Press "Enter" to skip to content

Malcolm Fraser: The Past We Need To Understand

This is the full text of the Fifth Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, presented by Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia.

Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, by Malcolm Fraser.

I acknowledge the Larrakia people who are the traditional owners of the land on which this University stands. I thank the representative of the Larrakia people, Mr Bill Risk for the welcome that has been expressed.

I also acknowledge the representatives of the Gurindji people, particularly those who have travelled a considerable distance to be here for this afternoon’s launch of the spectacular banner project which tonight forms the backdrop to this lecture which honours the memory of the great Gurindji elder, Vincent Lingiari.

I also take the opportunity to thank the Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation for the invitation to deliver this 5th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture and I acknowledge the continuing support of the Northern Territory University for this valuable historical lecture series.

I am also pleased tonight to acknowledge Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Chairman of the Northern Land Council, who delivered the third VLML, ‘We know These Things to be True’ in 1998.

The Gurindji’s fight for justice was a milestone in relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It was a start of the long road. We should all be grateful for the leadership that he and his people then gave.


Many of the things I say to you tonight will not be new to your ears. But I thought long and deeply about the thrust of this lecture. The governor-general, Sir William Deane, drew from his lecture “signposts” which pointed to a better situation in the future, “signposts” which indicated the world was changing. We would recognise that in some respects it changes too slowly.

In the second lecture, Gough Whitlam explored the reluctance of Parliaments to act in timely and effective ways. In the next two lectures, Galarrawuy Yunupingu and Patrick Dodson, in quiet but powerful terms, spoke of past injustices and of Aboriginal peoples’ appeal for a fairer world, for justice.

Their lectures were powerful not only for content and the latent passion which they contained, but also because of the moderation of the language, because of their recognition that they and those who recognise the justice of the cause, are fighting for outcomes which will make Australia a stronger and more credible nation.

Tonight my remarks are directed primarily to non-indigenous Australians. I recognise in particular the quarter of a million people who walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge, the 50,000 who marched in Brisbane, 55,000 who marched in Adelaide and the 20,000–25,000 who crossed the bridge in Hobart.

These marches, by far the largest and by far the most peaceful in Australian history, demonstrate an undercurrent of support, a strength of feeling, amongst Australians. With their feet they were saying they want to see justice done, they want to see the traditional Australian colloquial “fair go” truly applicable to all members of our society and in particular to those who represent the oldest inhabitants of this island continent.

An ongoing process

I would like to ask everyone who marched to go to one unbeliever and convince him or her that there must be greater change and that we do not want to wait too long before we see the most powerful foundations for reconciliation.

As many have recognised, reconciliation is not something that will happen on one day in one particular year. It is an ongoing process which involves both government and people. But as we close out the last millennium and begin the next, as we end the Commonwealth of Australia’s first 100 years and begin the next, it is more than a little sad that we have not yet in this year achieved a significant landmark which enables us to say:

From this point onward, reconciliation is assured. From this point onward we are building the reality of Australians united in a common purpose.

In the last half century there has been significant progress. The Referendum in 1967 was itself an overwhelming expression of Australian support for the dignity and participation of Australia’s indigenous population. Different governments and a succession of ministers in charge of indigenous affairs have sought to make progress, not all with equal success.

I can remember as Education Minister over 30 years ago, asking my Department to strain every nerve to find qualified Aboriginals who could teach Aboriginals in schools throughout the Northern Territory. There were a few but clearly not enough.

Today many Aboriginals have been successful in teaching and in all the professions but the more some succeed, the more it throws up the stark gulf between the generality of the Australian population and those who still live in camps in Third World conditions in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

So while we can recognise and be thankful for the successes, we must also recognise the failures and recommit ourselves to reconciliation, to make sure that all indigenous Australians can take charge of their own lives and share in the Australia we are trying to build. We must recognise that reconciliation involves matters of the spirit as well as matters of a practical nature.

Facing the past

I was in the Sydney Opera House when Mick Dodson gave his address at Corroboree 2000. He spoke of the reality of his lifetime and of the lifetime of people in that audience and of the reality of the archaic attitudes and racist thought that had dominated much of his experience, especially in his early life.

There are some who suggest that the darkest hours of Australian history belong to the remote past, something that may have happened in the nineteenth century, certainly not something that happened in our lifetime or in the lifetime of people whom we have known. Mick Dodson made it plain that that perception is incorrect.

Here let me appeal again to my fellow non-indigenous Australians.

It is hard to realise that the history we were taught of a great empty land being settled by brave explorers was largely false. It is hard for us to understand that the real history of Australia was quite different from that which we were taught as children. It might be harder still for some of us who have known people of influence and respect, who participated in policies which today we regard as outdated, barbarous, cruel and racist.

But that is the reality of non-indigenous Australians’ upbringing. It is something that all Australians, those whose parents or grandparents were born here and those who travelled across the seas from Europe or from Asia — from any part of the world to make their home in Australia — need to understand. Because, at the end of the day, the road of true reconciliation involves all of us. Reconciliation involves our capacity to face the past and accept its reality.


There is a document published by the Australian Archives. It contains photographs and documents relating to the removal of Aboriginal children of part-descent from their families and communities in the Northern Territory.

Whatever may have happened beforehand, it seems that the policy of separation was formalised around 1911–12. Baldwin Spencer, Chief Protector of Aboriginals over that period, made it plain that “no half-caste children should be allowed to remain in any native camp”. Baldwin Spencer apparently believed that because children of mixed race had some “white blood” they could be “civilised”. Areas were chosen, compounds established, for the purpose of removing children of mixed race, especially girls.

An Aboriginal Ordinance was established in 1912 which authorised the removal of any Aboriginal children from their families and communities. The policy was official. The Ordinance made it clear that the Chief Protector or his delegate had power to take any Aboriginal or mixed-race child into “protection”. It made it plain that any person who refused to co-operate in achieving this objective was guilty of an offence. In reality the policy was applied to children of mixed race and not to “full-blood” Aboriginals.

Separate provisions were contained in the Ordinance for children not being properly treated. In the general policy of removal, the quality of care provided by parents and communities was not relevant. The removal depended on race. That was in 1911.

There was a meeting of Aboriginal Protectors in Canberra in 1937 which seemed to be a major attempt to co-ordinate policy between the Commonwealth and the States.

The Aboriginal Protectors from Western Australia, Mr A.O. Neville and Dr C.E. Cook from the Northern Territory, led the conference. Neville made it plain that the Aboriginal problems were to be looked at on a long-term basis. He believed that, full-bloods would die out, therefore half-bloods, who had been strengthened by white genes, should be removed from the Aboriginal environment where they would forget language, history, culture, family, group and tribe.

This is not the Australia we love, it is not the Australia we want to remember.

Implementing a policy

Shortly before Christmas, in December 1949, Patrol Officer Evans reported certain incidents at Wave Hill. Part of his responsibility was to take young, mixed-race Aboriginal children away from their families. He recommended, because of the grief caused, that children should be left with their mothers at least until the age of six. He asked for the appointment of an itinerant female welfare worker to assist Aboriginal mothers whose children were taken away.

Patrol Officer Evans was clearly personally upset at the policies he was asked to implement. His report went to the Government Secretary, Mr Leydin. Leydin included Evans’ report in a note of his own to the Administrator.

In the report to the Administrator, Leydin wrote:

‘I cannot imagine any practice which is more likely to involve the Government in criticism for violation of the present day conception of “human rights”. Apart from that aspect of the matter, I go further and say that superficially, at least, it is difficult to imagine any practice which is more likely to outrage the feelings of the average observer.’

Leydin also wrote in his note to the Administrator: “If children, however, are to be forcibly taken from their mothers despite what Mr Evans calls ‘distressing scenes which he hopes never to experience again’ it is of the greatest importance that the Minister’s approval of such a policy can be readily stated, and further, that the administration of such policy can be shown to be just and considerate.”

He continued: “The Native Affairs Branch is however unable to procure such an approval, at least not readily.” In other words, at this point the administration in the Northern Territory had misplaced earlier Ministerial approval.

Leydin also drew attention to: “a further practice followed by the Native Affairs Branch which I believe should be referred to at this stage, and that is the apprehension of Aboriginals who are regarded as delinquents, and the despatch of them for specialised terms to a settlement maintained partly at least for that purpose.

“It is to be noted that Aboriginals are held in what is in effect ‘in custody’ in this way without any investigation by a properly constituted court. An Aboriginal may be sent, for instance, to Snake Bay, on the report of a Patrol Officer who may or may not be a properly informed, impartial person.”

Leydin, as Government Secretary, recommended that both practices cease until the policies had been considered by the Minister and approved.

In responding, Administrator Driver replied, indicating that, if Ministerial approval could not be found on the files, that he himself would put forward a policy to the Minister covering the removal of children.

Driver, however, saw nothing untoward in the policy of apprehending and sending “delinquent Aborigines” to a settlement, even though no charge had been made against them and no trial held. This was certainly in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to say nothing of our own laws.

‘Breeding-out’ aboriginality

The actions of Patrol Officer Evans and the subsequent comments by the Government Secretary Leydin indicate that outrage at the policy of removal was alive, even in 1950.

These incidents led to a lengthy note being put to Paul Hasluck as Minister early in 1952. Frank Wise at this time was Administrator. Wise had gone to considerable lengths to dress the policy in better clothes, trying to make sure in accordance with the conscience of the day, that it could be argued that the policy was reasonable and humane.

But the arguments put rested on a racist foundation. Aboriginals or part-Aboriginals were to be assimilated, mingled with whites and “bred-out”.

It is worth noting that in his notes to Hasluck, Frank Wise tentatively suggested that “a partly coloured person who remains in his native camp is said to be the cause of constant trouble”. Wise, a cautious man, did not put that statement in terms of his own belief. In this context the words “is said to be” are important. It is important because this became a significant justification for the policy of removal.

In 1928 J W Bleakley, Chief Protector of Aboriginals in Queensland, had recorded a different view. He wrote in a special report on the condition of Aboriginals in the Northern Territory “past experience has shown that the half-caste with few exceptions does not want to be separated from the blacks, in fact, is happier amongst his mothers people”.

That comment is also significant because Bleakley in his time was widely respected in Government circles. He was still in position when the 1937 conference was held between Aboriginal Protectors in Canberra. At that conference he had demonstrated greater concerns for the well-being of Aboriginals, especially of full-bloods, than other representatives.

Hasluck’s own handwriting notes his approval of the major policy recommendations, including the policy of removal, but he rejected the suggestion that there should be a minimum age of four, saying that it was better for the child to be removed at the youngest possible age.

The note made it clear that partly coloured children were to be removed “if the Director of Native Affairs thinks it necessary in the interests of the children”. And of course, because of the policy of the times, that was virtually automatic.

Best for the child?

Policy stated that children of mixed-race were to be removed under the assumption that it was best for the child, regardless of individual family circumstances. It would be interesting to know what Paul Hasluck thought of such policies in the 1970s when he was the Governor General.

The policy was plainly alive through the war years in Curtin’s and Chifley’s time. It was equally plainly operating through Menzies’ time and one of Menzies’ strongest ministers was in charge of the policy.

It is worth noting also from the archives that, in the early 1950s, there was beginning to be a little publicity decrying the policy of the federal government in relation to young Aboriginals.

I want to pause at this point because much of this represents the past that we have to face. We can’t say it happened beyond the memory of today’s Australians. We cannot say it happened in a past age. These events were continued after we and many other states had accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clearly the test of those “human rights” was not put against the policy of removal.

Today we find these policies abhorrent. They are totally outside our understanding and our belief in human rights. If we wish to advance the cause of human rights in Australia and internationally, we have to accept that that will only come through our own actions and through international instruments.

A Bill of Rights

Through much of my political life I accepted the view of noted lawyers, that our system of law, derived from Britain and the development of common law best protected the human rights of individuals. I now believe that our own system has so patently failed to protect the “rights” of Aboriginals that we should look once again at the establishment of a Bill of Rights in Australia.

The circumstances of Australia’s indigenous population provides a powerful argument for such a change. The need for an Australian Bill of Rights would be broadly based to guarantee basic rights to all individuals and minority groups.

While we reject the attitudes that led to these policies, we also need to have enough humility to recognise that our condemnation comes from a later stage in human development. It is a mark of how far Australia has travelled. It is a mark also of how far much of the world has travelled. All the more reason for today’s Australians officially to express their sorrow for what has happened.

We should note also that such attitudes and policies were already recognised as outdated and barbaric in 1952. A Patrol Officer charged with implementing the policies, a government secretary oversighting such policies, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protection for individuals within our own law, should have caused such policies to be abandoned. But they weren’t because they were regarded as essential for the policies of assimilation, which were designed to breed-out Aboriginals.

Australia is unfortunately divided on the appropriate response to these acts. There are those who prefer to forget that past and almost pretend it never happened. There are others who believe an honest apology on behalf of the nation is necessary and that we should follow Canada’s example and act with greater generosity and understanding of those terrible events.

The Canadian experience

While no two cases are strictly analogous, I believe the Canadian experience has more relevance for Australia than New Zealand or the United States.

In the years after the Referendum, Australian policies may have been regarded as more advanced, more sympathetic, than those of Canada. But in the last 20 years of the last century, Canada leapt ahead and has adopted policies and approaches which some people still don’t even want to think about in Australia.

They have made their apology.

As late as 1998, the Canadian government announced Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, designed to take Canada a significant further step forward. In particular, the Canadian government expressed regret for its role in the Residential Schools system which took children away from their family, community, culture and language.

In some respects the Residential Schools system had similarities with the removal of children in Australia. The Canadian statement makes it plain that no attempt at reconciliation can be complete without reference to those events.

The Canadian government at the same time committed $350 million for “community-based healing” as a first step to deal with the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools.

“It will be will be First Nations, Inuit and Metis people themselves, along with health and social professionals who will help in shaping support that is culturally sensitive and reflects experiences of different communities.” The Canadian Government is also negotiating compensation rather than forcing claims through its courts.

We can see from the nature of the Canadian statement that the Healing Fund will be spent on things that ought to be done anyway. It was the recognition and the response to the trauma and hurt that has made Canadian progress possible.

The Canadian government could, I suppose, have chosen to take a much harsher view of these events and to let those who had been aggrieved fight the issue through the courts. When I first read of the happenings in Darwin’s Federal Court and noted the statements made on behalf of the Commonwealth, I wondered what we had learnt.

The ‘stolen generation’ court case

But now, following the O’Loughlin judgment in Darwin in the Cubillo and Gunner case, the Government should alter its policy and avoid forcing more people to fight for justice through the courts. Unless it could be overturned on appeal, we know that under the discriminatory ordinances, it was then legal to take half-caste children from their families. We also know that the judgment said that the Commonwealth had not failed in its duty of care.

I believe that the Commonwealth’s “duty of care” should have extended not only to the act of taking the child away, but also to making sure that the conditions of the institution, the physical facilities, the teaching and the general management of the institution, were appropriate.

In that respect I do not believe the Commonwealth did meet its “duty of care”. Mr Justice O’Loughlin made it plain that he accepted the Gunner and Cubillo evidence concerning the treatment they had had at the institutions to which they were sent.

Unless the court’s decision can be reversed on appeal, any settlement which is to be lasting, which contributes to reconciliation, will have to be a political settlement. Thus the Commonwealth should seek alternative approaches, which would do much to advance reconciliation and overcome the injustices of the past.

There is another aspect which needs to be clearly understood. The cases have to be tried considering the law at the time. They cannot be tried under today’s law. If that were possible, which it is not, the Commonwealth would lose every case. The injustice done to individuals was substantial. So many were tragically and traumatically affected. Surely it is reason enough to shut the doors of the courts and solve the issues politically, which is what ought to happen.

On last reckoning about $11 million had already been spent on one case. How much will be spent on 2000 cases, or whatever the number might be?

And what damage is done in the process, forcing people to relive the tragedy of broken homes with the loss of family, culture, history and language? Aboriginals in these circumstances are being forced to reveal more of their lives than would occur in relation to other courts and other Australians.

A treaty?

Shortly after Corroboree 2000 where the Reconciliation Council laid out its blueprint for the future, Patrick Dodson made a speech which referred to the need for a treaty and many other things. This opened a door to a world for which Australia is unfortunately not yet ready.

The Canadians have learned to be comfortable, not alarmed, not frightened, not deterred by the use of terms such as “self-determination” and “self-government”. Even the term “treaty” does not frighten them or cause them to believe that Canada is any the less a nation.

Canadians of whatever background do not believe that their nation is divided, fragmented because they have started to come to terms with the problems of the Inuit, the Metis and the Indians.

I have seen copies of several agreements recently negotiated by the Canadian government with different groups. When the word ‘treaty’ was used in Australia it was clear from the immediate reaction, that politicians, journalists, commentators, editorialists were disturbed by the use of the word. Let us accept that that is the case, although we are perhaps a lesser nation for it. Is there a problem with the term “agreement”?

We already have agreements. The Northern Land Council has published a useful briefing paper on some of these aspects. It is worth recording that a number of agreements are already in place. There is one in Cape York, there are a number of registered agreements before the Native Title Tribunal.

Other agreements have been negotiated by Land Councils. The law and the mechanisms are already in place which will allow agreements in different regions to be pursued more vigorously. This is one possible way forward.

Self-determination and self-government

Let us look more closely however at words like self-determination and self-government. Non-indigenous Australians need to recognise that the overwhelming number of us have charge of our own lives in ways that many indigenous Australians do not.

We only have to look at the main differences in terms of life expectancy and health. The difference between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is great. Let me just quote from a letter sent in 1997 by Dr Keith Woollard, then President of the AMA and Prof Ian Ring of James Cook University, which was published in the Weekend Australian. They wrote:

“In just three short decades, the health status of Maoris has improved dramatically. This is in stark contrast to the health of indigenous Australians. In 1950 the life expectancy for Maori people was 15 years less than for non-Maoris. By 1992 the gap had been cut to just five years. In contrast, Aboriginal people die 16–20 years younger than the rest of the population.”

“Important factors in the improved health status of Maori people include: Maori control of health services; health service provision in a wider context of language, culture and social services; workforce development designed to close the training gap between Maoris and non-Maoris; Maoris receiving the same level of funding a non-Maori with similar health problems… Indigenous Australians receive a substantially lower level of health care services in many areas, despite being in greater need.”

Self-determination has always been a significant factor in improving the situation in New Zealand, as indeed it has in Canada. ‘Self-determination’ very largely means being able to have charge of their own life the way the rest of us can take charge of ours. So let’s forget about any fears or concerns about that word and accept it as reasonable.

Let us move to self-government. This does not relate to setting up a separate state. It doesn’t relate to establishing a separate sovereignty, to the division of this country. Aboriginal leaders have spoken overwhelmingly of their wish to contribute to Australia. They have not spoken of separation. Self-government can apply to running your school, running local community health centres and services, or perhaps a cultural association, matters which might in some cases be undertaken by local government. The Canadian experience is a positive one, it is not a frightening one. We should learn from other people, especially where their experience is so relevant to ours.

Two other aspects I would like to touch on: the role of the United Nations and the role of Government.

The United Nations

Two aspects are involved in the role of the United Nations. Australia committed itself to this organisation and all governments have been and remain committed to its success. Australians played a leading role in its formulation. We have a better record than many, including the United States, in acceding to its conventions and resolutions.

We have supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Did we mean it when we took these steps? Or were we trying to say “we ratified these instruments so that we can apply them to the rest of the world but they do not apply to Australia”?

The substance of human rights, in the international context, is that individuals or groups have a right to appeal if they wish to. No government has the right to deny that right. That is not to say that in all cases the United Nations committees will make universally acceptable or correct decisions, but it is important that a country such as Australia, whose only protection ultimately is a civilised world, support the United Nations rather than deride it.

One of the great dangers of today’s world is that the world’s one and only superpower has increasingly, over the last 10 years, said that the determinations of international bodies do not apply to them.

That perhaps is the greatest single threat to world stability and progress. It is overwhelmingly in our interest to assist the United Nations and its instrumentalities in establishing a rule of law which internationally can apply to the great and powerful, just as the rule of law can apply to the great and powerful within Australia.

Our activities in recent times have diminished Australia and damaged the United Nations.On both counts it is unfortunate.

The best course with United Nations bodies is full and open disclosure. Three years ago the rapporteur for the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was not allowed to come to Australia. The Committee was told that a visit would be inadvisable, unacceptable, inappropriate. Hardly the best way to get a good report.

I have read the comments contained in the report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. If those comments had been made by any person in Australia, the government would have had to regard them as reasoned and thoughtful. They were not offensive.

Australian government reaction

Governments can’t have it two ways. It is not rational to say that we live in a globalised world economy, that there is one world market place, that financial market places must be open and transparent from one country to another, and to reject the inevitable conclusion in relation to matters such as human rights and the environment.

Australia as a nation has taken a reasonably vigorous role in the promotion of human rights. We have often criticised other people. If we have presumed to believe that we have the right to do that, we cannot deny that right to others. We cannot say that international rules and norms which our governments of different complexions have accepted can only apply to others but not to ourselves.

In today’s world, Australia’s lack of progress in reconciliation greatly weakens our capacity to offer credible criticism of the record of other countries.

As a small nation in terms of power, our best protection is in a civilised world. Whatever its imperfections, we do not advance the cause of civilisation and of security and peace by condemning the instruments of international order.

In these matters there is clearly a fundamental concern because there are some Australians who reject the inevitable consequences of internationalisation. It is easy to say to our own people we are to be governed from Darwin or Canberra but not from the United Nations. Such views play, for some people, on a nerve that is too responsive to rejection of international law.

If governments take that approach, when we ourselves have accepted those international norms and have sought to apply them to other states whose human rights record we regard as imperfect, we cannot deny the application of such standards to Australia itself. Our response to such matters should be open and transparent. If we want to avoid criticism we should put our house in order.

If the treatment of the original inhabitants of Australia by the white settlers represents the darkest hour in Australian history, the rejection of what many Australians would regard as justified criticism of Australian policies by international institutions, in a way which puts jingoistic nationalism over and above the concept and ideal of human rights, is a step into the past which we should not have taken.

Let me speak to the role of government.

Role of government

There have been some suggestions that in the future reconciliation must become more and more a peoples movement. In one sense people have responded to that by marching with their feet. But in another sense, it is wrong. Issues of race are always the hardest to resolve, especially when the issue involves property.

They are most unlikely to be resolved by the initiative of citizens alone unless those citizens so hound their politicians that the politicians become frightened not to act. But that happens rarely. Fifty thousand people in Brisbane, 250,000 in Sydney, 55,000 in Adelaide and 20,000 in Hobart represent a good start, and governments should take note. This is an issue on which votes will change.

But it is the government that is informed; it is the government that is meant to have all the facts; it is the government that has resources, authority and power; and it is the government whose files contain the evidence of the past that today we condemn.

In a matter so critical to the future of society and the future of Australia, it is not reasonable to say the community must lead. The community and its actions are an important component. But it is the government that must be to the fore and persuade all Australians that we must act with greater expedition and with greater generosity. Government, if not this one, then another will set the pace.

Mandatory sentencing is one issue where only the government can act.

Mandatory sentencing

I understand both the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, have said that they are personally opposed to mandatory sentencing. If ever there was a case for the use of our External Affairs Power, it was surely in relation to a matter of “human rights” which affects in particular the condition of the indigenous minority.

The law, we know, was aimed primarily at indigenous Australians. The consequences of the law fall most heavily on indigenous Australians. It is extraordinary to give police a special “discretion” while that discretion is denied to the magistrates.

In a matter so sensitive, to deny the court the capacity to take into account all the circumstances of a case, is a basic denial of justice and an abrogation of our international treaty obligations.

We should recognise and accept the fact that the condition of young Aboriginals and their communities is, in significant measure, the consequence of past government policy. These underlying causes should be attacked and mandatory sentencing abolished.

I have not always agreed to the use of the Foreign Affairs Power. It is meant to apply if the action of a State is likely to cause dislocation in our relations with some other country or state. There are many occasions when the power has been used, when there was no chance of the action affecting our relations with another country or state, but in this case it could, in this case, it is relevant.

One might almost say this is the classic example of the purpose of the Foreign Affairs Power, but the government won’t use it and we know why. There is not even a clear expression of view from the Opposition and we know why.

People must act

Amidst the disappointments, which are substantial, we should not forget that substantial and material progress has and is being made. That it is not as much as we would want is not a reason to be disheartened.

Progress made is a reason to continue to use our powers of advocacy to convince governments that governments must act and, if government will not act, this is a matter on which people must act to secure a government that will. The dignity and self-esteem of Australia demand it.

The agenda in front of Australia relating to our indigenous people is a substantial one. While the issue of an official government apology has to be set aside for a while, it will re-emerge at a later point. Meanwhile, there is much to be done to lift the standards amongst the generality of Australia’s indigenous population.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation laid out its blueprint for the actions that should be taken at every level. It is important that governments negotiate with representatives of the Council seriously, that the responsibilities of the federal government, of the state governments and the Northern Territory and of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), all be spelt out in clear terms. It is important that benchmarks be set for achievement. If all of that’s to work there needs to be an independent review of the performance of each administrative authority, the federal and state governments and of ATSIC. Have they reached their benchmark, their signpost, or are they falling behind?

We should also ask Governments to recognise that the condition of many Aboriginals is, to a significant extent, a consequence of past policies of government.

There are clearly financial consequences. I have not argued the point in detail in this speech, but money has not been thrown at all aspects of the Aboriginal problems as many people believe. In too many cases, governments have been parsimonious and in relation to the need, funds have fallen far short.

There is a great deal to be done if all that is to be achieved before the [Reconciliation] Council disappears at the end of this year and a new foundation established.

As a consequence of the Stolen Generation, the government allocated some funds to help redress some part of the problems but very little of that money has been spent. It seems that the issue has not been taken seriously. We should borrow from Canada’s example and establish a “healing fund” that on a community basis would help to overcome some of the problems caused by the policies of separation.

We should seek to negotiate the issue of the Stolen Children and end the practice of seeking to justify unjustifiable policies through the courts.

Because the common law has failed to protect the rights of Aboriginals, the Bill of Rights for Australia should be promoted.

More should be done to promote regional agreements as a means of resolving outstanding regional issues and as a means of advancing what in Canada is called self-determination and self-government.

Greater respect should be shown for the instruments of the United Nations. On this issue the United Nations have not been unreasonable. They were doing their job, which Australia in relation to other countries has supported. The United Nations should not be condemned for its somewhat gentle criticism of Australia.

We need to recognise that many current problems are a consequence of past government action or inaction. The more we learn of the history, the more we understand this reality. Therefore it is incumbent on Government to lead and to do so with strength, determination and compassion.

We should use whatever powers of advocacy, whatever powers of persuasion we have to advance justice for Australia’s indigenous population.

If all of this could be advanced and achieved in a foreseeable time frame I believe Australia, as a nation, would benefit enormously. We would be a more credible and stronger people.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024