It is with a great deal of pride that I rise as the lead speaker for the opposition and indicate our support for this bill. This bill seeks to insert a new section into the Constitution Act recognising the establishment of the province and subsequent colony of South Australia, the failure within its establishment to effectively recognise the Aboriginal inhabitants of the same and finally to recognise the apology made on 28 May 1997 that people of South Australia recognise the state’s Aboriginal people as its first peoples and as traditional owners of the lands and that they have endured past injustice.
I am proud to say it was the Olsen government who gave that apology almost 16 years ago. South Australia was the first jurisdiction to issue a government apology to its Aboriginal people for past wrongs, continuing a long history of firsts for South Australia as well as reaffirming the tradition of social progress in this state.
Settlement in this country was based around the legal concept of terra nullius—that the land belonged to no-one and was therefore available to be claimed for the British Crown. Indeed, even in this state, in our founding document can be found the words:
thereto consists of Waste and unoccupied Lands which are supposed to be fit for the purposes of Colonization.
Our more mature society now recognises this as a falsehood; however, it took two centuries for the concept to be overturned in Australian law. Terra nullius was overturned in Mabo v Queensland No. 2 by the High Court of Australia in 1992, which prompted the Keating government to introduce native title legislation.
This system of native title coexisting with pastoral and mining leases is the system we have today, and while it is not perfect and there are occasionally disputes, it is a step along the way to reconciling the Aboriginal people of this country with the land of which they were dispossessed; however this was only one element. A gap still exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of both this state and indeed across the entire commonwealth. This gap is in areas of education, health, life expectancy, opportunity and living conditions, particularly in remote communities to name a few.
Having been a member of the Aboriginal Lands Standing Committee of this parliament for a number of years and having had the privilege of being the opposition spokesman for aboriginal affairs and reconciliation at various stages of my parliamentary career, I have seen this firsthand. I have travelled to remote areas of this state and visited Aboriginal communities, some very successful, but many are struggling and have not seen any improvement in my time in this place. This is not good enough.
I have seen many good programs currently running in private schools to provide educational and sporting opportunities for young Aboriginal people. Only last week the committee met with representatives of the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation in Port Augusta, which does great work with young Aboriginal people in fostering and encouraging them to go on to bigger and better things. I note, however, that this program is much more prominent in Western Australia than it is here, and that there are not enough programs like this in South Australia.
Recently, I brought issues to the attention of this place concerning Anangu people on their homelands, known as the APY lands. These have been issues relating to infrastructure, welfare dependence and school attendance, to name a few. As I brought to the minister’s attention today, school attendances are below 60 per cent at six APY schools, and I encouraged the minister to correct this and come up with solutions, of which the suggested welfare quarantine is one.
However, we are skipping the real issue here, which is how and why Aboriginal people have become welfare dependent. This needs to change. There is no doubt that the conditions and hardships with which Aboriginal people live in this state have been borne out of white settlement, but it is not good enough to say this, to say sorry for the wrongdoing and leave it at that.
The letters patent of 1836, establishing South Australia as a province of the British Crown, state:
Provided always that nothing in those our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives.
The point is that official documents can say one thing, but what happens in practice is what really matters, what truly affects people.
Governments of all persuasions and non-Aboriginal citizens of this country must work together with Aboriginal leaders in bridging this gap, encouraging reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, but also between Aboriginal people, the land and their culture when asked to assist. Too often I hear criticism of Australia’s multicultural society dividing the nation, and in other sections of the community I hear non-Aboriginal people being accused of not being ‘true’ Australians. I do not agree with either of these points of view. Australia is made up of people from many different backgrounds and cultures of which Aborigines were the first and were distinctively Australian.
British settlement occurred in 1788 and from this we were gifted the rule of law, our institutions of government, and the fabric of our society; however, since this point we have had many waves of immigration, particularly in the 20th century, which have contributed to the mosaic that is Australian culture. The point I make is that we should not be condemning moves to acknowledge Aboriginal culture and native title; we should be embracing it as a fundamental part of Australia and being Australian, for Aboriginality is the only thing that can claim to be Australian from the beginning.
We on this side do not want empty tokenism, but the recognition of Aboriginal people in this state’s principal law is symbolic in that it gives Aboriginal people precedence, which they may have had inherently but not overtly, and the prominent place in history and society that they have sought for so long. As mentioned by my colleagues in the other place, this bill is by no means a panacea to all the current issues faced by Aboriginal people, and many of the tough issues still remain now and in the future, but it is my desire to see improvement in all the areas I previously mentioned.
I think this is one small step towards reconciliation that is long overdue. I congratulate the government on introducing this bill, and also my colleagues in the other place, who have assisted it to pass unanimously. With these words, I commend the bill to the council.