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Thursday, 15 March 1973
Page: 645

Mr CROSS (Brisbane) - The first thing I should like to do tonight is congratulate my colleague the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Bryant) on his appointment. He is the first Minister in a Commonwealth government to have that responsibility by itself. The Minister has an extremely difficult task to carry out. Of course, it would not be fair to say that we have inheritied a legacy from the previous Government. The fact is thai we have inherited a legacy from the time of the first settlement in this country in 1788, with all that has happened in the period since We have a vast task to which is attached ;i great deal of urgency, not only in the interest of all of those people who live in Australia but also very much in the interest of the image which Australia will project in our part of the world and in the world generally. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I know his interest in this subject over a very long period and his record of service to the Aborigines Advancement League in Victoria and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. I am sure that all members of the Parliament wish him well. I congratulate the honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock), who I understand will have the shadow responsibility in this area for the Opposition.

Mr Peacock - In this House only.

Mr CROSS - In this House. Given that we have on Our plates a problem with the Torres Strait boundary, which we take very seriously, we are fortunate to have in the House a man such as the honourable member for Kooyong who understands both sides of the question. He understands the views of the people of Papua New Guinea, particularly the people who live near the Torres Strait Islands, and he also has a sympathetic understanding of the wishes of the people who live on those Islands. I welcome the constructive statements that he made tonight.

The aims of the Government have not been well understood. It has suffered as a result of certain restrictions which are placed on any government when it is dealing with a matter which is not entirely within its own powers but which is a matter of international negotiation and also in a federal system, a matter of negotiation between the Commonwealth and the States. The Australian Labor Party in government has been criticised unjustly and unfairly, in Queensland and elsewhere, as having aims and ambitions in this field which it does not have. We realise that there are problems and recognise that the interests of the people in the Torres Strait will be served by a just and fair settlement of all the complex questions involved. I hope to deal briefly with that matter a little later.

The States Grants (Aboriginal Advancement) Bill, which increases to $21m the appropriation of S 14.5m made by the previous Government, is a recognition by the Commonwealth Government of the continued role of the States in the field of Aboriginal affairs. We have been criticised in various places - probably more so in my home State of Queensland than anywhere else - as being a centralised government and as wanting to take over a matters affecting Aboriginal affairs. This is not the position. The point was made by the honourable member for Kooyong that 5 per cent of Arborigines now live in urban situations. Their needs are serviced substantially by the ordinary services that operate in Australia. Most Aboriginal children will attend State schools. Aboriginal children who are Catholics may attend Catholic parish schools. Aborigines who are sick will go to State hospitals. This Bill is a substantial recognition, early in the first term of the Whitlam Labor Government, as we are increasing the amount of assistance given to the States by 50 per cent, that there is a continuing role tor the States in the field of Aboriginal advancement. In effect, we are saying to the States: 'We have a role to play, and we are prepared to play that role. But you have a role to play also, and we will assist you to play that role by increasing the amount of assistance given by the previous Government, recognising of course that even what we are doing in this legislation is not enough.'

The Minister, in his second reading speech, spoke about consultation with Aborigines and Islanders. This question also is a complex one. When the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth) was Minister-in-Charge of Aboriginal Affairs consultation was carried out much more effectively than it has been in more recent times. Conferences were held at Townsville and elsewhere, and the legitimate views of Aborigines were sought in quite an honest way. Under the Minister in the McMahon Government the Commonwealth, in its consultations with Aborigines, chose to work through people who were appointed as advisers by the State governments. In Queensland the advisers were councillors from Aboriginal settlements. They represented only a little more than one-third of the Aboriginal and Island population of the State - those Aborigines who actually lived in communities. I do not think that the present Minister or any honourable member would suggest that we have yet developed a perfect consultation system. The recent conference was attended by a group of people whom some of us knew to be interested in Aboriginal affairs or who had played some kind of leadership role. The people who attended that conference were invited, irrespective of political considerations, to try to give a broad ranging representative group of Aborigines the opportunity to tell the Commonwealth the patterns of consultations which should apply in future. I have not yet seen the results of the deliberations of that conference, but I am awaiting them with some interest.

I make the point that, whilst we have noi yet arrived at a satisfactory situation, we have not played politics. I point out that the Minister invited Senator Bonner to attend this conference. That would indicate that the Government regards the issue of Aboriginal advancement as being so important that it is not prepared to play politics in this field. I was pleased that the honourable member for Kooyong supported the idea of better patterns of consultation. It is obvious that the future in this area involves an expanded role for the Commonwealth. This will not happen overnight. It is a matter of gradually expanding the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs and involving Aborigines in the Department, particularly in the field, in making contact with Aboriginal and Island communities, in liaison and so on. The task will not be an easy one for the Minister, for the Secretary of his Department or for other members of the Department. I think that those of us who have been interested in Aboriginal welfare will agree that it is not easy to get the more vociferous Aboriginal spokesmen to work within what might be termed the Public Service structure. The system now seeks people who can go out and find out what needs to be done, and then not merely make a speech about it, send a telegram to a member of Parliament or call a public meeting, but put in writng the aims, aspirations and needs of a particular community or a particular family and convey them to the Minister or to the Department in order that the problems might be looked at and, if possible, solved.

I pay a tribute to what was done under the previous Government. I was always a critic of what was done. I said that it was not enough. I realise that the previous Government had the problem of substantial opposition in its ranks, more particularly in the ranks of the Country Party, to Aboriginal advancement. Given those inhibitions, the previous Government started a number of programs which have been useful and which can be made even more useful. The Labor Party in government is looking at them. Anything that is good will be continued. It may be possible for us to improve some of those programs. We have been concerned, for example, that so little of the money in the Commonwealth Capital Fund for Aboriginal Enterprises has been advanced. We would like to know why. There is obviously a great need to assist Aboriginal enterprises both for individuals and for communities, and by means of incorporation of communities.

I should like to deal with 3 other questions - and I am sorry that the time available 10 me is so short. The first matter is, again, the question of the Torres Strait boundary. When this Government was first elected almost every Premier in Australia, irrespective of their politics, accepted the fact that the people of this country had expressed their will through the ballot box and that a Labor government bad been elected. The most notable exception to this was the Premier of Queensland, Mr Bjelke-Petersen. Mr Bjelke-Petersen, for his own partisan political purposes, has been quite irresponsible in that before half of my colleagues had been returned for the State of Queensland and certainly before my colleague, the honourable member for Lilley (Mr Doyle), had been returned, he was up in the Torres Straits telling people that it was the aim of the Federal Labor Government to hand the Torres Strait Islanders over to the Government of Papua New Guinea.

I think I can fairly say that there is great dissatisfaction in Papua New Guinea at the present boundary. This boundary was imposed in the days of what might be called Queensland colonialism in 1879. But the Queensland maritime boundary that can be seen on the map has never been used to prevent the people of the Torres Straits from having access to the New Guinea coast or, indeed, the people of Papua New Guinea from fishing around the islands of the Torres Straits. If we are to have a boundary in the Torres Straits, it must be a fair boundary. Papua New Guinea is about to gain independence and we cannot impose on Papua New Guinea a colonial boundary which will be a running sore for ail time. In the future there may not be a government in Papua New Guinea as well disposed towards this country as the people who are now in government and who have a recent and continuing recollection of what Australia has tried to do in Papua New Guinea. So it is necessary that we establish a boundary in the Torres Straits between our 2 nations that will stand the test of time. lt is also necessary to have agreements between these 2 nations that will protect the rights of the people of the Torres Straits to live on their own islands, have title to their own land and retain Australian citizenship with all that that means. I do not refer only to social service and repatriation benefits. I would like to make the point that I believe these matters are dealt with too superficially. Some of these people served in the Australian Forces during the Second World War and they regard themselves as Australians no less than people who live in any other part of Australia. We should not discount all those factors and it is our responsibility to protect their interests. While we must maintain for these people such rights as 1 mentioned of retaining their citizenship and living on their islands, we must also consider the rights of the people of Papua New Guinea, given that a continuing continental shelf runs between the 2 nations, to some share in the resources of the seabed. This is a very complex question.

The Commonwealth has not been irresponsible on this matter. The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) wrote to the Premier of Queensland on 15th December 1972. I shall read extracts only from this letter. The Prime Minister said, inter alia, that the Government was 'impressed by the potentialities of the question' - he was referring to the boundary - 'as a source of friction between Australia and an emerging Papua New Guinea', but was also very mindful of the rights and interests of the Torres Strait Islanders'; and was therefore proposing 'discussions ... in January between officials of the Papua New Guinea Government, your Government' - that is, the Queensland Government - 'and my Government (including the Office of Aboriginal Affairs)'.

Through the entire period since that time, the Premier of Queensland has sought to convey the impression that the Commonwealth' Government now is in the real estate business and that we want to transfer the Torres Strait Islands to Papua New Guinea. I should like to make the point that if in the future there is ill will between Australia and Papua New Guinea, the people who stand to suffer most are the people who live in the Torres Strait. It is vitally important that this matter be settled not from a partisan political point of view but by quiet negotiations. I should like to praise the Prime Minister and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Bryant) for their restraint in this matter. If I may make a kindly aside at this point, 1 should say the Prime Minister rather than the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, because my colleague and friend has made a couple of passing references to the Premier of Queensland. However, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is correct in saying that the Premier of Queensland has handled this question in an irresponsible and partisan way. Let us all use our influence not to inflame the situation in the Torres Strait but to ensure that we arrive at a solution which is fair to the nation of Papua New Guinea and which protects the interests of the people of the Torres Straits. We are not going to achieve that solution if we try to make local partisan party political capital out of this issue.

I should like to comment on the question of the Queensland settlements because this matter has been referred to in the Press in my State of Queensland. Through this Bill, the Government is assisting various enterprises on the settlements in Queensland. Again, we are not in the business of taking over the settlements in Queensland or anywhere else for the sake of acquiring more real estate for the Commonwealth. As the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs mentioned in his second reading speech, this Government has appointed Mr Justice Woodward to examine the question of land rights in the Northern Territory in order to ascertain how in each individual situation, we can best vest these lands in the hands of the Aboriginal people who live in these communities and reserves. We would hope that, given the fact that the Commonwealth is prepared to provide money to assist in the provision of skilled personnel, governments like the Government of Queensland would play their part in transferring the title to Aboriginal reserves to the people living on them.

May I make one other point about the Premier of Queensland. He has said that the Commonwealth Government wishes to dispossess these people and that we wish to take their land from them. But there is not one family, there is not one person, living on an island in the Torres Straits who has a title to the land on which he lives. If the Premier of Queensland is interested in the people who live in the Torres Straits, let him give them the title to the land on which they have lived from time immemorial. We will not dispute that because these people should have a title. But the title to all of those lands in the Torres Strait is vested with the Director of the Aboriginal and Island Affairs Department in Queensland.

I had hoped to conclude my speech earlier than this, but I should like to make another point. This Bill is a step forward. It makes more money available than did the previous Government. We do not claim any particular virtue for that. We still recognise that it is not enough but more information and consultation is needed before the road ahead can be plotted. But we do see across the north of Australia - we saw this on television the night before last - what has been described as a white backlash. This Government is very conscious of the needs of other needy people in the Australian community. There is before the Parliament legislation dealing with social services. The Minister for Housing (Mr Les Johnson) who was in the chamber a minute ago, is endeavouring to bring down a more generous Commonwealth-State housing agreement. We have patterns of assistance for children who live in isolated areas and who have particular disabilities. We have a particular obligation to the Aboriginal people of Australia because they are a dispossessed people. But we also can help them because they are the most easily identified group of underprivileged people in the Australian community, and all members of this Parliament, irrespective of their party, should support the endeavours of this Government. When in

Opposition, we supported the then government in this area. We never criticised what it was doing except to say that it was not enough. But any of us, for local, partisan, party political gain, could stir up a white backlash.

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