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
Tuesday, 25 September 1973
Page: 1453

Mr ASHLEY-BROWN (Mitchell) - Unlike the governments of Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America, the Australian Government, and the British colonial administration before it have never recognised the rights of the indigenous people to the land they occupied at the time of European settlement. The British Crown declared Australian land its own and, except in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, proceeded to expropriate it to European settlers. Aborigines were regarded as rural pests and an obstruction to what is called development. Even when Aboriginal reserves were established towards the end of the 19th century they were leased not to the Aborigines but to Government departments or religious missions on the assumption that they could best judge the most appropriate form of development.

In 1936 the first conference of Commonwealth and State authorities dealing with Aboriginal matters was convened. The meeting concluded that it believed that 'the destiny of the native of Aboriginal origin, but not of full blood, lies in his ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth'. It therefore recommended that all efforts be directed towards that end. In 1936 the matter of Commonwealth control of Aboriginal affairs was broached and rejected by the Premiers Conference as being impracticable. In 1937 assimilation was accepted as official government policy. Judith Wright, in a book entitled The Future of the Australian Aboriginal', wrote:

There has been evidence in recent years of Increasing consciousness of the right of Aboriginal Australians to a choice about the nature of the future that government policies are designing for them.

In 1965 at a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers it was stated:

The policy of assimilation seeks that all persons of Aboriginal descent will choose to attain a similar manner and standard of living to that of other Australians, and live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities and influenced by the same hopes and loyalties of other Australians.

Change from the assumption that our society is entitled to expect of Aborigines the supreme flattery of imitation has been very slow. After the referendum which brought the Commonwealth into the field of policy the then Prime Minister, the right honourable John Gorton, expressed a view which acknowledged that Aboriginal Australians may have different views about the pace at which assimilation is to take place but the objective remained unchanged and the conviction that Aborigines would, in due course, desire it is re-emphasised by the following statement by him:

Without destroying Aboriginal culture, we want to help our Aboriginals to become an integral part of the rest of the Australian people, we want the Aboriginals themselves to have a voice in the pace at which this process occurs.

At a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers in 1971 the right honourable William McMahon said:

We believe that Aborigines must be helped to take an increasing part in the management of their own affairs.

I would say that they were important changes in the stated philosophy and objectives of policy. I would also say that much remains to be done before the spirit expressed in the words of the 2 previous Prime Ministers and by the conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers in 1971 pervades the policy itself and effectively determines the pattern of programs undertaken. I would say further that well conceived programs designed by social scientists and administrators have failed because their clients, the Aborigines, have been involved only as passive recipients and, at most, have been invited to endorse programs already approved for them.

During the period between 1968 and 1973 the Commonwealth Government has recognised that persons of Aboriginal descent experience a number of disabilities in comparison with the rest of the community and that special measures are needed to overcome their disabilities, lt has been said that programs have been evolved which are designed to encourage and strengthen the capacity of persons of Aboriginal descent to manage their own affairs as individuals, groups and local communities to increase their economic independence and to reduce social and other handicaps facing them in health, housing and education. However, one wonders what programs, if any, have been evolved for the Aborigines. Allocations have been made by both the Commonwealth and the States for Aboriginal affairs. Between 1968 and 1973 a total of $170,478,000 was allocated. An amount of $89,326,000 has been allocated for the present financial year. A total of $259,804,000 has been allocated up to the present time for Aboriginal affairs. Of this amount a total of $79,360 has been allocated by the Commonwealth to the States for assistance since 1968.

With this kind of money being made available both by the Commonwealth and the States one would have thought that considerable improvement would have been evident in the Aboriginal way of life and that the aims and objects of previous governments with regard to health, education and housing would have resulted in greatly improved conditions over the last 5 years. It was therefore rather surprising and perturbing to read the report of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Bryant) on his first inspection of Aboriginal settlements. He found that 90 per cent of the Aboriginal community was living in a state of absolute acute social depression. He said that nobody knows how many houses are needed. He said that the majority were inadequately housed. He found the same thing applied to education in that only a handful of the Aborigines he reported on had reached the top classes in secondary schools. The Minister reported that 90 per cent of the Aborigines in some towns are unemployed and are living on unemployment benefit, social benefits and handouts. Most of the areas visited by the Minister were ones of devastating neglect, and disaster areas as far as health is concerned. He said that their tin shanties, their decayed and broken down homes and their lack of hygiene and sanita tion made him ashamed to think that they were the people who once roamed Australia as a proud race. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs I, together with other members of the Committee, followed in the wake of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and visited the towns of Dubbo, Bourke, Walgett, Mungindi and Moree. I support everything the Minister said with regard to the conditions under which the Aborigines in those areas are living.

One may therefore ask: Where has this large amount of money - the amount of $259m which has been provided by the Commonwealth and the States for the benefit of Aborigines - been spent? The honourable P. Howson, as the then Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, in a debate in Parliament on 14 September 1972 set out the number of organisations which had been set up to care for the welfare of the Aboriginal. There are approximately 160 organisations in Australia looking after Aborigines. I would say that the Aboriginal is very fortunate because each of those organisations presumably is really dedicated to doing its best for the interests of the Aborigines. But there are a lot of these organisations that I feel should be looked at a second time. It was only as a result of the passing of the referendum, and it will be only as a result of the passing of this legislation that the Commonwealth will have some say in the future with regard to the management and control of Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth. For instance, dealing with building, in New South Wales there are the Housing Commission of New South Wales, the Housing Funds Aboriginal Affairs, the Aboriginal Advancement Association, the Youth and Community Service and Aboriginal Affairs and the local government authorities all building houses in different ways and all making a mess of them. If the question of housing in New South Wales was left to the New South Wales Housing Commission, and a similar position applied in other States, a better job, a quicker job and a cheaper job would be carried out. Maintenance also would be attended to. That situation does not prevail with the present organisations. In Dubbo, Moree and Walgett I did not see a house that had ever had a paint brush put on it, in the way of maintenance, from the time it was completed.

I refer now to pre-school education. It is a vitally important matter for the children of Australia today. The Aboriginal child is just as important as the white child. When we travel through the north we find that there are church mission pre-schools, private preschool organisations, shire council pre-schools and Daughters of Charity pre-schools. I could mention another dozen or two organisations which are involved in pre-school education in different ways and which are not doing the child a bit of good. Possibly pre-school education in general should be taken over by the Education Department. Also I think the whole question of housing should be left to the New South Wales Housing Commission.

Health is very important, lt is vital that something be done in this field immediately. Hygiene and sanitation throughout Aobriginal settlements in New South Wales - I would say that the same applies in other States - just do not exist. Twenty-five per cent of Aboriginal children born today suffer from brain damage due to malnutrition. The general health of Aboriginal children is exceptionally low. I think that situation is related to the previous Administration which was in power for 23 years and had control of Aborigines. I wish to know where the tremendous amount of S250m has been spent. I think that, especially in New South Wales, consideration and examination should be the first priority for the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in order to find out what the 160 or more committees are doing. I am sure that the committees are doing the best job they possibly can. I am sure that they are working in the interests of the Aborigines. But I am sure that the committees need streamlining. They should be brought into order concerning the spending of money allocated by the Commonwealth.

The condition of housing generally is an utter disgrace. Houses, except those built by the Housing Commission, have never received maintenance attention from the day they were built. They lack doors and windows and roof timbers need to be replaced. In many places tin shanties with mud floors predominate. The purpose of the referendum of 1967 was that the Australian Government should assume responsibility for Aborigines. The Government's purpose now is to establish a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs with officers in each State. The Commonwealth will have a genuine presence in the States. I think it is about time that was done. One only has to be a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and to have a look at the conditions under which Aborigines are living at present to realise the importance of the Standing Committee.

As the Minister said, this Bill is aimed at expressing briefly the Australian Government's new responsibilities and, in particular, at facilitating the transfer of State officers to the Australian Public Service. The present system involves duplication between Australian and State authorities and leads to confusion. There is no need for me to emphasise that point. The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee has expressed a desire to transfer from the State sphere to the Commonwealth sphere. The Government seeks responsibility for policy planning and coordination. The Bill is purely one enabling the facilitation of transfers of State officers where there is agreement between the Australian Government and State governments. The sooner the provisions of this Bill can be brought into operation, Australian Government control established and some sense of sanity and goodness achieved for the Aborigines, the better. I commend the Bill.

Suggest corrections