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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 62


Senator HEFFERNAN (4:54 PM) —It takes a lot to get me up in this place, but I could speak for a couple of days on this issue. I am offended to think that anyone would suggest that anyone on this side of the chamber does not care. Anyhow, I will get on with it. Just to get my credentials right, the first time I stood up in parliament for my maiden speech—or first speech, or whatever they call it these days—in the first words I uttered in parliament I said:

Equal is the challenge in our towns and cities, where much of suburbia is filled with a generation of unemployed parents and children, isolated by poverty, with low self-esteem and a lifestyle where drugs and suicide are an everyday expectation and work is a faded Bob Hawke promise. These people need real jobs, not retraining for non-existent jobs.

I then said:

No less is the challenge imposed on this generation of Australians by the centuries of misunderstanding and neglect of our indigenous people. We must provide for the return to our indigenous people of their self-esteem: built up over thousands of years by their majestic mastery of traditional living, land custodial skills and timeless culture; broken down in 200 years by the inevitable exploratory nature of man, the intrusiveness of his machines, the enticement of his money and the destructive onslaught of his social habits.

A paradigm shift is required and will only occur when provision is made for our indigenous people to progress, even in remote areas, from communal benefit to individual benefit—

Noel Pearson agrees with me on that—

when access for all Australians to health, education and employment is not distorted by location or station in life; and when, regardless of race, creed and colour, we purge those leaders who believe all should be equal except the equalisers and who see the often generous funds of government as the opportunity for a feast on which to fatten their personal circumstances while neglecting the famine. Unfortunately, when these predators of the public purse turn on, Australians who would normally be concerned and supportive turn off.

Thank God Australians have turned on again.

In the Australian on Saturday Noel Pearson wrote:

In the 1960s, the 13 clan groups represented by the then Yirrkala Aboriginal council made application for a general purpose lease to the Commonwealth of Australia for an area of 2500 square miles ... on the Gove Peninsula—

which they could make use of. To cut a long story short, no lease was ever issued to them. In the early 1970s the Yolngu leader at Yirrkala worked to try and stop the establishment of the Walkabout Hotel in the bauxite mining town of Nhulunbuy. And they failed. So in 200 years we have completely failed. In the last 30 years we have compounded and accelerated that failure. The grog problems of the Yolngu people started to grow, to the point that Woolworths, which was established in this mining town, decided they would get into the business of takeaway grog because there was a quid in it. Now, in a town like that, the Indigenous people do not like to go to Woolworths, because there is too much commotion from the grog sales from the takeaway. They go to the IGA. A lot of the stuff at the IGA costs double the money, but they go there because they cannot put up with the takeaway.

Self-determination, for a lot of people, has turned to self-destruction. And we should not be blaming somebody on the other side of the chamber, in the gallery or down the street. Every Australian should hang their head in shame: we are all to blame. After I made that maiden speech in 1996 I commissioned some work by Lyla Coorey, who won the university medal at the University of Sydney for her master’s on domestic violence. She did a study, which I wrote the foreword to, called Child sexual abuse in rural and remote Australian indigenous communities.

With great difficulty, during the ATSIC inquiry I tried to table that study and I recall who the people were—I will not name them because we are all to blame—that did not want it tabled because they said it would distract and disturb people and lose the focus from the ATSIC shutdown inquiry. In that inquiry, I came across a 22-month-old girl who was vaginally and anally pack raped and who had to be surgically repaired. I rang her grandmother last week—the girl is now 12 years-old—and I said, ‘Do you think we’re doing the wrong thing here?’ She said: ‘No, Senator. You are doing the right thing, because we are frightened of our men.’ So do not give me this garbage that someone else is to blame.

Unlike a lot of people in this place, I have spent more of my time in the bush than in town. I know what it is like to put in a firebreak to stop a fire, because I have done it. It takes a lot of courage because, if the firebreak gets away from you, you are the biggest mug in the world. And, if you stop the fire, you are a hero. Sometimes in putting in a firebreak, you have to burn someone out, and I have done that. What is happening here, what Mal Brough is doing and what a lot of good sensible Australians are concerned about, is ending this destruction and, hopefully, we will all be heroes if it works. And we will all be the greatest mugs if it fails. Every human endeavour has some human failure and I am happy that there is going to be a recommendation for a two-year review. We need to talk to the landowners. These people need schools, they need to be job ready and they need economic benefit. For years and years we have been driven by process. There have been some tiny outcomes but, generally, there have been no bloody outcomes.

I will take the Senate on my journeys over the last year or two around the bush. In Alice Springs, a relative of mine drives a bus—she just got that job. She takes an Aboriginal woman with her in this bus for the OLSH school in Alice Springs. They drive around and pick up the little kids that they are trying to get to school. The Indigenous woman’s job is to go into the houses and find these kids, who are often under the bed or asleep in a corner. They pick up the little kids from these so called ‘camps’, and in some of these camps the landowners are up in arms at the prospect of losing their property. They pick the kids up and take them into the preschool, give them a shower, put the school uniform on them and then they give them a meal. They give them another meal at lunchtime and, when school is ended, they take them out of the school uniform, hang that up in the school and then put them in their other clothes and take them home. Is that any way to run a community?

Last September, I went to Wadeye and I could not believe it. I met some OLSH nuns there that were from my era. The nuns were 93 and 87 years old. They knew me from when I was in what I used to think was a dreadful place: boarding school. On that day, last September, for the first time ever at the primary school where 300 kids attend out of 700 that should be at school, they had awards for achievement. Previously, they only had awards for attendance. At that stage there were 300-odd kids in Wadeye who were among the 4,000 to 7,000 kids in the Northern Territory who have no access to bloody high schools. I do not want to blame anyone, because we are all to blame, but some of it has something to do with the responsibilities of the states and the Territory. These kids were determined and pleased that they were being recognised for achievement, rather than for just turning up.

I went to Yuendumu and discovered within 20 minutes of being there who was running the drugs at the school. I went to Mount Theo, which is the removal camp for the petrol sniffers and, within an hour, I discovered that one of the key managers there was having sex with all the kids. When I came back to Canberra, I rang the policeman at Yuendumu and said that I had been there for a day, told him what was going on in the town, and described all of these dreadful bloody things that were going on there. I said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He said, ‘I just want to get out of here, Senator.’ He was not interested.

At Wadeye, the police and teachers are in razor wire compounds. One of the good things that happened when I went there was that a policeman, with his family, was backing his ute out of the razor wire compound and I said to him, ‘What did you say to your wife when you told her that you had been posted to Wadeye?’ His answer was the best thing I heard all the time I was there—he said, ‘Senator, I wanted to come here.’ While I was there, I discovered that the Centrelink office is just a hole in the wall, like one of those camera holes. There was a line-up of women, like you would see at the football at half-time, trying to get on the bloody phone to Darwin. It was one of the push-button phones that drive you mad. I am pleased to say that, after a lot of effort, there is now a person on the ground there.

I think that the government is to be applauded for what we are on about here today. I do not want to know that anyone is going to be a political winner—I could not give two hoots. This is the same as putting in a firebreak—you do it because you have to. I do not want to know why we did not do it five years ago and I do not want to know why no-one took any notice of the inquiry that I did. I took Melva Kennedy, Pam Greer and some other people in Sydney who helped me with the inquiry to the Olympic box for the day, to see the Olympics, to thank them for the work that they did.

Over an 18-month period a person helped with the review. They interviewed every new prisoner in Long Bay prison, in Sydney, and found that 65 per cent of them were abused kids. So, yes, abuse does occur in all communities, but we are wasting our time unless, as Noel Pearson said, we give up the idea that everything has to be ‘sit-down’ country and ‘sit-down’ money. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu said, a lot of Indigenous people do not want to be free riders. If you do not know what ‘free riders’ are, I will tell you: free riders are people in these communities who do nothing but who get as much benefit as the people who do the work. There are a lot of things wrong, and there is a lot of human failure, but there can be no more gross an example of human failure than the half a million dollars that was sent out to Wadeye last year. They spent it on things such as four-wheel drives and booking themselves into the casino in Darwin. These people need better management. I am privileged to be the Chairman of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce. I think the task force’s work fits in perfectly with this legislation. The Indigenous people of the Northern Territory own 50 per cent of the Northern Territory, and I am determined that they will get the benefit.

Let me give a quick snapshot of someone owning 50 per cent of the land but having nothing to show for it. I was out at a place recently—and I had better not say when, or I might give it away—and I came across a whitefella who had 17,000 cattle on Indigenous country. I asked what the Indigenous people got out of it and, among other things, he said, ‘Maybe once or twice a year we give them $10,000 to get on the grog.’ The task force met a young family at Mataranka a few weeks ago—Kane and Marie Younghusband. They are white people. Kane came from Gilgandra, in New South Wales, and he met his wife in Kununurra. They were courageous enough to go 450 kilometres down the road from Alice Springs and buy 2,000 acres in amongst the scrub. It had the right soil type and the right water under it. In the first year, they pulled a caravan into the corner of the paddock—way out in the middle of nowhere—and cleared 100 acres. Now 1,600 acres has been cleared and they plant a new crop of watermelons every seven days. Last year they cleared $1 million, and I think the land cost them $10 an acre.

The task force went to Elsie Station, from We of the Never-Never fame, and I asked the people there what would happen if a young blackfella wanted to do what Mr Younghusband had done next door. I wanted to know how a young blackfella would go about pegging out a bit of country for himself and making a quid for himself. They said, ‘We might give him a lease.’ I asked what would happen if he were killed by a tractor and his wife wanted to go back to Darwin, Alice Springs or somewhere. They said they would take the lease back. I asked whether they would let him sell the lease. They said, ‘No, we would take it back,’ to which I responded that no bank would ever bank the deal. You have to get to the stage where you have a tradeable lease. I said to John Daly, from the Northern Land Council—who I am privileged to have on my task force, along with Joey Ross and Noel Pearson—that he had to get back to the Northern Land Council and meet with the lawyers to talk about leasing country and trading it, and they have done so. That is what needs to happen.

There is a lot of goodwill out there, and there is some success. Mistake Creek Station, in the Northern Territory, is a wonderful success. The Larrakia Development Corporation, which has traded native title for development in Palmerston, in Darwin, is a success. You can make it work. We should not go around blaming everyone. People want to improve their lot for the next generation. They want to improve their lot for their children. They want to leave something in their will for the next generation. I think everyone wants to do that, and these people are no different. For years and years we have been flying in and saying, ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ We come back here with a lot of process and debate, but we do nothing. Everyone is to blame. The time for talking is over. These people want to make a go of it, and I am determined that they will. I am disgusted that anyone would say that we do not care and that somehow it is a political game. For God’s sake; it is disgusting!

What hope do you have if you are one of the thousands of kids in the Northern Territory who do not have a high school? I do not want to know the bloody reason, but what chance do they have? These kids need to get out of bed—like at that Alice Springs operation—and be fed. People need to understand that why you go to bed at night—preferably tired—and why you get up in the morning is what life is all about. The difficulty in a place like Yuendumu—when we were there a few years ago—was that half the adult population slept all day and drank all night. And they wonder why the kids were sniffing petrol. It is time we all pulled together. It is time we pulled our heads in, because we are all to blame. It does not matter how flash the language; for 200 or so years we have failed these people. Fifty years ago a lot of these people were better off than they are now. The generation of 30 or 40 years ago is better educated than the people there today. I do not know what that says about modern society, but I do know it is time we forgot about the politics in all of this. I am going up to have a yarn with Galarrwuy shortly. You hear all these stories. There is a lot of goodwill there and we have to tap into it and stop trying to get a political point or two out. I do not care about the political persuasions of the Western Australian and Northern Territory governments; let us just get on with it! I am about to run out of time, although I would dearly love to have an extension. Nevertheless, I applaud the government for its courage in doing something about the problem and I deplore its being made political. (Time expired)