Senator Alan Eggleston


The coalition is committed to full and complete recognition of our Aboriginal people in our society. We do acknowledge that prior to white settlement—now more than 200 years ago—the land we now call Australia was inhabited by Indigenous people. It was thought that these people most likely came from Indonesia—after all, there was a land bridge to Indonesia many thousands of years ago—and even possibly from India, because I gather there are some similarities in blood groups and so on between the Aboriginal people and the Indians. Interestingly, in trying to understand where the Aborigines came from, there are very old cave paintings in the Kimberley called the Bradshaws which, according to some people, resemble African paintings and raise the interesting possibility that in the long-distant past people of African origin could have come to the north-west of Australia.

Of course, it was the landing of the First Fleet in 1788 which brought the first wave of European culture to Australia on the east coast and the first settlements. However, it is interesting that in the Gascoyne district in the mid-west of Western Australia, where Carnarvon is now located, many of the Aboriginal languages include Dutch words, and the numbers of red-headed Aboriginals in the area rather suggest that they may have been descended from Dutch sailors wrecked on the cliffs around Carnarvon. The Dutch ships came around the Cape of Good Hope and sailed east towards the Australian coast before turning north to go to Batavia, which is now Jakarta, in the Dutch East Indies, which are now Indonesia. There was quite a lot of significant contact between the Aboriginals of the mid-west coast of Western Australia and the Dutch and perhaps the Portuguese as well.

European culture, with its formal settlements and farms and keeping of crops and herds, was certainly at odds with the Indigenous way of life. Most Indigenous people were hunters and gatherers who wandered from place to place without set villages, and they did not keep herds or crops. They have been a part of Australian society, mostly on the periphery of Australian society, since the times of early settlement and well on into the 20th century. It has only been in the latter half of the 20th century that there has been any movement to have constitutional recognition of Indigenous people as part of the Australian society. In 1967 it became the route of the reconciliation process when there was a referendum to grant Aborigines the right to vote, to enfranchise Aborigines and to have this written into our Constitution. It was a Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who first paved the way to reconciliation with that historic move to enfranchise Aborigines.

When I was a medical student I was a member of the University of Western Australia Liberal Club. Interestingly, the president then was someone who subsequently became a senator and, in fact, the Leader of the Liberal Party in this chamber—and that was Fred Chaney. I was the freshman committee member back in 1960, and at our first committee meeting he suggested that, rather than the Liberal club putting up all sorts of clever motions about great public issues, the Liberal club should perhaps choose a project and seek to achieve a specific outcome for that project as its activity for the year. Fred Chaney suggested that the university Liberal club look into what could be done to improve the status of Aborigines in our community. So we used to go out to a place near Midland, near the airport in Perth, called Allawah Grove—not very far out of Perth—where there was an Aboriginal community and discuss issues with the Aboriginal leaders there. I found it quite confronting—having come from a fairly ordinary middle-Australian family—to see drunken Aborigines, fights with broken bottles, people sometimes being very aggressive to women and so on and so forth, but that was what the Aboriginal community at Allawah Grove embodied.

Every year from 1960 to 1962 the UWA Liberal Club held a seminar about what could be done to improve the lot of Aborigines in Western Australian society. In the end, Fred Chaney again gave leadership in suggesting that the only way to make Aborigines matter to politicians in government was to give them the vote: to enfranchise them. At the 1962 seminar, held by the Western Australian University Liberal Club, the Minister for Native Affairs, as he was called—a Country Party minister—announced that the Western Australia government would give Aborigines the option to enrol to vote in state elections. That happened in 1962, five years before the federal referendum, and it was therefore an important step in the process of reconciliation with Aborigines and accepting them as members of our society.

Harold Holt instituted the referendum on Aborigines being enrolled to vote in 1967, and another Liberal Prime Minister—John Howard, in 1999—continued down the pathway of recognition of the role of Aborigines in our society when he attempted to introduce an important preamble to the Constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians. As we all know, the referendum on that preamble failed; we also know that, if we are to continue the process of reconciliation with our Indigenous people, we need to build a real consensus in the community.

My first real contact with the Aboriginal community occurred when I went to the Pilbara in 1974. I used to see Aboriginal patients at the Port Hedland Hospital outpatient department while I worked there. I always treated the Aborigines with great respect, and they responded with respect to me. Perhaps because of this mutual respect, in 1975 I was invited to an Aboriginal bush meeting on the banks of the Coongan River near Marble Bar. These bush meetings were held every quarter. Aborigines came to them from all over the Pilbara—including from the Western Desert and as far west as Onslow and the area around it—and the meetings were almost always held on the banks of a river. About 100 people were gathered, cooking under the trees on open fires, at the meeting I went to in Marble Bar, and to me it was a very eye-opening experience.

The meeting was chaired by a man whom I cannot name because he is since deceased. He was the chief Aborigine of the Pilbara. He sat at a table in the middle of a clearing with tables on either side of him, at which sat his white advisers from Perth and Canberra, including lawyers and people who knew about the social security system, housing, education and so on. This chief Aborigine was a very impressive person: he had a great mane of white hair and a stetson on his head, and he controlled the meeting very skilfully. Not everybody had the ability to present a case very clearly, and he was very gentle in drawing out the points the people wanted to make—everybody had the right to raise any issue they wanted to—and in arranging for translators for the desert Aborigines who attended the meeting. By the end of the day, my perception of Aboriginal people in the Pilbara had changed completely. Whereas before I had seen them as people who did not really understand our society, I realised that these people well and truly understood our society and how our system of government worked.

I have met many other Aboriginal leaders, such as Peter Yu in the Kimberley, who was the head of the Kimberley Land Council; and people like Joe Ross in Fitzroy Crossing, who is the leader of the 300, I think, Aboriginal communities in the Fitzroy River Valley—and they are very impressive people. These are, of course, Aboriginal people in the north, close to their origins. But I understand that these days around 85 per cent of Aboriginals live in big cities and towns—Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and the big towns of Queensland, New South Wales, WA and South Australia. Many of them have jobs, many of them are educated—increasingly, there are large numbers of Aboriginal graduates—and they simply fit into our society as members of our society.

I think it is now very appropriate that we do recognise that the Indigenous people were here first and that that fact is acknowledged in our Constitution. It does not necessarily mean that it carries any particular implications in terms of additional rights and benefits above those which any other Australians have, but I think it is appropriate that that kind of recognition be given.
This bill is not a token gesture. It is an important building block of unity and of recognition of the long history of Aboriginal people in Australia and will carry a message of all of our community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, migrants from all over the world as well as those Australians whose history goes back 40,000 years, that we are moving forward as one people in one country. I support this bill.
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