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Wednesday, 10 October 1973
Page: 1844

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Housing and Minister for Works) - The right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) has paid a worthy tribute to my colleague, the honourable member for Wills (Mr Bryant). I was pleased to see the right honourable gentleman put it in such a practical way. I recall talking to an Aboriginal in a hotel in the Northern Territory and asking him what he thought about assimilation versus integration and he said: 'Are they starters in the Melbourne Cup, boss?' I think that very often we can become highfaluting and get well away from the attitudes, concepts and aspirations of the Aboriginal people. Although that can be said about a lot of people no one can say it in regard to the Minister for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr Bryant), the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

The right honourable member for Higgins made some passing reference - an innuendo if you like - about something that might have happened. He referred to people bypassing Ministers and going from departments to Prime Ministers. I think that we ought to be very wary of a consideration of this kind. I feel quite certain that the right honourable gentleman who himself has been the victim of innuendo, insinuation-

Mr Hunt - Back stabbing.

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Back stabbing, snide vilification and open vilification would be in the vanguard of those who would criticise people who tend to exploit that kind of unfounded contention. That is all we can say about it.

Mr Hamer - Is it unfounded?

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honourable member for Isaacs asks: 'Is it unfounded?' I say to him: 'Is it founded?' If it is not founded, then I say do not go on with this pursuance of an hypothetical innuendo of the type we all disparage. There is not a long tune in this debate to say whatever is to be said. I have made a number of speeches on Aboriginal Affairs over the years and I do not intend to do this today. What I do want to say is this: After the eulogistic comments that have been made about the honourable member for Wills in respect of the administration of the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs all we can say is that obviously he is a godsend to the Australian Capital Territory. There are great problems in the Australian Capital Territory - of course, not as many as there used to be, thanks to the Minister recently retired from that portfolio - but, having heard the unanimity with which the praise has been heaped on our colleague, the honourable member for Wills, we recognise the fact that he has another great challenge right at his fingertips. He is going from one challenge to another and he is obviously virtuous enough to make a very great advancement on the good work already achieved in the Australian Capital Territory by the honourable member for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr Enderby).

I have been associated with the honourable member for Wills in the matter of Aboriginal affairs for a long time - in fact, since 1965. I shared an office with him for 11 years and during those years we shared our office with many Aboriginal people. The honourable member for Wills was the first member of Parliament genuinely to relate to the Aboriginal community. Prior to coming here, he was the President of the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League. He has been an officer of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Affairs and Torres Strait Islanders. While honourable members were away on their recreation over Easter periods, he was stacked up at conferences with Aboriginal people in many parts of Australia. There is no question about it: His interest has been in what all of us readily would concede is one of the most controversial fields of sociological endeavour Australia has ever known. In other words, no matter what one says or does in this field, one cannot win with very many people. The honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt), who was previously a Minister in this area, certainly knows what I am talking about. In the face of all this, the honourable member for Wills has not worried much about public reaction. His attitude has been such that the interests of the Aboriginal people themselves have been paramount in all of his endeavours.

I know that when I had a message the other day that the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) was going to talk to me about changing portfolios, my whole body quivered at the thought which ran through my mind that he might be inviting me to become the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and I felt relieved when I heard what it was really all about. The problems of Aboriginal affairs are enormous and complex. There have been times when I have wondered what one would do if one had responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. I know the attitude of the honourable member for Wills. He has a burning obsession about the indifference with which Aboriginal people have been treated. He talks about their communities as being representative of the inadequacies produced by indifference. He will tell you about the communities that do not have all or any of the things that we take for granted. There are no roads, footpaths, kerbing and guttering, and no garbage, sanitary or water services.

Mr Hunt - No telephone.

Mir LES JOHNSON - Even no telephone and, often, there are no nurses or doctors, a decent school or anything of that kind. The honourable member for Wills believes that it is time to sweep away that indifference.

The honourable member for Wills is an expensive and an impetuous Minister in the sense that he wants money to get on with the job and he wants to do it at first hand. That can be a virtue; it can be a shortcoming. Frankly, my approach to Aboriginal affairs would be that I would exploit and try to use every department. I would use the Education Department to create an assault against the inadequacies of opportunities existing in that area. I would use the Department of Health. When there is an incidence of child mortality that is 20 times higher than that for comparable European communities, there is a need to bring every possible health resource to bear on the problem - not just in the hospitals but in the treatment and provision of sewerage systems, water supplies and things of that kind.

I remember in an inquiry about the Alice Springs hospital people talking about the high mortality rate among Aboriginal infant children, and the Committee being given an account of a nurse going out into the area and finding an undernourished Aboriginal mother who would be given advice about taking her child off breast feeding and putting it on to the bottle. But what does a bottle mean in that situation - a situation where there is no refrigerator? They get the bottle and the dog has a go at it and the flies have a go at it and disease is the result of this bastardised situation. A position has been created where Aboriginal people have been cast into a twilight zone, between a nomadic system on the one hand and a European system on the other. This is the enormity of the problem; it is characteristic of it. We need all the resources of the Department of Health and the Education Department in this area.

Housing is another great problem. I went to the Torres Strait Islands the other week and they told me that they needed 200 houses. It costs $20,000 to provide a house in the Torres Strait Islands so it would cost $4m to provide that number of houses. I understand that the previous Minister contends that 25,000 houses are needed in areas where Aboriginal people live. At $20,000 for each house, 25,000 houses would cost no less than $500m. This is the state of the nation from an Aboriginal housing point of view and this man - the honourable member for Wills - is the man who knows all about the problem. No wonder he is impatient and impulsive and wanting to get on with the job. Despite the competency of the Public Service, he does not believe that it is effective enough. Of course, it is not effective enough, nor is the Government nor the country at large effective enough. All of us can understand the tremendous dilemma that he has been in.

I believe that the honourable member for Wills characterised his administration by leaving behind him among the Aboriginal people a sense of self-motivation. He has generated in them a feeling of pride that they can go on to do worthwhile things. My own attitude has been that there might have been a tendency over the last few years to develop national organisations before we have properly regionalised. I think the Aboriginal people themselves should not have our system imposed upon them except to the extent that their own attitudes and ours blend together in enabling a regional system to develop so that attitudes can permeate through and from them. That should have happened.

However, I believe that the Minister is deserving of a tribute for the work that he has done and I know that everyone in this Committee would like to extend good wishes for the future. I told him that it was my intention to say that he believes great tribute is due to the officers of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for their dedication and he told me that if I said that, I would be saying it with his warm-hearted approval and complete acquiescence. I hope that the honourable member for Wills will go on in his new portfolio to demonstate again the great compassion and a sense of humanity and administrative skill that he has.

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