Aboriginal Representation In Parliament
ABORIGINAL REPRESENTATION IN PARLIAMENT
The Hon. FRANCA ARENA [2.30]: I move:
1. Being the oldest Parliament in Australia and in the State which saw the landing of Captain Cook, notes that as we approach the 21st century there has never been an indigenous member of the Parliament.
2. Notes that the New Zealand Parliament has had a number of dedicated Maori seats since the 19th century.
3. Requests the State Government to consider legislation to ensure that a number of dedicated Aboriginal seats be set aside so that the voice of the first Australians can be heard in this Parliament, the mother of all Parliaments in Australia.
4. Considers this action essential:
(a) to address the injustices suffered by the indigenous people over the last 200 years and as a method of empowering Aboriginal Australians to influence and have control over their own destinies; and
(b) given the indifference to all political parties in preselecting candidates of Aboriginal background for election to the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly.
The latter part of the motion talks about injustices suffered by indigenous Australians over the last 200 years. Since the first Europeans set foot on this continent the indigenous people of Australia have struggled for their own way of life. Physical survival was the first battle. The colonists treated the indigenous people as savages and with no more humanity than the convicts they brought with them. Thousands of natives were massacred as if they were nothing more than animals, and they were robbed of the land that had been theirs since time began.
During the entire history of colonisation there was never a single shred of formal recognition that the indigenous people had lived upon this land first. There were no treaties. There were no agreements. The land was taken by force. Robbed of their traditional hunting and gathering grounds the indigenous people fell victim to devastating famine and disease. To the white Europeans Australia was terra nullius, the land of no-one. This began a history of humiliation for the indigenous people. Terra nullius stripped them of their humanity. Their human rights were wiped clean as if their lives were written in chalk. This legal term, imported from England, was used to legitimise the driving of the native people from their land. To people whose lives were intimately connected with the land this spelt disaster. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs in New South Wales has officially recommended and released a text book for secondary and tertiary levels of education. The book is an historical account of Aboriginal life in New South Wales since colonisation, and is aptly named Survival. I read from page 57 of that book:
5. Calls for this legislation to be introduced as soon as possible after this important issue is debated in this House.
Although the book demonstrated that Australia has come to accept its history of savage treatment of its indigenous people, Australia is yet to accept many of the problems facing the indigenous people today. The past two centuries have constituted an uphill battle against this stigma as indigenous people have fought endlessly to regain their legitimate rights as human beings and to gain the respect and consideration owed to them as the original inhabitants of Australia. Their history is one of physical prejudice and is a symbol of humankind at its worst. Tolerance was sacrificed in favour of narrow-mindedness; human kindness gave way to the horrors of racial discrimination. In the Second World War Australians were shocked and horrified at the racial hatred that lay at the heart of Hitler's German empire. Australian soldiers gave their lives to defend the principle that democracy must hold high, that one human being possesses the same rights as another, and that skin colour is not the basis on which human rights are calculated.
More recently, racial hatred has been shown at its worst on the killing fields of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Tutsis and Hutus, and Serbs, Muslims and Croats have slaughtered one another on the basis of centuries-old conflict. Australia, as it should, has roundly condemned such action. The overpowering point I want to make is that the history of prejudice and racial discrimination is having its repercussion today. The indigenous people of Australia have suffered unspeakable horror at the hands of the white man - and they have survived. How they did that, I cannot tell. Through the strength of the innate pride in their culture the native people of Australia, the original guardians of this land, have resisted the overt attempts of the European colonists to destroy their way of life.
Now the question must be asked: after their harrowing ordeal of survival, what kind of Australia remained for the native people? It must be recognised that a century of overt racial discrimination has resulted in an Australian society in which indigenous people are still denied an effective means to control their own future and preserve their culture. This is a culture of a proud native people. Their spirituality lies at the heart of their existence. Their way of life is the essence of their being and their beliefs - yet another target of white narrow-mindedness. White society tried its hardest to assimilate indigenous people. It did not acknowledge their culture but forced them into the customs and practices of a European way of life. Aboriginal children were literally snatched from their mothers and raised in white society. Today we call such acts barbaric and unacceptable, but we tend to forget they were practised as late as 1969. Society literally took generations of Aborigines and attempted to purge them of their identity. They were placed in adoptive white homes or in children's homes. Many never saw
their parents again. It is a testament to the strength and the will of indigenous people that their way of life survives to this day at all. Our history is a damning record of intolerance and an object of national shame. If only our history could be expunged and described as an early and primitive stage of our growth as a nation towards maturity and acceptance - but its legacy survives today.
To some indigenous Australians good health is little more than a dream. They have little access to adequate medical services. They live in conditions that we would consider intolerable for ourselves, with very little or no sanitation, and they have a bad diet. Amnesty International has classified their existence as third world. Australia is an admirable supporter of human rights across the world, yet on our own soil our own citizens suffer. A report from the Australian Institute of Criminology about the overrepresentation of indigenous people in custody in Australia, released in August this year, contains some extremely disturbing points. First, an indigenous Australian is 13 times more likely to be in prison than his non-indigenous counterpart. If these trends continue, the number of indigenous people in prison can be projected to increase by almost 50 per cent by the year 2011. The report states:
Across the Blue Mountains martial law was declared in 1824. Aboriginals were hunted down everywhere. One leading landowner wanted the ground manured with Aboriginal bodies. Another massacred a whole tribal group, man, women and children, near Mudgee. The most humane and effective method was considered to treat them as an open enemy and let them have enough redcoats and bullets - for every man they murder, hunt them down and drop 10 of them.
I also have the interim report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, published in 1988. In its conclusion Commissioner Muirhead stated:
One cannot help but conclude that the principal causal factor of indigenous over-representation in prison is the generally low status of the indigenous community in Australia, both in socioeconomic terms and in terms of patterns of discrimination.
Aborigines, whilst far from being homogeneous, share a common anxiety to play a role in their own future, to seek restoration of self-esteem and fulfilment of their anxiety so that their children should have equal safety, status and opportunity in this country.
These two separate bodies - one an investigative commission, the other a research institute - agree about the causes of indigenous overrepresentation in our prisons. They are the low socioeconomic status of indigenous people as a whole and the patterns of discrimination levelled against them. Part of this discrimination takes the form of exclusion from the decision-making process. It must be remembered that this decision-making process significantly determines the substance of their lives. This is despite the apparent action by various governments, despite the millions of dollars of funding each year, despite land rights legislation, and despite Mabo. This problem has its roots in the first white person to set foot on Australian soil. Since the day the European colonists declared terra nullius and denied indigenous Australians their human rights, the indigenous battle has been to regain those rights.
It is not enough to have recognition that indigenous Australians are human beings after all and the equal of non-indigenous Australians. It must be recognised that the status and self-confidence of indigenous Australians have been weakened and degraded by 200 years of prejudice, to a point where this low status and lack of influence have become endemic and institutionalised. The report of the World Council of Churches entitled "Justice for Aboriginal Australians" recognised the situation quite clearly. It states on page 6, "Racism is entrenched in every level of Australian society." The interim report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody also quite lucidly perceives the cause of many Aboriginal problems. It states:
This will only be achieved when they are able to play an important part in the decisions which influence their daily lives, when they have opportunities to attain their own economic base and when they can play a real role in dealing with their immense social disadvantages.
They always speak about problems, as if the Aborigines, not the white people, are the problem. This challenges the notion of a fair and representative form of government. To the Aborigine it is not representative and neither is it fair. Since our belated referendum of 1967 in which the vote was given to indigenous Australians our political system has not proved capable of giving an indigenous Australian voice adequate representation in Parliament. The number of indigenous Australians to hold office in any Australian House of Parliament can be counted on one hand. There has never been an indigenous member of Parliament in New South Wales, the oldest parliament in Australia. This lack of political representation for our indigenous people highlights what is obviously an inequitable system of government in indigenous representation.
Nothing speaks louder than the simple fact that our track record on indigenous representation is appalling. The only indigenous Australian to have ever been elected to Federal Parliament was Senator Neville Bonner. Senator Bonner's experience shows two key aspects of our system of government and how it relates to indigenous people. First, the presence of indigenous members of Parliament can help provide an indigenous perspective and voice within the decision-making process. During his career, which spanned 10 years, Senator Bonner was appointed Chairman of both the Senate Select Committee on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory. His presence provided native insight into the decisions and recommendations made by those committees.
The second aspect is much more grim. Senator Bonner represented the Liberal Party and during his career he became more and more outspoken on Aboriginal issues. He also became more critical of the Queensland and Federal governments for their Aboriginal policies. In the end Senator Bonner was demoted on the Liberal Party ticket, which he considered was a direct result of his growing independence in Aboriginal affairs. The experience of
Senator Bonner, whilst highlighting the effectiveness of Aboriginal representation in Parliament, also displays the unwillingness of the Australian political system to take up the representation of indigenous citizens. As I have said, I firmly believe that it is necessary to give the opportunity to indigenous citizens to express the views of their communities through the channel of parliamentary representation.
Indigenous policy has been decided by governments in Australia since Federation in 1901, but, with the exception of Senator Neville Bonner, the indigenous voice has not been heard in this decision-making process. If permanent indigenous seats had been made available, the indigenous voice could have been heard at the centre of the decision-making process. If indigenous members of Parliament had been able to voice their concerns at the plight of their people, Australia would have acted earlier to recognise the suffering of indigenous people and put right a shameful history of wrongdoings. Would children have been kidnapped from their mothers and raised in white society if indigenous members of Parliament had been able to speak out against this practice? Would so many indigenous Australians be in prisons if the government had attempted to find solutions using the knowledge and input of indigenous members of Parliament who knew first-hand their people's culture and beliefs? Would the health of indigenous people have suffered so badly if indigenous members of Parliament had been able to talk of their people's plight in an open agenda? That is why I moved this motion.
In preparing this speech I looked briefly at overseas experiences. Countries that have made significant attempts to incorporate their indigenous people's need for representation into their system of government include Canada, the United States and New Zealand. The example and experience of New Zealand is the most relevant to Australia. The New Zealand political system has allowed for permanent Maori seats since 1867 - based on official and social recognition that the indigenous people of New Zealand possessed an inherent right to political representation. Accordingly, the Maori population has claimed four permanent seats in the Parliament for more than 100 years - a century during which the Australian indigenous population was deprived of any such recognition.
It is grim irony that in 1967, exactly 100 years after the Maori people were accorded their political representation, Australia finally awarded its indigenous people the most basic and fundamental right of a democratic society - the right to vote. The Maori had this right from well before the dawn of the twentieth century. The New Zealand example is in stark and vivid contrast to the way in which Australia has treated its indigenous people. That example is more than just facts and figures; it highlights the spirit of equality that the New Zealanders have fostered with the Maori. It is a reminder that all people in a democratic society have a right of representation in the political system that holds sway with their life and liberty. New Zealand recognised this in 1867, but Australia chose to extend that right to its indigenous people in a manner that - considering the belated referendum of 1967 - reeked more of granting a privilege than recognising a basic human right.
The provision of permanent Maori seats in the New Zealand Parliament ensures that the Maori voice is heard within the Chamber. It ensures that a Maori perspective is applied to parliamentary debate and, just as importantly, that that perspective is an effective component of governmental decision making. I recognise that there is some criticism of the New Zealand method of Maori representation. The most worthy criticism is that special Maori representation has proven a stumbling block to Maori political maturity and that, given time, the Maori would have shown themselves able to represent their people via the normal methods employed by other minority groups. I recognise that criticism, but it is important to note that the Maori are a strong political force in New Zealand today. Their special representation has not proven a hindrance to their people's claims; rather, it has granted them a stronger base upon which to represent them.
The special representation of the New Zealand Maori is symbolic of a greater understanding - that as the original inhabitants of the land, they deserved a guaranteed political status. This has not proven a burden to New Zealand; it has provided a framework through which both Maori and non-Maori alike can foster a greater understanding of each other's culture and an attitude of mutual respect. That is what is needed in this Chamber and in this Parliament - a real understanding of each other's culture and an attitude of mutual respect. That is extremely important. The facts speak for themselves: the Australian political system is far behind its neighbours in providing its indigenous people with a voice in Parliament.
Unlike the New Zealand Parliament, which has recognised the special status of its Maori population, Australian Parliaments have proved unyielding and inaccessible to the representation of indigenous Australian citizens. At present, New Zealand is currently undergoing a reform of its parliamentary system. Within the reform process there has been much debate about the manner in which the Maori population should be represented. What is being argued is the form of representation, not the concept of representation. That is an important point. The New Zealand people and the Parliament accept Maori representation without question. It has been part of their social and political heritage for more than a century. They are proud of their indigenous people, and a measure of that pride stems from their history of political association. In New Zealand special representation for the Maori does not mean that some people are more equal than others. It symbolises an equality that recognises special representation of an indigenous population as a sign of national maturity.
I cannot but wonder whether Australia's indigenous population would have continued to suffer, as it has to this day, if they had had the same avenues of parliamentary representation that the New Zealand
Maori were given. I believe that the political parties are guilty of neglecting their firm commitments to the wellbeing of all Australians. It is the responsibility of political parties to put forward candidates of indigenous backgrounds. Their role in allowing the indigenous voice to be heard is crucial. Australian political parties have represented many areas of our economic and social spectrum. Our community is colourful and diverse, and we rightly take pride in celebrating its differences. We represent our historical rural industries, business sectors and trade unions. We represent the Italians, the Greeks, the Lebanese and the Chinese in our community, and we are proud to do so.
But what about Australian Aborigines? Why have the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Australian Democrats and the Greens never made an effort to ensure that indigenous Australians have safe seats or a number of winnable positions on their upper House tickets? We are all guilty, and I make the point that Australian political parties must put forward candidates of indigenous background. Research in September this year by Gareth Griffith of the Parliamentary Library Research Service, in Briefing Paper 029/95, shows that indigenous voters often support particular political parties and that they are not necessarily influenced by the indigenous background of candidates. That is important. Most of them support the Labor Party, but the Labor Party has never done anything about their representation. I am ashamed of that. It is crucial that parties preselect indigenous candidates in order to give voters a chance to choose a candidate who not only represents their political beliefs but possesses an intimate knowledge of their cultural and spiritual beliefs.
The track record of Australian political parties in this respect is abominable. If the indigenous issue is to be properly addressed, parties must accept their commitment and responsibility in this matter. My own party, the Australian Labor Party - a party of great tradition that has celebrated its centenary - has always stood for the underdog. However, it has failed to put forward one candidate with an indigenous background for election to the Federal Parliament or any State Parliament. My views were echoed by the Hon. Mick Young, a former Special Minister of State, in a speech to the Fifth National Conference of Labor Lawyers in 1983 in Brisbane, when he said:
The deaths and the over-representation of Aborigines in our prisons and lock-ups are a consequence of history, of appalling neglect, of ignorance, and of traditional perceptions of ‘the Aboriginal problems' and the way they should be coped with.
The Hon. Mick Young is a wonderful person. I have great esteem for him. He was a great member of Parliament and a great party official. He had the power to do something but he never acted on it. I share the view of many respected authorities that the Australian political system must provide a voice through which indigenous Australians can impact on the process of decision making. Mr Justice Muirhead, Chief Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, said in his interim report:
It is also necessary for us to look seriously at giving Aboriginals representation in Federal Parliament. It is a matter of disgrace that the Labor Party has never sent an Aboriginal representative to National Parliament.
Gareth Nettheim, a lawyer and an author who has written extensively on indigenous political rights, states in Essays on the Mabo Decision:
. . . humanity and our country's reputation demand a vigorous approach and new initiatives . . . progress has been limited due in no small measure to inability to comprehend the Aboriginal perspective and by reluctance to accept the need for an essential value of Aboriginal participation in decisions and the implementation of systems which affect their lives.
This issue is summed up powerfully by Paul R. Wilson in the book Black Death White Hands:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to argue that they should regain powers of control over matters that concern their essential interests, and that "the consent of the natives" is a necessary prerequisite to decision-making on matters . . . that affect their peoples . . . The issue is one involving the legal/political relationship between indigenous peoples and the non-indigenous society.
This is indeed at the heart of the matter. I strongly believe that indigenous Australians have a right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. I also strongly believe that the current forms of political participation for indigenous Australians do not satisfactorily address the cultural and social issues that are the heart and soul of Australia's native people. It is clear from what I have said today that there is a strong demand from the indigenous community for a greater role in the making of decisions that affect their individual and community lives. I firmly believe that the provision of permanent seats in Parliament will grant our native people such a role and enable them to put forward an indigenous perspective on political issues. There is strong support for such action from a number of indigenous authorities. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission presented to the Government this year its report on native title social justice measures entitled "Recognition, Rights and Reforms". It states:
At the core of the debate on Aboriginal matters is the issue of power and powerlessness. The question is, who should have the power to decide where and how indigenous Australians live?
This same report goes on to officially recommend that seats be reserved in Parliament for indigenous Australians at both Commonwealth and State levels. Strong support for such a scheme also comes from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, a bipartisan movement dedicated towards reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The council released a report this year entitled "Going forward: Social Justice for the First Australians", which states on page 41:
An essential element in the inclusive involvement of indigenous Australians in Australian life is to provide opportunities for participation in mainstream political processes . . . The Mabo judgment provides recognition from the highest court in Australia that indigenous peoples occupy a unique and special place in Australia as the original inhabitants with unique rights as indigenous peoples . . . The indigenous peoples of Australia are a very special constituency, quite unlike other minorities, with unique interests and special claims to participation in Australia's political processes . . . A fundamental component in the recognition of Australia's indigenous peoples is to provide structures which will guarantee the inclusion of indigenous peoples in Governmental processes.
The council goes on to officially recommend:
During the consultation process, widespread discussion took place reflecting a view amongst indigenous communities and organisations that the structures of governments of the Commonwealth, States and Territories or municipal authorities do not provide adequately for indigenous peoples to exercise legal powers over matters that were of concern to them nor influence major decision-making processes . . . proposals were repeatedly raised that there should be guaranteed forms of political representation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People by the reservation of seats for them in the national, State and Territory and municipal political structures. In many instances, the . . . dedicated seats in New Zealand were cited as an appropriate model for Australia's national Parliament.
Why has this never been done? Perhaps because there are not enough indigenous Australians to vote for one political party or the other; not enough to make a difference, as do the Italian, Greek or Lebanese communities. What a sad situation! Father Frank Brennan, who has written extensively on the issue of social justice for the native people of Australia, discusses new forms of political representation in his book One Land, One Nation. Father Frank Brennan, who supports the notion of permanent indigenous seats in Parliament, states:
An element should be provided for an educational strategy on the possibility of separate indigenous seats, based on an indigenous electoral role, in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
In 1983 the then New South Wales Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Frank Walker, advocated changes to Federal and State electoral laws to give Aborigines greater parliamentary representation. He supported the creation of four Aboriginal electorates in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Thus the creation of permanent indigenous seats has been supported by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and by a New South Wales Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. This support leads me to conclude that the creation of permanent indigenous seats in this Parliament would positively increase the role of indigenous Australians in decision-making procedures and enable them to provide an indigenous perspective in debate.
It is noted that there is some criticism of such a form of representation, the most powerful aspect being that the practice of separate representation is seen as a stumbling block to political maturity for the minority involved. It is strange that only Aborigines are referred to. There has not been a stumbling block for the Italian, Greek, Lebanese or Chinese communities. I do not know why there are two ways of looking at this issue. This problem should be recognised, but in the face of the overwhelming and appalling body of evidence regarding Australia's indigenous people, that argument rings hollow. When Aboriginal children live in Third World conditions of poverty and neglect it is outrageous for people to sit back and praise the machinations of a pluralist democracy. When an indigenous person is 13 times more likely to be in gaol than a non-indigenous person, it is narrow-minded to assume that Australian indigenous people are an unlawful race.
It is not the fate or the obligation of indigenous people to become white. It is the challenge of Australian people as a whole to recognise the indigenous situation for precisely what it is. That situation is the plight of an indigenous population who wish to represent their own culture, their own people and their own values on what is their land as much as anybody else's. The criticism will be raised that awarding permanent seats in Parliament runs counter to the Australian ideal of a fair go where success is determined on merit. This point demands attention. This motion is not intended to create an opening for any minority to claim guaranteed political representation; rather, it addresses the special needs of Australia's indigenous people. Today in the parliamentary dining room I was discussing this motion with some of my colleagues who asked "Where will it stop? First we have the Aborigines, then we will have the Italians, then we will have the Chinese and then we will have the Vietnamese." That sort of smokescreen absolutely enrages me. We are talking about original Australians, not immigrants.
I repeat, the indigenous claim is unique. It is not a demand for a political handout, rather a demand for recognition that the result of oppression is a political climate where the needs of indigenous people are not satisfactorily recognised. In the words of Iris Marion Young, noted author of Policy and Group Differences: A Critique on the Ideal of Universal Citizenship, on the subject of positive discrimination, giving preference to a certain group entails an understanding that that group suffers today as a result of a history of discrimination and exclusion. That is exactly what it is. These groups suffer today as a result of a history of discrimination and exclusion.
New Zealand Maoris have possessed guaranteed political representation for more than 100 years, and to this day they are the only minority in that country to hold such a status. Though New Zealand has not had the great immigration program that Australia has had, its many migrants have not asked for or obtained any special representation. It is unique to the Maori people, and so it should be. Acknowledging special representation to indigenous people does not mean according such status to every minority group that demands it. What then is our justification for excluding our indigenous people from political representation? How ever we may choose to justify it, there can be no excuse.
The Australian political system is not properly geared to meet the demands of indigenous citizens for a stronger role in the decision-making process. The indigenous claim for political representation through permanent seats is a unique case for Australian society to consider. Indigenous Australians deserve special
representation because their position is exactly that - special. They were the original inhabitants of Australia and their land was taken from them by force. They were subjected to attitudes of racial discrimination that have conditioned society to such an extent today that it is only through special representation that the indigenous people will have any real say in decisions that affect their lives. I am embarrassed and ashamed at this situation.
The argument for permanent indigenous seats in this Parliament is strong, with support from a wide range of authorities. The bipartisan Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has officially recommended such action. Likewise, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is firmly in support of these measures. Further impetus has been urged from a diverse range of sources, such as Father Frank Brennan and the Institute of Criminology. The issue of permanent indigenous seats has been on the Aboriginal agenda since 1938. On Australia Day of that year, when white Australia celebrated the sesquicentenary of colonisation, indigenous Australia mourned the day of shame. Their request was clear: representation in the parliaments of Australia for indigenous people as a method of empowering them to influence and have control over their own destinies.
As a citizen of Australia, I feel no small degree of shame when I realise that overseas the indigenous citizens of New Zealand, the United States, Canada and other nations foster relationships with their respective governments that allow them a greater degree of control over their own destinies. Whether we accord our native peoples the same rights remains to be seen. In this Chamber today the strength of the principles on which Australia stands depends on this issue. In the words of Ovide Mercredi, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada in 1994, "We must move beyond the realm of the rhetorical. We can together decide to change the course of history by altering in a very fundamental way the relationships of our society." It is my hope and the hope of indigenous peoples everywhere that the day of shame might now, 50 years later, become a day of hope for every Australian who calls this sunburnt and beautiful country home. I take this opportunity to thank Holger McMaster, a student from the department of politics, University of New South Wales, who helped me with this research, and is present in the gallery.
The Hon. J. M. SAMIOS [3.16]: I speak on this very important and somewhat complex issue relating to representation in this Parliament of Aboriginal Australians. To date, after 200 years of modern settlement, there has been no representation of known Aboriginal Australians in this House. According to a briefing paper by Gareth Griffith, in 1991 indigenous Australians in New South Wales numbered approximately 239,000 Aboriginal people and 27,000 Torres Strait Islanders, 1.6 per cent of the total population. In 1991, indigenous peoples comprised between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of the population in all States. However, in the Northern Territory, 23 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. Still, two-thirds of the total indigenous population lived in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. About 32 per cent lived in rural areas compared with less than 15 per cent of all Australians. Among the Aboriginal population in 1991, 43 per cent of Aboriginal families with children had two Aboriginal parents while the remainder had either a non-Aboriginal mother or father. We do not seem to have the up-to-date figures on the languages, but in 1991 Aboriginal languages were spoken by 41,000 people. The national position is also very important, because the New South Wales situation in terms of representation tends to reflect the history of Aboriginal Australians in the national Parliament and in the other State parliaments throughout Australia with some modest variation.
As far as I am able to ascertain, Senator Bonner from Queensland - who was elected in 1971, then re-elected in 1974, 1975, 1980 and 1983 - is the only Aboriginal Australian endorsed by a political party to be elected to the Federal Parliament. Indeed, as the Hon. Franca Arena has said, Michael Young made reference to this. I will not quote his comments to the Fifth National Conference of Labor Lawyers in full, but he expressed his concern when he said, "It is a matter of disgrace that the Labor Party has never sent an Aboriginal representative to the national Parliament. This is especially so because of the almost total support the Aboriginals have given us in elections." Indeed, to be fair and non-partisan, the representation of Aboriginal Australians in our major political parties, or in any of our political parties, is a matter of grave concern.
As the research paper indicates, in 1981 Mr Ernie Bridge, a part-Aboriginal candidate in Western Australia, won the seat from the then Minister for Housing and was elected the member for Kimberley. A number of other Aboriginal Australians have endeavoured to secure election to Parliament. In the Northern Territory 5.59 per cent of the primary vote, but a higher figure among the Aboriginal voters, went to Mr Lanhupuy. In New South Wales Mr Burnum Burnum stood for the Senate and secured an impressive 10,524 primary votes considering, among other things, that he was the first Aboriginal Australian to take such a step, and bearing in mind any other difficulties he had to contend with.
It is patently obvious that on the national scene, as well as in New South Wales, we have to express concern at the recognition given to representation in the Parliament of Aboriginal Australians. After 200 years of modern settlement it is a matter of grave concern, particularly when one considers that we have made noticeable inroads in relation to our multicultural policies. We talk of the decision-making process reflecting the changing composition of Australian society today, and I think that is occurring. With 235 ethnic groups and over 100 languages spoken daily in Australia, and in Sydney 1.3 million people speaking a language other than English, the indications are that we are maturing as a multicultural society, reflecting the cultural diversity of 235 ethnic groups in the country.
However, as far as the political process is concerned, we cannot say that we are also reflecting the presence and the contribution of a race of Aboriginal Australians who have a history in excess of 40,000 years in Australia, the fifth continent. How do we address the problem? A number of options are available for consideration, including making a select number of seats available in the Parliament of New South Wales for Aboriginal Australians - an option raised by the Hon. Franca Arena and one that has support from others within the community. Some years ago a previous Minister of the Crown, the Hon. Frank Walker, backed that suggestion. More recently, in an article written by Deborah Jopson in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1 August, Father Frank Brennan, the architect of the Federal Government's native title legislation, called for Australians to consider changing the Constitution to guarantee seats for four indigenous senators.
The thrust of the appointment of senators was also reflected in the comments of the Hon. Frank Walker, albeit that he proposed lower House representation. This is a very important issue because the option of guaranteeing seats for four indigenous senators may be considered by many Australians to be a two-edged option. Some would voice their concern that in the long term it may be restrictive. The other option reflected early on and reported in the Canberra Times was that the National Aboriginal Conference, at its meeting held in 1983, was interested in supporting an Aboriginal political party. The thrust of such a move would be to provide political mobility for Aboriginal Australians through the existing political system, rather than through a guaranteed number of seats in the State Parliament.
Such an issue needs to be canvassed at length and scrutinised because ultimately we are all concerned with the one thing: the wellbeing of the people of Australia whose history, in some instances, goes back more than 40,000 years; but whose history in other instances may relate only to their arrival in Australia last year from overseas. Participation is the essence of democracy, and that has been said many times. Unless all Australians can truly participate in the democratic process, and that is at the decision-making level, there is a clog in the working of the democracy.
As the Hon. Franca Arena said, clearly there has been an acute clog in the working of the system over the last 200 years concerning Aboriginal people. If we address the question in depth, we should refer to the recommendations in A Report of the National Multicultural Advisory Council entitled "Multicultural Australia The Next Steps Towards and Beyond 2000". Recommendation 13 in that report states:
Aborigines have often been excluded from the political process. This exclusion has now had to be replaced by participation and negotiation . . . Maybe the time is coming when we could look at guaranteed representation of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders within the Australian Senate . . . The major political parties would then have an interest in dealing with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders so as to seek party endorsement of strong candidates for these seats.
The council recommends that this complex issue be addressed appropriately and correctly by a select committee of the Parliament. Partly because of the argument couched in that recommendation I should like to move an amendment to the motion of the Hon. Franca Arena as follows:
The Council recommends that a Select Committee of Parliament be established to consider options for achieving greater representation of Australia's indigenous peoples in Parliament. In this context, the Council was cognisant of the proposal by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation for further consultation and discussion on the feasibility of reserving seats in Parliament for indigenous peoples.
That the question be amended by omitting paragraph 5 and inserting instead:
That will provide members with the opportunity to fully canvass this important issue, which is overdue and should have been addressed in depth a long time ago. If my amendment is accepted, I hope the Parliament will benefit in the not too distant future with the outcome of considered and wise deliberations on this important issue that can only benefit the social cohesion and wellbeing of the people of New South Wales and Australia.
The Hon. HELEN SHAM-HO [3.33]: It gives me enormous pleasure to contribute to this very important motion of the Hon. Franca Arena. I commend the honourable member for her important contribution. I support also the amendment moved by the Hon. J. M. Samios. As a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation I am very proud that the council has made these recommendations. However, it is not quite correct for the Hon. Franca Arena to say that the council has actually recommended a seat in Parliament be allocated for Aboriginal representation. I should like to quote the relevant recommendation to enable it to become part of the record. In recommendation 15 the main thing the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation recommended was as follows:
5. Refers the provision of legislation for dedicated Aboriginal seats in the Parliament of New South Wales to the Standing Committee on Social Issues for inquiry and report.
In recommendation 16, the council said:
In any consultation process, an element should be provided for an educational strategy on the possibility of separate indigenous seats, based on an indigenous electoral roll, in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
Undertaking a referendum and divisive political campaign would damage the reconciliation process. These recommendations firmly support the amendment of the Hon. J. M. Samios. The matter is complex and raises moral issues that would arouse support for and against. Allocating a seat in Parliament predicated on the idea that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders occupy an historically unique position within Australian politics would be a guaranteed presence of the indigenous people. We are a democracy and the inclusion of Aboriginal people in our Parliament is very important. The significance goes beyond political representation: it symbolises the recognition of the political right of these people, and the political and legal unity of the nation.
Australia is multicultural and it should be reflective of all people. The Hon. Franca Arena mentioned injustice and disadvantages that Aboriginal people have suffered over the past 200 years. No doubt they are the most economically and socially disadvantaged group in Australian society. I should
like to quote some figures of the Australian Bureau of Statistics obtained from the results of the 1991 census. The result of that census showed that two-thirds of Aboriginal adults had income under $12,000 per year compared with 45 per cent for other Australians. The unemployment figure at 31 per cent is three times higher amongst indigenous Australians than non-indigenous Australians, which stand at 12 per cent.
Being the devil's advocate I ask: will allocating positions in the Parliament rectify any of these social justice issues? The question is not whether Aboriginal people should be represented in Parliament and the political process. Of course they should and I encourage any Aboriginal person to be a representative in the political process that they are part of. But the question is: what form of representation should that be and how do we go about it? There are many arguments against it. The motion to have reserved seats in Parliament is a form of positive discrimination; it is tokenistic and divisive.
Such a proposal could imply that Aboriginal people cannot exist on their merits. To suggest that Aboriginal people cannot achieve this status without special help is condescension. The bill will result in other minority groups working to achieve similar provisions, and worse. The Hon. J. M. Samios and the Hon. Franca Arena have both said that various minority groups would ask to be given the advantage of such provisions. I do not think special provisions aimed at overcoming the barriers and prejudices that stand in the way of Aboriginal political participation will remove them. Aboriginal people have had full membership of our society since the referendum in 1967, and they should be able to participate in it.
I take myself as an example of how a person from a minority group can gain representation through education, skills, experience, and involvement in the political process. I have learned how to do that. However, that might not be so easy for Aboriginal people because of their cultural differences and the injustices and disadvantage they have suffered. One argument is that it is undemocratic to reserve seats for a particular group. Protection of minority interests should be the responsibility of members of Parliament as a whole and not just the responsibility of representatives who belong to a minority group. This proposal is erosive of the underlying principles of our representative democracy. It offers no guarantee that the Aboriginal voice will be heard, as other members might not feel the need to be so concerned with Aboriginal affairs. This will drive Aboriginal affairs into some type of political ghetto.
Although of Chinese descent, I hope people regard me as a member of Parliament who represents all interests in New South Wales. Adoption of a system of dedicated indigenous seats in the Parliament would not be likely to make any significant difference to the basic issue that determines Australia's national political landscape - who forms the government of the nation. Recent electoral history has shown that in New South Wales establishment of extra seats dedicated to any group in either House of Parliament could have a profound effect. The recommendation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation does not call for immediate legislation, as does the motion moved by the Hon. Franca Arena. The council recommends a process of consultation and education.
The bill is backed also by the National Multicultural Advisory Council, which recommends that a parliamentary select committee be set up to examine the options of reserved seats and to commence further discussion and consultation. That recommendation is similar to the amendment moved by the Hon. J. M. Samios. Consultation and wider debate are essential. A change in parliamentary representation should not be imposed on the people of this State without a thorough debate in the community and especially within the Aboriginal community itself. I support wholeheartedly the proposal that a parliamentary committee consider this issue. I endorse much of the sentiment expressed by the Hon. Franca Arena and my colleague the Hon. J. M. Samios. I hope that this House will see fit to adopt the recommendation. I, as a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, would be grateful to be able to make a greater contribution in this House in that regard.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER [3.46]: I support the amendment, which will refer this important question to the Standing Committee on Social Issues. I wish to put forward a more accurate record of the National Party view on Aboriginal candidacy. The New South Wales Country Party was responsible for the establishment of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. The CLP holds office in the Territory and forms by far the longest-running government in this country, headed by Chief Minister Shane Stone. Shane Stone has progressive views on matters pertaining to the status of Aborigines in the Territory. Recently an Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory Assembly attracted much publicity and rose to prominence during the euthanasia debate because he supported Mr Marshall Perron's bill. However, that member recently resigned, and a campaign is under way for his Arnhem seat. The Country Liberal Party has endorsed two Aboriginal candidates to try to win Arnhem, and a very proactive campaign is being run to make sure that the seat is won by a CLP Aboriginal. Over the years at least nine other Aboriginal candidates have been endorsed by the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, including Mr Hyacinth Tungatalum, the member for Tiwi Island in the 1970s.
In Queensland, Mr Erik Deeral, an indigenous Australian and a member of the Queensland Liberal Party, was the member for Cook from 1974 to 1977. When he ceased to be the member for Cook, the National Party endorsed, at successive elections in 1986 and 1989, two other Aboriginal candidates to attempt to retain the National Party's position in that seat. The New South Wales National Party was delighted to have endorsed Len Roberts, a part-Aboriginal candidate, in both the 1991 and 1995 elections in New South Wales. Mr Roberts, who
hails from Port Stephens, is a very active and valuable party member not only as a candidate but also as a member of the governing body, the central council of the National Party in New South Wales. I want to cancel out any suggestion that National Party members are indifferent to this important subject. They do not necessarily agree with the proposal of the Hon. Franca Arena, but they are happy for the matter to be referred to the standing committee.
The Hon. FRANCA ARENA [3.49], in reply: I sincerely thank the honourable members who contributed in the debate. The Hon. J. M. Samios has an excellent record on defending the rights of minorities. I thank him for his implicit support for the thrust of my motion; he made some excellent points. The Hon. Helen Sham-Ho is a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. She is well aware of the issue and has a deep knowledge of the Aboriginal situation. I think of her as a Chinese Australian, although she wants to be known as an Australian. She is well suited to represent the newer communities through this council, and I am sure she makes an excellent contribution. I thank the Hon. Jennifer Gardiner for the points she raised. I was pleased to hear about the record of the National Party, especially in the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, in New South Wales it is not the candidates that count but the people who are elected. For instance, the Australian Democrats have candidates from non-English speaking backgrounds in most constituencies for most elections. However, those seats are impossible to win. Seats in the Senate or in the upper House do not extend to other minorities. We need people in winnable positions, whether in the upper House or in the Senate.
This important issue has been raised many times but somehow always seems to fall down and nobody takes any notice. It is important that people take notice. I hope the media will take notice and start people thinking about the injustice of the situation. This country has always been proud of having representative parliamentary democracy, and honourable members should work together to rectify the situation in which a group has been excluded for so long from political power. I thank the Hon. J. M. Samios for his amendment. The Government is happy to accept it and to refer the issue to the Standing Committee on Social Issues. Aborigines will be able to attend public hearings and put their points of view. It is an excellent suggestion, which I am very happy to accept. I again thank all honourable members who participated in the debate.
Amendment agreed to.
Motion as amended agreed to.
It would be better not to proceed with a referendum, unless there is broad support for the concept.