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Thursday, 9 December 1993
Page: 4295

Senator REYNOLDS (4.46 p.m.) —I am going to speak for only a very short period. I am not going to speak on behalf of the government and I am not going to speak on behalf of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. I am simply going to put on the public record some comments that were made to us during the 3 1/2-day hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

Senator Vanstone —A bit selective, will you be, Margaret?

Senator REYNOLDS —I think when anybody gets to speak in this place it is important that they put the views of those people who have great credibility in a debate. The first opinion that I put forward is the evidence of Mr Fred Chaney, former Liberal minister for Aboriginal affairs.

Senator Panizza —I have plenty on Graeme Campbell and Peter Walsh.

Senator REYNOLDS —I am very happy for Senator Panizza to speak about former senator Peter Walsh or Graeme Campbell. But I think we will have to agree that neither of those people has the respect nor the expertise in Aboriginal affairs that former Senator Chaney has.

Senator Panizza —And no-one has been at the coalface like Campbell, Walsh or myself.

Senator REYNOLDS —I guess it depends on one's point of view. Senator Panizza is obviously very uneasy about the views of Mr Chaney. Mr Chaney, a former minister for Aboriginal affairs—and therefore a most credible witness—in his compelling evidence, said:

I suppose my chief concern as an ex-member of the Senate is that I do not want the Senate Committee system used as a Trojan Horse for prejudice, and I think there is every risk that that would be what would happen if we had a lengthy Senate inquiry. I also do not want to see what I think was an important symbolic gain for the whole Aboriginal community in the Mabo decision thrown away.

I restate that comment about a Trojan Horse for prejudice. Senator Hill, I believe, has quite good intent in putting forward his terms of reference for the select committee. He says that it is to report on or before 1 February. I suppose if one were not familiar with the Senate committee system—which we all are—one would think, `Well, that seems reasonable. Select committee, it's got to report by 1 February, what are they worrying about?'. But he then proceeds to give us the terms of reference. Let us look at them: a, b, c, d, e and so it goes on. There are 13 points in his terms of reference.

  I ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President, is it really possible that such a detailed inquiry, an inquiry that Senator Vanstone and Senator Hill have emphasised is so important to get to the detail and to reconsider all the issues that the government has been considering now since the High Court brought its decision down in June 1992, can be conducted and concluded by 1 February? We all know that that is not their intent. Their intent is politically motivated; they are intent on delay. They want to give the opponents of the legislation time to gear up in the same way as in the totally discredited campaign of the mining industry in 1985 against national land rights.

  Any talk that it is reasonable to have a select committee inquiring into it is totally rejected, and rejected by someone who should know—Mr Chaney. Although I do not wish to upset Senator Panizza further, I will quote Mr Chaney again. He said:

Most importantly, the early passage of the Commonwealth legislation will bring to an end the political and industry campaigns designed to inflame public opinion—

So much for Senator Vanstone, who was accusing Senator Gareth Evans of having a silver tongue in some of his comments about racism in the community. Mr Chaney agrees that these campaigns are designed to inflame public opinion and to force the federal government to abandon any defence of any Aboriginal property interests, because of electoral consequences. Anyone with a knowledge of the history of the last 10 years could not deny that that is the reality.

  It is sad but true that many people in the community do not understand the High Court decision and are suspicious and fearful. The most important feature in bringing an end to that uncertainty—if I can use the word we heard so many times during our committee hearing—is to put in place legislation that will start to show that native title tribunals will not mean the sky will fall in Western Australia. They will start to put in place realistic justice in implementing native title; no more no less. It will be modest legislation.

  The second person I would like to quote is Mr Caston. I know members of the coalition have brought in a dissenting report and have questioned constitutional issues. That is their prerogative. However, they have to ask themselves who, in the whole country, might know something about constitutional issues. Mr Caston QC, who was very much involved for 10 years in representing Mr Eddie Mabo in the High Court, has talked about the legal complications of the Western Australian legislation and any delay in the passage of the federal bill. Mr Caston said:

If I can translate the political battle into legal terms, the reality is that you are going to have a legal nightmare if the Western Australia bill is going to operate, so to speak, in defiance of the federal bill. The federal bill will override but the legal tangle will grow, as the time gap grows. It is the delay and the Western Australian law that will render things unworkable, not the operation of the federal bill.

Given that we have heard from so many groups in the community, particularly industry groups—and bankers commenting on investment, although we did not hear from them in our hearing—surely we do not want this kind of uncertainty and legalistic nightmare. We need legislation that is the responsibility of the national government because this is a national issue. We need it put in place as soon as possible. We certainly do not need to have this legislation referred to a committee.

  Finally, I put forward an argument in favour of urgent passage for the Commonwealth bill, stemming from the commencement of the Western Australian legislation. Sir Ronald Wilson, President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, has said that the Western Australian legislation has put Australia in breach of its international obligations. In particular, Sir Ronald referred to the obligations binding Australia, contained in article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child; article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination Of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; articles 2, 7 and 8 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; articles 2, 26 and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; articles 2.2 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and articles 4 and 6 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

  I ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President, and those people who are still convinced that this legislation should be referred to a select committee, `Can Australia, which has a fine reputation as an upholder of human rights, afford this kind of breach? How long can we let our reputation suffer from this form of breach? Can we really allow legislation to go off to a committee, to be hidden away in a committee for months—perhaps years'?

Senator Panizza —I thought it had to report by the end of January.

Senator REYNOLDS —I say to Senator Panizza that I chair a committee that, ostensibly, had only a short reference. Two and a half years later we are still working on a number of very important issues. I use that as an example to show that the committee process in this parliament, constructive as it can be, can also mean that particular issues are put on hold and not resolved. In this instance, that would be very destructive for the Native Title Bill. It would certainly be very detrimental to economic certainty in this country. It would inflame racism. Senator Evans was very particular in his comments. He said quite clearly that he was not talking about any senator here. He was simply saying that in this climate of uncertainty, when not everyone understands the legislation, it is very easy for people who do not understand to take a view that fuels racism.

  It is not a question of simply accusing members of the opposition of being racist. I certainly would not do that. I know that members of the opposition have supported reconciliation. That is why I am disappointed that, as advocates of reconciliation and as people who have listened intently to many of the debates, they have nevertheless decided to refer this bill to a select committee. I see that as a very negative approach and look forward to voting against this motion.