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Tuesday, 21 December 1993
Page: 5473


Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (9.08 p.m.) —This became an issue in the Tasmanian dams case where the legal concept that was given primacy was the notion of Aboriginal descent—that is, genealogy, relationships, establishable bloodlines, if you like; whatever that might mean, or whatever the quantum might be. That was not prescribed, and it has not been prescribed. The Commonwealth tends to use what is described as an `administrative definition' which, given the difficulty of establishing genealogy, descent and all those things for routine administrative purposes, operates on a combination of self-identification plus recognition and acceptance as an Aboriginal person. It is not a case of a couple of mates down the pub being prepared to say that they regard a person as such for the sake of whatever return might be in it, or something of that kind. It would have to be a better established test than that.

  I repeat that the legal definition is one essentially based on descent. As a practical matter, it is a combination of those other two factors. It is a matter really for Aboriginal people themselves to sort out, for practical purposes, whom they regard as satisfying this Aboriginality criterion. Certainly, in the context of native title applications of the kind that are in issue in this case, the kind of background and association with the land over a long time, whether in the context of physical direct proximity sustained over time or some other form of less physical connection, would generally be such as to leave little doubt as to who satisfies this description. Commonwealth legislation generally refers to `a person of the Aboriginal race', again emphasising the element of descent, genealogy, parentage, grand parentage and so on.

  These are very sensitive issues. In days gone by, considering the social contexts which prevailed at the time, it was unfortunately for a great many people a matter to be avoided. In latter days, mercifully and thankfully, Aboriginal descent and Aboriginality has become a matter of great pride. I hope that this legislation will be part of the process of reinforcing that pride. Maybe over time we can get better and clearer definitions. However, I suspect that it will be always a somewhat messy and imprecise business based on a combination, one way or another, of those three criteria: descent, self-identification and recognition and acceptance by others. I would like it to be clearer, because obviously it is a rather central, threshold issue which underlies many of these definitional issues, but it is not an issue about which it is possible to be more precise than I have been just now.