that. (Time expired)