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Wednesday, 16 April 1980
Page: 1526


Senator CHANEY (Western AustraliaMinister for Aboriginal Affairs) - Tonight, on the motion for the adjournment of the Senate, we have heard two speeches, both of which have related to Aboriginals. The latter speech by Senator Evans related to a particular individual, the late Brian Willis. As I suppose is to be expected, I met Brian Willis. I met him here in Canberra when he come to see me shortly after he had assumed the senior administrative position in the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Service. He told me of his hopes and his ambitions for that Service. He gave me a very direct message about what he expected to do and what he expected me to do. I have a very vivid recollection of that meeting here in Canberra. I join with Senator Evans in expressing my very great sorrow at the fact that Brian Willis died recently.

I think I would be prepared to subscribe to the theory which Senator Evans advanced that perhaps Brian Willis's death is evidence of the sort of pressures which are borne by Aboriginal people. The pressures such as those borne by the late Brian Willis are very hard to bear indeed. It does seem to me that it would be evident to any of us who are interested at all in the Aboriginal people of Australia- I think that would include most members of this Senate- that we live in a period in which there has been considerable change in a relatively short time and in which that change has been accompanied by a very great tension. I have little doubt that that tension and that pressure are taking their toll on many individual Aboriginal people.

In acknowledging that, I say to the Senate that I think that underlines the duty which is upon us all to ensure that wherever possible the legitimate aspirations for advancement which are held by Aboriginal people are fostered and encouraged without adding to the pressures and the divisions in the community. In acknowledging the contribution of Brian Willis, which has been so unfortunately cut short, I draw attention to the fact that it is a reminder to us all that we should do whatever we can to ensure that Aboriginal people are not subjected to pressures which might be more than they reasonably can carry. I also extend publicly, as I have extended privately, my sympathy to Mr Willis 's family.

The other speech which was made this evening on the motion for the adjournment of the Senate concerned a subject which, I suppose, has added somewhat to the tensions to which Senator Evans referred and to which I have just referred. The issue of Noonkanbah has attracted a great deal of public comment and has attracted a considerable amount of comment in the Senate. I do not wish to go over all the ground which has been covered in previous debate, a good deal of which is relevant to matters which have been raised by Senator Bonner tonight. I would, however, in deference to the views which have been expressed by Senator Bonner, who is, of course, a close colleague of mine, like to make a number of what I see as fundamental points about the Noonkanbah situation.

Firstly, like Senator Bonner I think it is important to note that Noonkanbah is a pastoral lease purchased by Commonwealth money for the benefit of a particular Aboriginal community. As a pastoral lease it does not carry any particular legal quality. It shares the same qualities as other pastoral leases and it is, therefore, an area which is open to mining. That is a point of view which I understand is shared by the Opposition. I base that assumption on a conversation which I had with Mr Stewart West when he called on me on Good Friday to put his views on Noonkanbah to me. My understanding of what he had to say on behalf of the Opposition was that it, like the Government, accepted that a pastoral lease, be it Noonkanbah or any other, was open to mining. Like any pastoral lease whether Aboriginal owned or otherwise the land which it comprises is entitled to protection insofar as it consists of sites of particular significance to Aboriginal people. It may be that there are archaeological sites of great historical significance. It may be that there are sites of particular and continuing spiritual significance to living Aboriginal people. It is sites in the latter category which give rise to the dispute that we still have at Noonkanbah. I would differ with Senator Bonner in that one respect.

The comments that I would make about the protection to which the Aboriginal community is entitled for its sites on Noonkanbah is no different from the protection to which Aboriginals are entitled to in other areas of Western Australia which are held as pastoral leases or farming land by non-Aboriginals. I have consistently put that view to the Noonkanbah community. It is a view that I put to members of the community both orally and in writing during the middle of last year. I put it to the community and its advisers both then and in the intervening period. Noonkanbah has a pastoral lease. It is available for mining. That availability is subject to two things- the protection of special sites of significance and the protection of the community itself. Those matters are currently under discussion between the Commonwealth and the State of Western Australia, the State having made it quite clear that it regards the protection of properly identified sacred sites as being its obligation and having made it quite clear that it is prepared to lay down rules which will protect the integrity of the Noonkanbah community against the sorts of interferences which can occur when a mining group becomes involved, in a proximate sense, with an Aboriginal community.

A number of complaints were made by Senator Bonner about the Minister for Cultural Affairs in Western Australia, Mr Grayden. He acknowledged the early interest which Mr Grayden, who was a member of this Parliament, as was pointed out by an interjector, showed in Aboriginal affairs, which is evidenced by the book he wrote entitled Adam to Atoms, which studied the effects of the movement of Aboriginal people away from Maralinga and so on at the time when atomic trials were being held in Australia. It is a book which was written, I think, with considerable sympathy for the plight of those traditional Aboriginal people who are so disturbed. The view which Mr Grayden put forward about one Australian family, that there ought to be equal rights and equal opportunities, can be queried in the way that Senator Bonner queried it when one takes the view that historically white Australians have shown little regard for the equal rights and equal opportunities that ought to be afforded to Aboriginal people. I think that that is a powerful argument and is one which I have used myself when people have said to me that they want equal treatment with Aboriginals. I have tended to challenge such people by suggesting that they not use that argument when Aboriginals have been in a position of gross inequality. I understand the viewpoint which has been put by Senator Bonner.

On the other hand, I think the general idea that we do want one Australian community within which there is a respect for cultural diversity is a rational viewpoint to adopt and one, which as a family of Australians, we all ought to embrace. I think the idea of equal rights and equal opportunities is certainly dear to the hearts of most Liberals. I suspect too that it is dear to that broad spectrum of Australian political opinion which would describe itself as liberal democrat. I think that would take in the great majority of Opposition senators as well as the great majority of Government senators. I think that in that area there is a real belief in the sorts of principles of equality for which Senator Bonner himself has fought for many years. When one reads his biography one can see that he has fought for those things for the whole of his life.

The concern Senator Bonner has and which I share with him is that we must not use that very legitimate aspiration of one Australian family for equal rights and opportunities to mask the need for special assistance for Aboriginal people and other people in the community who are particularly deprived. I can assist Senator Bonner in his area of concern by directing his attention to the State policy which was issued in February during the last State election campaign in Western Australia. After establishing the theme of one Australia, it very clearly acknowledged the need for special programs for Aboriginal people because of their special disadvantage and for recognition of the fact that a tribal lifestyle in itself requires to be taken into account when determining government policies.

The other area I touch on from what Senator Bonner has said is that Mr Grayden said that the Noonkanbah dispute had nothing to do with sacred sites. I think there could be some misunderstanding here. One of the difficulties with the Noonkanbah issue is that it fundamentally concerns the twin issues of protecting the Aboriginal community and protecting the sites which are of special significance to the Aboriginal community. One of the things which makes the perception of those two key things difficult is that the Aboriginal community at Noonkanbah has itself tended to extend the argument beyond those two principles. My own experience when I discussed the question of mining with the community in the middle of last year was that it had moved from the two basic points which I have described to a position where it asserted that there should be no mining at all on Noonkanbah. Once we advance that argument, particularly if we raise the land rights flag and talk about land rights, we raise the other issue and a degree of scepticism on the part of some people about whether we are really worried about sacred sites and the integrity of the community.

It has been difficult to keep the argument to the limits which I believe are to the Aboriginal advantage in this matter. Most people want to see the protection of both the community and the sites. I was not able to attend the rally held outside Parliament House tonight at which I understand Senator Bonner spoke. But I understand from the report I have received that there was a lot of talk about land rights as against the principles about which I am particularly concerned at Noonkanbah. Each occasion of that sort tends to add to the confusion that has made this such a difficult issue.

I am sorry to detain the Senate at this late hour but the matters which were raised are of significance. I do not believe that they should be ignored. I quickly touch on what Senator Bonner had to say about Professor Berndt who has contributed a great deal to the debate on Noonkanbah. His contribution has, I think, been of great assistance in explaining some of the issues. Senator Bonner quoted with great approval what Professor Berndt said. He said in effect that the whole of the land is regarded as sacred by Aboriginals. He talked about particular parts of the land being more sacred than other parts. Those words reflect very accurately comments which were made by Mr Grayden, the Minister for Cultural Affairs in Western Australia. I refer particularly to remarks he made in a television debate to which Senator Bonner referred. He specifically said that to the Aboriginal people all land is of religious significance. He pointed out that even the land on which the television station was built had religious significance. He, like Professor Berndt, went on to distinguish the particular areas of significance that the State would be concerned about as against the generality of Aboriginal land, all of which, we agree, has religious significance.

Again, that remark is consistent with my own public comments on this subject. In fact, I can remember at least one report in the daily news and in a number of other areas on this aspect. My own comments drew the support of the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, the Anglican Archbishop of Perth and the Western Australian Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia. So we have a real unanimity in this debate that all land on which there are living Aboriginals with traditional associations to that land is to be regarded as being of religious significance. But there are high points, special places of particular significance. That is the crux of the problem at Noonkanbah. What we have had is the identification, not merely of the special sites but of the spiritual significance of a broad acres area of land and the recommendation that that broad acres area beyond the special sacred sites or the sites of special significance should be protected. Quite frankly, I think that is beyond what was intended by the legislature, even if section 5B of the Heritage Act can be read in that way. It is certainly beyond what the State Government asserts ought to be protected and what I, as the Federal Minister, believe that I should be asserting is requiring protection.

I think there is a real need for a clarification of the law in Western Australia so that both government and communities and, I should add, the mining companies can avoid the sort of conflict which has arisen with respect to Noonkanbah and which has certainly added to the pressures to which I referred in my opening remarks and which have added to the community tensions which we in this country would seek to avoid and which I think cry out for solution in the future. The role of the Commonwealth Government in this matter is to seek a solution which will serve the interests of the Aboriginal people by protecting their communities and their sites of special significance. I believe that can be achieved consistent with the State Government's own ambitions in those areas. We are in fruitful dialogue with the State Government on the matter at the moment. I hope shortly to be in fruitful dialogue again with the community on those issues. I can assure the Senate, as I have done before, that the matter is regarded as of great importance by the Federal Government for social reasons, for reasons related to Aboriginals and for reasons relating to the national development of this country.

Mr President,I do not complain about the matter being brought before the Senate again by my friend and colleague Senator Bonner. I do apologise that my contribution to the debate has extended the period of the sitting beyond what I am sure all honourable senators would wish. I do ask all contributors to the Noonkanbah debate and indeed to the whole debate on Aboriginal affairs in this country to show restraint and tolerance and try to ensure that as a country we enjoy good community relations, that we respect each other's cultural integrity and that we behave like civilised human beings.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 1 1.58 p.m.







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