Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 19 May 1960

Mr OSBORNE (Evans) (Minister for Air) . - The comparatively short time which can be allowed for this debate to-day should not be taken as indicating that the Government does not realize the seriousness of the problem or its importance to the Australian people. But I point out that the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck) is absent from Australia, and I think that a full-dress debate on this subject - which I personally would welcome - would be much better held when he can be here.

The honorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley) began his speech by quoting a statement by the Minister for Territories, some ten years ago when he was a private member. That statement has a dramatic significance when considered against the Minister's achievements in the only part of Australia for which this Government can be directly responsible, that is, the Northern Territory itself. The honorable member for Fremantle, to whom I give full credit for his sincerity and seriousness of purpose in raising this matter, then went on to what was essentially a discussion of the condition of the aborigines in Western Australia.

I intend, in this debate, to deal with what has been done by this Government and by its Minister for Territories in the Northern Territory - the only part of Australia in which this Government, under the Constitution, can exercise direct control or directly work for the improvement of the aboriginal people. The House knows very well that the Constitution expressly prohibits the Commonwealth from legislating on the conditions of aborigines in the States. And so, on behalf of the Minister for Territories, I welcome the sentiments which lie behind the honorable member's remarks as evidence of the Opposition's concern - and particularly of his own concern - about the welfare of our aboriginal people. Nevertheless, statements in sweeping terms such as those used in the notice proposing this subject for discussion as a matter of urgent public importance generally need putting into proper perspective. In the first place the honorable member suggests that this Government needs to become aware of the special problems of the aboriginal people. This, in itself, is a denial of the nine years of hard and enlightened work of the Minister for Territories in discharging his responsibilities and those of this Parliament in the Northern Territory, which is the only place, I repeat, where this Government can legislate for the welfare of the aboriginal people. Through his administration the Minister for Territories has given a lead to the States and to the whole Australian people; I think that the honorable member for Fremantle has not done justice to the achievements in that Territory during the nine years in which the Minister for Territories has occupied his portfolio.

Mr Beazley - I believe the advances in Western Australia also are due to him.

Mr OSBORNE - I thank the honorable member, on the Minister's behalf, for that acknowledgment.

There will always be room for differences of opinion on the methods used, but no one could fairly conclude that the Government - or the Minister for Territories in particular - has lacked awareness of the problems of the aboriginal people or has failed to act vigorously towards an understanding of their needs.

The honorable member for Fremantle has called for a massive attack on this problem. If by " a massive attack " he means a sudden assault, the very nature of the problem precludes such an approach. From its nature, it is a slow business. It is a slow business to build up the physical facilities needed, mainly in remote places; it is a slow business to gather and train the staff who, if they are to succeed, must have a sense of vocation for their work. Above all, there is a limit to the rate at which social changes can be accepted and absorbed by the beneficiaries of these policies themselves. Social changes cannot be enforced upon aboriginal people quickly. The rate of change must be adjusted to the response that can be stimulated in the aboriginal people themselves. There is not time for me to develop this theme during this short debate, but it is very clearly explained in a small book, called " Fringe Dwellers ", which was produced last year by the authority of the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck) for the Aborigines Day Observance Committee.

The Minister for Territories has given the lead, particularly, and achieved a great deal on the fundamental issue of the removal of racial discrimination. Legal disabilities and protective legislation are unavoidable in caring for primitive people, but since 1957 no legal disability has been applied to aboriginals as such in the Northern Territory. Only those who, as individuals, are judged to need the care and assistance of the State are declared to be wards of the State. Under the law of the Territory, every one, whether of aboriginal or European race, is born a full citizen. Protective legislation is applied subsequently, where required, and then only on the basis of need, not of race.

The honorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley) talked of double standards. If I understand the policy of the Minister for Territories at all, its underlying intent is to introduce a single standard for aboriginal and white people alike. He has made his first assault on that in connexion with this question of legal status. Every one born in the Northern Territory, whether of aboriginal or European descent, is born a full citizen. Protective legislation can be applied only to aborigines as individuals, if their state of development is such that they cannot get on without it. This advance has already meant that all partaboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and quite a number of full-blood aborigines, have the status of ordinary members of the community and are subject to its ordinary laws. This will become more significant as the number of aborigines able to accept the full responsibilities of citizenship grows. Very practical measures have been introduced to aid those who are declared to be wards. There are approximately 16,800 of them in the Territory. Excluding all expenditure on works, administrative staff salaries and health services, the money spent directly on the welfare of wards has increased from £53,400 - which was the amount spent under those headings in the financial year 1948-49- to £547,000 in the present finacial year. The significance of the year 1948-49 will be immediately obvious to honorable members opposite. This represents an increase of over 1,000 per cent. The staff of the Welfare Branch has grown from 72 to 288, and grants in aid to missions for work among wards have increased from £16,800 in 1948-49 to £255,000 this financial year. That is an even greater rate of increase than in the amount spent by the Government directly on welfare. There are now in the Territory thirteen government settlements and fourteen mission settlements, established as centres for aboriginal welfare work. Those figures, I hope, dispel, any suggestion of lack of awareness of the problem on the part of this Government,, and especially on the part of the Minister for Territories.

I should have liked to have time to deal in detail with the various headings of need mentioned in the honorable member's urgency proposal. I shall deal with education. In 1948, the only schools for aboriginal children in the Territory were twelve mission schools. There are now 28 schools, of which twelve are on government settlements, two on cattle stations and fourteen at mission settlements. In 1948 there were 670 aboriginal children attending schools in the Northern Territory. There are now over 2,000 aboriginal children at school. Pre-school education is also being developed.

Attention has been given to technical and trade training. I have not the time to go into that now. Another matter mentioned in the motion is the property rights of aboriginals. As I pointed out, all partaboriginals and a large number of full-blood aboriginals have the same property rights as other citizens. Restrictions on rights of property apply only to those who are declared to be wards. In order to encourage the ward to learn the implications of the ownership of property, there is no control over the transfer of chattels of a value of less than £10.

Mr Beazley - It is not a question of legal rights; it is a question of how to get the property.

Mr OSBORNE - The first thing that must be done is to give people rights. They cannot be expected to grow to full citizenship unless they have a proper legal status first. I think one of the most significant achievements of the Minister for Territories is his success in tackling this problem of basic right of citizenship. All persons bom in the Northern Territory are born with full citizenship rights. Limitation is applied only at a later stage, and then only in individual cases.

The honorable member for Fremantle referred to assimilation. The only possible future for the very small minority of aboriginal people in Australia is to merge into and be received as full members of the European community which surrounds them. This is the basis of the Government's policy, and all welfare measures in the Northern Territory have as their purpose the assistance of wards and their descendants in taking their place as members of the community of the Commonwealth. All special facilities - government settlements, special schools, wardship itself and the protective measures associated with it - are regarded as transitional measures which will be abandoned as soon as the need for them is past.

Housing was also mentioned by the honorable member for Fremantle. I point out that primitive people - I speak now of those elements of the aboriginal community which are in the early stage ot emerging from primitive society - have to be introduced to the use of houses slowly. On settlements and mission stations they are being provided first with simple dwellings. The Wards Employment Ordinance prescribes minimum standards for the accommodation that has to be provided for them when in employment. Houses are not always properly used, but that is only to be expected in the process of developing these people to the stage where they can take their places as full members of the Australian community.

Employment as public servants has also been mentioned by the honorable member. There is no bar to the employment of aboriginal people in the Public Service on work which they can do and for which they are qualified. In fact, a large number of wards, and many part-coloured persons, are already employed by departments on work suited to their capabilities.

The honorable member's proposal mentions medical attack on diseases in the Territory. Most striking advances can be demonstrated in that sphere. I submit that the hillier birthrate and the dramatically lower death rate achieved in recent years are the best demonstrations of the success of our medical policy. I repeat that I should have liked time to deal with, in greater detail, the other headings mentioned by the honorable member. He has spoken of the tribal needs of aboriginals. Very few aboriginals in the Northern Territory are still living in a completely tribal state. It does seem to me that one of the most striking features of the impingement of our civilization on people in the completely tribal state is the fact that immediately contact is established, the tribal relationship begins to deteriorate very rapidly, and nothing can stop this process. As soon as any contact is established between the aboriginal in his tribal state and the Australian community, the problem immediately becomes one of preparing, and helping, the primitive man for the inevitably closer contact he will have with the strange complexities of our civilization.

The honorable member for Fremantle mentioned financial aid and raised constitutional issues. [Extension of time granted.] He raised the whole question of the financial relations, of the Commonwealth and the States. It would be pointless to go into these arrangements here, except to say that it is not practical for the Commonwealth to make direct grants in aid for the aborigines, and I doubt whether such grants would be accepted by the States.

I believe that I have, in the short time allowed to me, given some account of the remarkable progress in the Northern Territory during the last ten years, and particularly during the last nine years. This progress is the result of the labours of many, but above all it stands to the credit of the man who has been Minister for Territories since 1951. He has enunciated very clearly and carried into effect the policy of assimilation for the aborigines. He has done this with understanding, with vision and with energy. He has brought to the task a deep personal interest and a knowledge which is the result of a long study of the problems of native administration in this country. I think his own words can best speak for his work. At the opening of the Northern Territory Legislative Council quite recently, he said this -

The responsibility for the advancement of the aborigines lies on all Australians and the conscience of Australia to-day ha3 been aroused. The Australian Government - and I believe the vast majority of the Australian people - want this job done and done well, and they are paying to have it done. So far as I am concerned, I don't aci because of international opinion or because of any appeal to declarations of human rights. The foundations of my policy are in Australian traditions and Australian social ideals. This is a land where we Australians have tried to build a better life for all - the land of the fair go - and as an Australian I think a " fair go " covers everybody within our borders, black or white. Australia is a Christian land and the Christian teaching does not stop short of any suburb, any camp, any district, or any group of people.

I think these words of the Minister for Territories might very well conclude what I have to say in this debate. He went on -

There may be room for discussion about the best methods but surely there can be no debate about the objective. If ever we should enter into dispute about method I would ask that none of us will ever lose sight for a moment of the fact that there is a single purpose to help these people, to receive them into the community and to give them every chance to live in the full dignity and worth of their own personality.

Suggest corrections