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Bob Collins: Statehood, Reconciliation and Good Health

This Menzies School of Health Research Oration speech was given by Bob Collins, former ALP Senator for the Northern Territory.

Speech by Bob Collins to the Menzies School of Health Research.

On Oct. 3 this year a clear majority of Territorians did what many thought impossible – they voted NO to statehood. Commentators said it was like losing a vote on motherhood with support for the YES vote running at 70% – 80% in the main urban centres of the Territory.

I strongly question the basis of those assumptions. Support for statehood among many Territorians who think their lifestyle couldn’t be any better has never been that high. It is easy to get a 70% – 80% YES response to the simple question ‘Should the NT become a state?’. When it comes to more detailed consideration that level of support rapidly erodes. A vote of between 50% – 60% overall was a more likely result. I am certain that if the questions on statehood and the constitution had been put separately and the debate had been inclusive of concerns on process and the draft constitution this would have been achieved. Why wasn’t it?

A strategically important bloc of voters who would otherwise have supported statehood voted NO, ‘more in anger than in sorrow’ because of their strong reaction against the process followed. People felt excluded, alienated, ignored and patronised. They resented being expected to rubber stamp a pre-determined result or be characterised as ‘un-Territorian’. The Chief Minister himself was identified by many as the ‘chief culprit’ and there was a distinct ‘bringing the Chief Minister down a peg or three’ tone to the debate. There were a number of identifiable landmarks that led to defeat.

The Legislative Assembly Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee chaired by Steve Hatton recommended a democratically elected convention to draft a constitution for the new state. Not only was this rejected by the government, but in a crude political snub Hatton himself was rejected as a delegate to the appointed convention. The message was unmistakable. This double-whammy caused great anger and led to the formation of Territorians For Democratic Statehood. Under the public leadership of Steve Hatton, Colin McDonald, Peter McNab and others it successfully kept the controversy in the public domain.

At the Constitutional Convention itself a vitally important debate centred on separate questions being put on the draft constitution and statehood. I said in debate if the motion wasn’t carried I wanted nothing more to do with the exercise. The dominant bloc at the convention, rightly or wrongly identified with the government, strongly argued for a single question. The separate questions resolution was carried convincingly nonetheless. This made it virtually the only proposition the dominant bloc lost. When the government announced this clear decision of their own Convention had been rejected I was dismayed.

People who supported statehood were now being forced to vote against it in order to register a protest against the process and the draft constitution, a document that would have been re-drafted by the Federal Parliament in any case.

The Chief Minister in a fateful interview with Fred McCue on ABC radio said, ‘well, if people don’t like the constitution they can vote NO to statehood.’

They did.

In a post-poll statement he said the vote had been lost because of fears people had about losing existing speed limits and cracker night. Although this statement was greeted with some derision there was a strong element of truth in it. There is no doubt in my mind many urban voters, when it came right down to it wanted nothing to change. The contempt with which detractors were treated during the campaign was due largely to the unrealistically high estimate of the YES vote.

One additional factor dramatically reduced the level of support. Around 15% of the vote came from aboriginal Territorians who live in the Territory’s most isolated communities. It is beyond argument they are potentially affected by statehood to a greater degree than any group in the community. The ownership and management of Uluru and Kakadu National Parks, the fate of the NT Land Rights Act and therefore the security of tenure of their land are only a few of the issues involved.

No reasonable person will support a proposition they don’t understand. With only 5 weeks from the announcement of a referendum to polling day and with the issues completely submerged by the federal election, bush people were effectively excluded from any meaningful involvement in the debate. In the communities I visited in the week prior to polling day most people had not received the statehood material let alone read it. In addition the Land Councils in conjunction with TFDS ran a strong NO campaign at polling booths across the Territory. The result was an overwhelming rejection of the proposition from the bush.

In future this polarisation should not simply be accepted as “good-enough”. It was based I suspect on an attitude of ‘we don’t need their vote anyway’. It reinforced strong perceptions by aboriginal Territorians of being continually excluded from debates that vitally affect their interests. Perceptions of being powerless to be heard abound with a deep and long-standing distrust of the political process.

On the positive side of the debate information like the support of the Convention for the resolution moved by the Rev. Jinini Gondarra for the recognition of aboriginal law in the Constitution was unable to be widely known and understood for the same reason.

The way forward now is to get authoritative research completed as to why people voted the way they did and to publish the results, as uncomfortable as that might be for some. Without in any way criticising the doomed efforts of the Territory Legal and Constitutional Committee, the whole process is now seen as so flawed it needs a fresh credible approach to get the debate back on the rails.

The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is in a perfect position to do the Territory, indeed the nation, a considerable service on this issue. A reference on statehood is the very stuff for which the committee was established. I sounded out my then colleagues on the committee last year and received a very positive response to such a reference. The committee is in a position to conduct extensive public hearings in the Territory, access the best legal and other advice available and provide a report to the Federal Parliament which will have to finally determine the issue under Sect.124 of the Australian Constitution. I intend to lobby the Territory Senators and the Chair and members of the committee to adopt such a reference.

In order for anything to receive real support from people they need to feel part of the process and fully informed about the issues involved. It is important in achieving this for some effort to be made by the people in charge to see things from the perspective of the people not in charge.

Which brings me to reconciliation.

The Prime Minister in his first public statement after winning the last election said achieving reconciliation with indigenous Australians by the year 2000 would be a major goal of his new government. I applaud that commitment.

There is a consensus among aboriginal Australians and those supporting them, that an essential part of a meaningful process of reconciliation is an official apology from the government for the former policy of forcibly removing aboriginal children from their families. Of the many wrongs committed against aboriginal people this one is marked out, not simply because it was so profoundly wrong, but because many of its victims are still living Australians.

I listened to an interview on ABC radio with the newly appointed Minister for Reconciliation Phillip Ruddock MP and Fr. Frank ‘the turbulent priest’ Brennan in which the Minister continually referred to the ‘separated children’.

Fr. Brennan responded by urging the Minister to ‘hear the language being used by aborigines’. He said ‘if you occasionally used the words ‘stolen generations’ you may begin to understand why such a formal apology is necessary’. He went on to say that the federal government should make the apology, draw a line and move on in the same way the Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett had done.

The government has flatly refused to do so. Reconciliation is to be achieved apparently on the government’s terms alone. A variety of specious reasons have been offered for the refusal. The initial reason of possible legal consequences for compensation was quickly exposed as baseless and abandoned. The Deputy PM, Tim Fischer, in an astonishing statement said it was a matter only for the States, as the Commonwealth government had not been involved in the removal of children. He apparently hadn’t heard of the Northern Territory. But the most aggressive rejection has consistently come from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs himself.

In a letter to Fr. Frank Brennan the Minister said:

‘…. the government does not support an official national apology. Such an apology could imply that present generations are in some way responsible and accountable for the actions of earlier generations, actions that were sanctioned by the laws of the time, and that were believed to be in the best interests of the children concerned.’

The Minister went much further in a divisive and inflammatory interview with Helen McCabe published in the Herald-Sun on the 23rd of last month under the headline, ‘Herron vows he’ll never apologise’. He said, among other things, that ; ‘The apology is an attempt at blackmail and that has to be understood.’, that ; aborigines needed to achieve reconciliation among themselves first, because ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ aborigines held deeply seated hostilities toward each other and he included in this his own appointment as Chair of ATSIC, Gatjil Djerrkura. He then ran again the well-travelled red herring of ‘…. the churches were the main instrumentalities of doing this …..’.

To suggest that making an official apology for the misguided and morally wrong policies of past governments, implies personal responsibility by today’s Australians defies logic, but it has now become the standard government response.

The only implication I believe any reasonable person would place on such an apology would be – that it was an important public acknowledgment what happened was wrong, that it shouldn’t have happened and the nation as a whole is now sorry that it did.

The excuses of legality and good intentions are equally shallow. The proverbial road to hell is paved with one, and the crimes against humanity sanctioned by the other are too numerous to mention. But there is another problem as well. The Minister’s statement that the policy was grounded in the belief it was ‘in the best interests of the children concerned’ is yet another convenient re-write of Australian history. The formulators of the policy in the 1930’s no doubt would have evidenced their good intentions by arguing the complete removal of aborigines was in the interests of a racially pure white Australia, but the interests of the children themselves did not rate a mention.

In April, 1937 the first conference of Protectors of Aborigines was held in Canberra to discuss what was then referred to as ‘the half-caste problem.’ The aim of the conference was to formulate a common policy to deal with it. The fate of ‘full-blood’ aborigines at that time was considered sealed. The intellectual leader of the conference, the Protector of Aborigines from Western Australia, A.O. Neville told the conference, ‘The problem is one which will eventually solve itself …………………………. In my opinion, no matter what we do, they will eventually die out.’ In the meantime the government’s approach was ‘to smooth the dying pillow’.

The leaders of the conference, Neville and the Protector of Aborigines from the NT, Cecil Cook (a Commonwealth officer) were enthusiastic devotees of the pseudo-science of eugenics, which in the 1930’s was all the rage. Eugenics held there was such a thing as an identifiably ‘pure race’ which could be kept pure, in a positive way by breeding programmes, and in a negative way by eliminating the impurities.

Neville and Cook convinced the 1937 conference to adopt the policy that became known as ‘Assimilation’. At its heart was the forcible removal of part-aboriginal children from their families in order, to quote Cecil Cook ‘breed them white’.

The definition of the word ‘genocide’ in the OED is ‘the deliberate extermination of a race, nation’. I would ask those who aggressively reject this as a reasonable description of what was planned, chief among them the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, to consider the forthright explanation of the policy provided by one of its architects Cecil Cook:

“Generally by the 5th, but invariably by the 6th generation, all native characteristics of the Australian aborigines are eradicated. The problem of the half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white. The Australian native is the most easily assimilated race on earth, physically and mentally. The quickest way is to breed him out.”

Or perhaps the rhetorical question put to the conference by A.O. Neville ‘Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?’

A lecture on this still largely unknown passage of Australian history, ‘The Stolen Generations’ given by Robert Manne appeared in print in the January-February edition of Quadrant magazine. I will quote two paragraphs from it.

‘The key resolution of the conference called ‘the destiny of the race’ was unanimously endorsed. It called for the total absorption into the white community of all non-full-blood natives. Removing part-aboriginal children from their mothers and families was, of course, a vital part of the scheme for the realisation of this ambition.

If there exists a more terrible moment in the history of the twentieth-century Australian state than the Canberra conference of April 1937 I for one do not know where it is to be discovered.’

I agree.

Sir Ronald Wilson’s report ‘Bringing Them Home’ placed the facts, together with heart-breaking case histories of many lives damaged and destroyed directly in front of the government in May last year. It contained one of the clearest statements on the question of reconciliation, personal guilt, and responsibility I have seen by former High Court Justice and now Governor-General Sir William Deane, who said in August 1996:

‘It should, I think, be apparent to all well-meaning people that true reconciliation between the Australian nation and its indigenous people is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgment by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples. That is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel or acknowledge personal guilt. It is simply to assert our identity as a nation and the basic fact that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government ……’

Is it therefore reasonable for aboriginal people to expect public acknowledgment of the true origins of these policies from their political leaders instead of an active campaign of publicly misrepresenting them?

Yes it is.

Is it reasonable for aboriginal people to ask as part of any genuine process of reconciliation that the government formally acknowledge the truth of what happened, and on behalf of the nation officially apologise for it.

Yes it is.

Have many aboriginal Australians, particularly the victims and their families become even further demoralised, disheartened and depressed by the government’s refusal to do so?

Yes they have.

I cannot say it better than Robert Manne when he concluded his lecture with these words:

‘………….. the policy of child removal constitutes one of the most shameful, if not the most shameful episode in twentieth-century Australian history. That our government refuses to apologise to the victims of that policy now that the facts are known, seems to me to have deepened that shame.’

The government should be prepared to re-think its position on this issue. If it does not, I believe that its stated goal of reconciliation by the end of this century will not be achieved.

If it did, it would be a small but important step in addressing the stress suffered by so many aboriginal Australians from a generationally recurring sense of hopelessness, poor self-esteem, alienation, impoverishment and an acute understanding of their unequal position in Australian society.

Which brings me to good health.

I read with interest the results of research by a team of American researchers published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The paper was called ‘Socioeconomic Factors, Health Behaviours, and Mortality’. It contained no surprises, didn’t presume to be the whole answer, but re-enforced in an American context much of the research and experience gained in addressing the still appalling health outcomes of aboriginal Australians. It also re-enforced the perceptions of non-academic mugs like myself as to not only why this is so, but why it is likely to remain so for some time yet.

The researchers investigated the degree to which a number of well known behavioural risk factors (smoking, drinking, obesity etc.) explained the association between socioeconomic characteristics and all-cause mortality.

The researchers noted the impact of factors such as lack of self-esteem, loss of optimism, powerlessness and chronic and acute stress in life and work.

The researchers concluded:

‘The problem of lifestyle and mortality is not just one of inadequate education or income, and the problem of socioeconomic differentials in mortality is not just a problem of lifestyle choices. We must look to a broader range of explanatory risk factors, including structural elements of inequality in our society.’

I want to discuss one fundamental ‘structural element of inequality’ suffered by community based aboriginal people which in my experience, largely confined as it has been to communities in the Top End of the NT, has been a constant of the past thirty years and firmly remains so with the current generation of young aboriginal people.

It is a factor which continues to ensure that large numbers of community based aboriginal people remain unequal and unempowered, and have no real equality of access to the many advantages available in their own country. It ensures they are still in real terms dependant on outsiders for critical aspects of their own lives and the lives of their communities. It inhibits access to the resource of education in the broadest sense of that word; and it is education that is a vitally important contributor to sustainably better health outcomes and much else.

The structural inequality I’m talking about, is not possessing the important tool of being able to communicate effectively, confidently, and when necessary, aggressively in the English language.

I have spent most of the past two weeks in a region of the Territory where the local aboriginal community is faced with both a large number of problems and to this point largely unrealised opportunities. Every working hour of every day brought another experience that re-enforced my belief in the continuing contribution this issue makes to real aboriginal disadvantage.

I am not suggesting that correcting this problem is a ‘cure-all’ for the many complex difficulties facing aboriginal people and I know this audience will not draw that conclusion. An effective policy of actually providing resources consistent with the need for example, would significantly improve aboriginal health.

But – I know that whether you are talking about participating in deliberations on statehood for the Territory, addressing the tragedy contained in the pages of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report, or achieving better health outcomes, an effective command of the English language is a basic key to real empowerment, for anyone. I also know the depressing fact that most of the young aboriginal people who will soon be leaving the education system in the Territory this year still don’t have it.

Is it possible for aboriginal people to attain this skill while at the same time maintaining all aspects of their own culture, language and identity?

Yes, of course it is. I have had the privilege of counting as friends aboriginal people who have done just that.

The continuing problem is, they are the exception and not the rule.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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