Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Statements by Senators

Indigenous Australians

1:27 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to thank my colleague Malarndirri McCarthy for attempting to put the humanity to human beings who otherwise would be numbers on a file. Two weeks ago we observed National Reconciliation Week, but the sad reality, then and now, is that our nation is far from reconciled. Just remember what we witnessed only a fortnight ago. In my home state of Western Australia, a sacred Aboriginal heritage site of world significance was destroyed, followed by an insincere apology by the company; the High Court ruled that the tear gassing of teenagers in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin was unlawful; and Black Lives Matter protests erupted here and around the world.

Fuelling the protests was the dreadful realisation that, since the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, nearly 440 Aboriginal people have died in custody. Without answers, this breeds fear of foul play being at work. I was one of the six royal commissioners back then, but our report did not support the initial expectation of foul play. A death in custody does not, as a fact, impute guilt or culpability to the officers in attendance or to the institution per se. It does raise the question of what happened when the death occurred and why the person came to be in custody.

The then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Robert Tickner, tabled our report in May 1991 and noted that the most significant contributor to incarceration was the disadvantage of Aboriginal people in every way, whether socially, economically or culturally. Mr Tickner told the parliament, and the report highlighted:

The dispossession and subordination within a dominant and often hostile society frequently motivated self-interest, the development of racist attitudes both overt and hidden and the way in which these attitudes became institutionalised in the very practices of legal, educational, welfare and Aboriginal assistance authorities.

The fact that hundreds of Aboriginal persons have died in custody since the royal commission diminishes us all as a nation. We must ask ourselves: What are the common themes that drive this continuing subjugation of First Nations? What are the underlying factors through which First Nations people have become destabilised, disempowered and dispossessed? And why have our good intentions and resolve failed to make any difference?

There is no pride in seeing First Nations people so reduced by societal factors from within and without that they are perceived as exceptional recipients of government largesse, not worthy of restorative justice and denied true equality of opportunity in our society. Why is it so difficult for the descendants of the settler and colonist to have the necessary discussion about uncomfortable truths? The First Nations know the shortfalls in their societies and have been trying to address them for some time, but they will not advance without true partnership and change. Incarceration and out-of-home care for children present questions of moral, ethical and legal substance that go to the heart of our willingness to deal with our relationship and understanding of each other. Deaths in custody is not just about policing and incarceration rates; it goes to the legacy of dispossession and disempowering of First Nations. Subjugation goes to the point of interaction of First Nations and mainstream society manifested in our schools, workplaces, shops, hospitals, real estate agencies and in other places. It is also embedded in the institutions that administer the many services and often in our public institutions. It's in our Constitution. Mr Menzies recognised that in relation to section 51(xxvi), the race power. That is why First Nations want a voice to parliament and at regional and local levels: to stop the subjugation.

Australian racism explains the deep distrust felt by First Nations people towards our institutions and agendas of assimilation and adoption of those. It explains why we are not surprised, but are still outraged, when First Nations people are locked up behind bars, even if they are responsible for breaking the law. Systematically, First Nations people have been treated as inferior and deficient and tolerated through condescension. This has brought subjugation, destabilisation and disempowerment in order for those of non-Indigenous society to remain confident in their positions of privilege and power.

The royal commission report identified the impact of that exclusion. Commissioner Elliott Johnston, the esteemed Queens Counsel, wrote back then:

… he had no real idea of the degree of "pinpricking domination, abuse of personal power, utter paternalism, open contempt and total indifference" which confronted Aboriginal people in their everyday lives, with no personal control over one's own children, one's employment, personal savings and decisions as to whether to buy a car or other personal belongings.

Commissioner Johnston pointed out:

… communities—

then were—

faced with a multiplicity of grants which effectively mean that agendas are being set elsewhere, that assumptions as to what is best for Aboriginal people are made elsewhere.

That was 30 years ago. What's changed in the decades since? I say that if there's been any change it's been for the worse. Maybe with the Aboriginal peak organisations at the table these days we'll get institutional change. Thirty years on, we are all still optimistic.

First Nations peoples have never ceded their sovereign claims to their lands and waters. They've never entered a treaty on the terms of their subjugation. They remain sovereign peoples. Now more than ever, Australia cannot afford to be unreconciled. We must accept that this nation is in transition, confronted by the necessity of the voice to parliament, constitutional recognition, truth telling and agreement making. We must avoid going down the path of seeing history as a set of competitive narratives and instead work towards the pursuit of truth and respect. We need a political settlement on questions of national independence, integrity, and identity. Two hundred and fifty years of avoiding these fundamental questions has handicapped us as a nation from navigating the complex challenges before us and left us unable to capitalise on the great opportunities of a future together.

We feel this confusion in our public discourse, with well-meaning policy objectives failing to meet the expectations of modern multicultural Australia—standards we recognise when crossed but seem unwilling to speak about honestly. We've seen generations of political leaders come and go, blindly touching for a sense of common ground and common identity, without addressing the darkness of dispossession and racism, keeping us chained to the ethnocentric understanding of Australia's identity—one that has never really been true. We have a system unable to understand or celebrate diversity and difference, and First Nations are left to deal with a bureaucratic machine that has often been a tool more of oppression than of liberation. We see this shortcoming in our geospatial engagement with the world. With a new form of imperialism emerging, Australia, without a robust and honest civic identity, simply cannot stand on its own two feet.

Amidst the culture wars, it's easy to forget that there is a purpose in national reconciliation. It's not a purely academic question. We labour for the cause of reconciliation to seek a political settlement and bring a sense of unity to our Australian project. Indeed, the ceremonial makarrata brings two parties in disagreement to resolve their differences and become as one. We're all the lesser for its absence, whether we're descendants of the First Fleet, migrants or, indeed, First Nations.

During this pandemic, we've learned a lot about resilience. The nation can learn a lot about resilience from the First Nations people. The path forward has been offered to us through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The parliament must honour that call and listen to the torment of the powerlessness that continues to haunt this place. Only then will we continue on the path of reconciliation, built on honour, equality, recognition and respect and free from racism.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the chamber for allowing Senator Dodson to finish.

1:37 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

All lives matter. The majority of the Senate opposed that motion that was put up by me and supported by only one other senator, Malcolm Roberts. All Australians should be treated equally when it involves the delivery of government services and funding. All citizens and residents are equally deserving of services that make our lives better, but there remains a significant imbalance in the funds and services dedicated specifically to those of Aboriginal heritage as opposed to non-Aboriginals. This was a matter that I raised in my maiden speech to the parliament in 1996, and in the ensuing two decades plus there has been little change to the attitude of the government, which continues to throw money at the problem, with virtually no improvement to the lives of those needy Aboriginals. It seems to be a bottomless pit into which money continues to be thrown, but that money has achieved virtually nothing.

If taxpayer funds are spent in a specific area, we are right to expect positive outcomes. As I said in the Senate in February 2020, most Australians know that tens of billions of dollars are spent each year to help alter the standard of living of those in remote Aboriginal communities and even those living in developed parts of Australia. When you spend billions of dollars a year on any group of people, you expect outcomes. Sadly, those billions have gone to the non-productive, unrepentant Aboriginal industry, not to where they should go, the grassroots Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is an industry that has achieved no notable benefits in pulling our First Nations people out of squalor, domestic violence and poverty.

Over the years I have been labelled a racist for my views, mostly by white Australians and those Indigenous people who thrive financially for themselves and their families. I call it the Aboriginal industry. Their agenda is not in the best interest of all Australians, white or black. It's about milking the cow—the taxpayer—crying the victim constantly and blaming whites for a so-called invasion.

I was born in Australia. This is my land. Where the hell do I go? I will not accept the blame game for the so-called invasion you refer to. Your push to change our history books and the false claims that are foisted on our young throughout our education system are disgraceful, all to better suit the Left's agenda. All atrocities must be noted and taught to ensure we acknowledge our past, but, more importantly, to protect our future.

I will not acknowledge or echo the words 'welcome to country' that have been forced on people to say at functions or events. I am very respectful to those who have fought for our freedom and sacrificed their lives for the way of life that we all have the opportunity to enjoy today. I will not support those whose agenda is to divide us as Australians. Wanting a separate nation within a nation at the expense of the Australian taxpayer—this should never happen.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that I have met over the years, including many elders, have come to understand my honesty and resolve and not the lies they had been fed—mostly by Labor and the Greens, less so by the coalition—to destroy me and stop One Nation from taking their votes. Remember, it was John Howard who disendorsed me as a candidate in 1996 when I called for equality for all Australians.

The Closing the gap report 2020 shows just how little improvement has been realised for Aboriginal people, despite the billions spent each year over the past decades. As I have said many times, money alone will not solve the problem. It comes back to determination, discipline and a willingness to make the changes, and that must come primarily from the Aboriginal people themselves.

I met recently with a group of strong and focused Aboriginal women from all parts of Australia who are desperate for positive change for their children and their communities. I think it makes sense to allow women to play a bigger role and have a say in the direction taken by initiatives to improve the lives of Aboriginal Australians. These same Aboriginal women and elders say they want the Aboriginal land councils gone or made accountable; they are corrupt and don't represent the needs of the Aboriginal people. There is duplication of Aboriginal services, costing billions of taxpayers' dollars to prop them up, with no review or accountability—why? Members in this place are continually calling for accountability from other government departments.

In seven key areas the Closing the Gap initiative has not performed well, with even Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitting the poor results. Poor results will continue in substance abuse, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, education, housing, jobs, health and Aboriginal incarceration if we keep giving excuses, calling them disadvantaged, throwing money at the problems and treating their ineptness as our responsibility, when they have to take responsibility for their own actions. Someone needs to start looking in the mirror.

The child sexual abuse that is committed in Aboriginal communities is an absolute disgrace. Very little is done about it by authorities because they are black and they pull the race and cultural card. Those poor children, and also the women who are bashed and raped—is that the fault of the white man? No. Go to Doomadgee and see the children walking the streets to at night to flee the abuse they receive in their own homes from their own parents and family members. Is that the white man's fault? No.

I have had a gutful of the bleating from the Greens and others. How many Indigenous people have you had in your homes? Have you fought personally to help an Indigenous woman in prison to get her life on track? Have you been with her seven children in her own home? I very much doubt it. I have. Many in this place are all BS and push their own political agenda without really understanding the implications and ramifications of what they are saying. My research has found that, although the systems and programs may have changed in some ways and perhaps become more complex, there is still an overwhelming imbalance weighing heavily in favour of Aboriginal Australians in services provided in the areas of education, legal services, housing loans, health, royalties for mining operations and employment support services.

Are handouts a good thing? Do they help improve the lives and positions of many Aboriginals, particularly those who live in remote areas? To favour any one race in Australia over other races in government support and the provision of services amounts to racist policy and actually prolongs the problems. There are many Australians who would love the handouts and opportunities given to the Indigenous. I might add that many Indigenous are living in very nice housing, are in well paid jobs and are not struggling, but they can apply for educational assistance for their children that many Australians would love for their own children but can't get because of race. Tell me this is not racism.

As I said at the outset, additional handouts to Aboriginals do not help them. They make them reliant on government and actually prevent them from becoming independent and being able to create new and more fulfilling lives for themselves. We need to encourage Aboriginal people themselves to take control of their communities, to reduce substance use and abuse, to encourage school attendance and education, and to promote discipline and determination in employment.

The definition of 'Aboriginal' continues to be contentious and unclear in many cases. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies provides an outline of three working criteria for confirming Aboriginality which are usually accepted by government agencies and community organisations. These three criteria are:

        It is worth noting that the number of those who identify as Aboriginals has increased dramatically in the last 50 years. In 1971 there were officially 115,953 Aboriginals in Australia, or 0.9 per cent. Since that time, we've had an increase of 459 per cent, while the population generally has increased by 83.5 per cent. Some suggest the increase is the result of increased willingness to identify as Aboriginal. It is a matter for further research as to whether the increase is because of the loose definition and the many government benefits available to Aboriginals. I believe it is. To all those struggling Australians wanting equal opportunities for their children and families: tick the box. There is no place in our country for racism or, for that matter, reverse racism.

        I will finish with a quote from a speech given by Martin Luther King Jr in 1963:

        I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

        This is what I want for Australia. Every individual life matters. Aboriginal lives matter. All lives matter.