Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (18:50): Mr Deputy Speaker, we do both have the same haircut, it’s true! I rise to speak on the Territories Stolen Generations Redress Schemes (Facilitation) Bill 2021 and the related bills.
I’ve been here since 2007—not as long as the member Lingiari, and as one of the crop of 2007—I was here for the apology in 2008. I was in both the chamber and the Great Hall when Prime Minister Rudd made his famous comments, and he is to be congratulated for those. But it has been a long road. As a result of that apology, each year we have a Closing the Gap statement, and that’s a good thing. On some markers, we’re doing pretty well; others are particularly stubborn and we’re not doing well at all. It’s not, I think, as I said in the debate yesterday when we were talking about Indigenous issues, a lack of will by governments of either side, it’s just that some of these problems are devilishly difficult to fix. But we have to keep trying. I think the changes made this year around the arrangements for the stolen generations, which actually bring the state governments into the national reporting and the responsibility to address these problems, is a great step forward. I congratulate the minister for that outcome because, at the end of the day, it’s the states that actually deliver a lot of the services on the ground. Previously it has just been falling back to the federal government, so it’s time that we brought all that together and fixed it up as much as we possibly can at least.
This is of course an intergenerational issue, and not one just for those affected. I’m very mindful of the comments of the member for Melbourne, who spoke before me, that this is an intergenerational issue. For those who were taken away as children, their children can be affected and their children beyond that—we need to take account of that. But it’s not just an intergenerational issue for those people, it’s intergenerational for all Australians and, indeed, all of our parliaments. The 1997 Bringing them home report was brought down in 1997, obviously. But here we are, 23 years on, still dealing with issues that were highlighted in that report. It was a decade after the Bringing them home report that we had the apology, and here we are, 12 years later, at last delivering a redress system. But it has certainly taken longer than it should have when we look at that time frame. It should be not a celebration but at least a relief that we’ve got to that point now and that we can move on.
Undoubtedly, the policy of removal caused enormous duress and strain. I couldn’t back the theory that every person who was removed had a bad outcome with their life. We know some people from the Aboriginal community who have been fabulously successful, either because of or despite of the fact that they were removed from their parents. In many cases, they were highly educated and very influential in the world of Indigenous politics and in trying to further the cause of Aboriginal Australians, and I congratulate them for that. But even though they are, I believe, in a minority, and even though they may have made a success of their lives, it’s difficult to imagine that they did not deal with the trauma and grief of separation at the time and in subsequent years. They should probably be congratulated for being such strong individuals, actually. Either way, there is no doubt that the policy of removal did a lot of harm.
My home town is Kimba. I often talk about Kimba when I’m in this place, one way or another. I moved into the town off a farm when I was 10 years old. I’d been attending a very small primary school before that time where we only occasionally had Aboriginal students. When I got into Kimba I found out there was a bigger world, if you like. The school had about 300 students at the time and a significant number of them were Indigenous. I would be lying if I said we were without prejudice. Looking back, it was a more racist world than the one we’re living in at the moment. Something we can all be grateful for is the work that’s been done over the subsequent years, if not to eliminate racism, because we know it’s not eliminated, then to reduce the public displays of it and the acceptance of Aboriginals in wider society.
Having said that, the families that we had in town were relatively cohesive. Their children attended school. I would have thought it was the pathway to success. Sadly, one way or another, no Aboriginal families live in Kimba any more. It’s difficult to put your finger on just when that happened, but it was probably around 30 years ago that the last of them moved out, the ones who had been established families there. Most of us believe it was at the time, and I haven’t substantiated this, when the rules for accepting Commonwealth support—the dole, if you like—changed and they actually had to report at an office to get the money. There was no office in town, so we tended to see those families move to places like Ceduna, Port Lincoln and Whyalla and out of the smaller communities like Kimba. I think in retrospect that has been a negative for our community, but probably a negative for them as well, because I think our community had been good at fostering good outcomes for individuals.
I wasn’t aware in that period of time, from 10 years old on, that children were still being taken away from their parents at a very young age. I don’t think it happened in Kimba, but I wouldn’t swear by it. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. A 10-year-old is not aware of everything anyhow, I’d have to say. It came as a shock to me later on, I reckon, to find that this was still going on while I was at school. I knew about children being taken away from their parents, but I thought it was something that happened a long time ago. Of course, when you’re a kid, everything seems a long time ago. If you’re 10 or 15 years old, something that happened 15 years ago is something that happened in ancient history, but I was surprised to find that it was still going on in the mid-sixties in some places, but not in Kimba, as far as I know. If some Aboriginal families contact me and say, ‘You wouldn’t know what you’re talking about,’ I will be corrected. I’m reminded of a family that lived there—the Reids. George Reid worked for the council. He drove the dozer, from memory, and was a very valued part of the community. I don’t know how many children he had, but I’m going to say about eight. Some of them went on to be good community leaders in other places, because they moved away, but in another parallel of the things we’re talking about today, and we’re talking about a family where some of the individuals might have been seven or eight years older than me and the youngest were perhaps three years younger. There is only one left alive today. I reckon that’s a pretty sad story. It’s not that they had terrible lives. They were living in urban areas, and yet that death rate is obviously higher than it is for the wider community, and that of course is another issue that we’re trying to address as we go along.
So this policy of removing children, not always at birth but at a young age, has obviously caused enormous damage. This national redress scheme is perhaps well overdue, but it’s here, and with payments of $75,000. Importantly, in this context, the minister’s gone to the effort of making sure that it won’t be impinged on, in any way, by any other Commonwealth payment, including payments to the National Redress Scheme for institutionalised child abuse. Largely, these payments are fashioned on that. That’s good, right and proper. If some unfortunate individuals have fallen into both of those camps—being taken away from their parents and then suffering institutionalised child care—statements to the 1997 Bringing them home report would suggest that it’s far from isolated, that it happened on a fairly regular occurrence. That is shameful.
In finishing, I come to comments from the member for Lalor, and I’m glad she brought this up. I’m not going to pick any holes in what she had to say. She spoke about the tragedy, today, of the number of Indigenous kids in out-of-home care. I think that is a tragedy. But we also have to bear in mind the difficult decisions—the impossible and diabolical decisions—that state government officials are facing here. Do they leave a child in a dysfunctional, violent household or do they take them out? What a terrible decision they have to make.
We need to be mindful of the fact that we need to protect children. I’m certainly mindful of the fact that living out of home was far from ideal. There’s a figure I used in the chamber, yesterday, on a bill on Indigenous issues. I recently saw a figure—and this is another tragedy—that so many Aboriginal people are in custody; 70 per cent of them are in custody for violent acts, predominantly on family. I think that points out why children are being removed from these dysfunctional households.
I wish I could wave a magic wand. It is one of the most diabolical choices. I don’t know how we deal with it. We have to deal with the issue of trying to stop that kind of behaviour in the first place, but we are talking about a very long lead time. It’s not as if people haven’t tried before and there are any simple solutions. So this is tough work. It doesn’t matter what you do in this area, it is tough work, meeting those national targets on closing the gap. It is tough work.
Collectively as a House we tend not to argue too much about these things. I was a bit disappointed about the way some of the debates went yesterday, but we are all committed, I think, to bringing a better result. Maybe we might debate the pathways we take, but this bill is put forward in good faith by a very good minister and, I believe, by a government that does have the best interests of Aboriginal people at heart. I commend the bills to the House.