Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill

04 December 2014

I stand today to talk on a very difficult subject, that being Aboriginal affairs, and in particular the administration of the APY lands in the far north-west of our state.

Mr SPEIRS ( Bright ) ( 16:31 :54 ): I stand today to talk on a very difficult subject, that being Aboriginal affairs, and in particular the administration of the APY lands in the far north-west of our state. This is a complex issue to discuss, and in many ways I feel unqualified to be in the position of making decisions regarding Aboriginal determination. I have not been to the APY lands, although I do hope to go in the very near future, as I believe it is vital that members of the state's parliament and, as such, decision-makers for this state, should be as familiar and aware of what happens there as possible.

I am obviously not someone of Aboriginal descent or who necessarily has strong ties to Aboriginal people, but I am an elected member of this state's parliament and it would be a great disservice to the community who put me here if I were to ignore the situation in the APY lands and not stand up to make a statement on this matter. In fact, part of the problem with Aboriginal affairs in this state is that too many of our state leaders, and also the community at large, have their head in the sand and have had so for too long with regard to these issues.

Perhaps this situation has come about because our state's leaders possess the same level of nervousness that I have, feeling unqualified and poorly placed to interfere to make decisions to help to remedy long-term difficulties that have gripped the APY lands. Perhaps some of our leaders have become mesmerised by the do-gooding mirage of political correctness, kowtowing to that so-called political correctness while unspeakable crimes are committed behind closed doors. Perhaps the APY lands are just too far away, conveniently so, lulling us into self-deluded blindness about what is happening there and leaving us to concentrate on mythical middle Australia and what lovely things we can ply them with.

Every year, thousands of Australians, many of them our young people, travel overseas to volunteer in Third World nations, doing their bit to support the development of these countries. When I was 22, I travelled over to Uganda on one of these trips. At the time, I remember reflecting on the situation back home in South Australia and mentioning to the people I was travelling with that, from what I could gather, there was an equally diabolical situation of poverty, deprivation and even lawlessness within our state's borders.

I shared this with the group of Australians I was with and they were stunned. I am actually not sure that they believed me. I would go further and suggest that what has been going on in the APY lands for many years is worse than the painful deprivation that I witnessed in Africa. Somehow, it is made worse by the fact that it happens within a developed Western nation, and I think that is unforgivable.

Legislation of this nature is not ideal. It has been fast-tracked through parliament with the support of government and the opposition. As such, it has not undergone the rigorous analysis that it might otherwise benefit from. We saw the minor parties in the upper house vote against the bill partly on the ground that it had not undergone the appropriate analysis of the parliament, but one wonders if they have not become mired in the foolish notion of political correctness instead of actually working to achieve outcomes for Aboriginal South Australians.

There are lots of questions regarding how we got to this position and why South Australia has 3,000 people living on the APY lands in often abhorrent conditions. I do not want to dwell on those reasons today, apart from briefly to question the role of the minister and the bureaucracy. The minister is someone who has had a quite lot of struggles in my short time in this place. One could dismiss this as a run of bad luck, or perhaps it is incapacity or even a poor public administration sitting behind the minister. I would hazard a guess that it is a combination of all three.

I will not use my position in this place to bash public servants, but I will be a straight shooter when it comes to dysfunction, which I have personal experience of. As many people here know, I had an extensive career in the Public Service prior to my election, particularly within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, within which the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division was until quite recently.

I note that it has been moved to the Department of State Development. I also notice that the D has been dropped from the acronym, so now it reads AAR as opposed to AARD. I fear has something of a depressing onomatopoeic resonance because I know that during my time working the cabinet office if my colleagues or I ever had anything to do with this particular division we would utter a sound that was similar to that acronym, AAR—a sound of pain and depression at the thought of having to be involved in this very difficult part of government. That is not a reflection on the public servants who work there; rather, it is a reflection on the inherent difficulties which confront this part of policymaking and the responsibility that this division within our state's Public Service has to carry.

My great worry is that the Aboriginal affairs component of the public sector has been deskilled and defunded in recent years and has in many ways lost its reason for being. I feel that at times it was not trusted to deliver what it should be delivering. Responsibility for Aboriginal affairs and delivering for Aboriginal South Australians was scattered to various departments across government, where central coordination was much more difficult to undertake.

It is not all bad in the APY lands. While I have said that I have not been there and hope to travel there soon, I understand this is a beautiful, unique part of South Australia, and I do look forward to going there. I have a friend who recently got a job working on the lands. I sent him a text message a short while ago, and he replied saying that he is having a really great time there, learning lots and building connections with the Aboriginal people. Tonight, they are holding a Christmas party in the community he lives in to connect with as many people as possible. He is really having a great time up there. He believes the APY lands have a huge amount to offer our state and he looks forward to having me there as his guest in the near future.

I have read the Hansard record of my colleagues' contributions in another place and listened with interest to the contributions of the leader, the deputy leader and the members for Morphett, Goyder, MacKillop, Flinders, Heysen and, today, the member for Hartley.

As the member for Goyder mentioned yesterday, I too ensured that I was in the chamber for the contribution made by the member for Morphett, who I regard as one of the few non-Aboriginal people I have come across who has a genuine connection and affinity with our state's Aboriginal people and who has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of South Australia's Aboriginal people. I would commend the member for Morphett's speech to anyone who wants to capture an insight into the challenges facing the APY lands. He outlined the issues perfectly and explained with both compassion and passion that this is not racist legislation, it is not discriminative legislation, it is not about land rights; rather, it is a sad but necessary action in an attempt to create a good governance structure for the APY lands—a governance structure which the people of the APY lands deserve.

The bill before us today has two components. The first component allows the ICAC commissioner to enter the APY lands without going through the usual permit seeking processes. This is a common-sense reform which will ensure that the commissioner has the agility to move in and out of the APY lands and undertake the investigations he believes are necessary. We are under the understanding that grave concerns exist around financial management on the APY lands, and the commissioner must have the ability to get in there and undertake appropriate investigations.

The other component of this bill is the addition of a clause which allows the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs the power to dismiss or suspend the APY Executive without stating why he has chosen to do so. The minister has said on a number of occasions that he will seek in the first instance not to act on this new power if the legislation is passed, but instead he will seek in the first instance to work alongside the existing APY Executive to try to improve the governance situation on the lands. I suspect, however, for better or worse, the minister will be activating this power in the coming months and seeking to remove the APY Executive.

I am pleased that the government has agreed to two important amendments which the opposition has proposed in another place. Firstly, we have sought to ensure that any administrator appointed in the future by the minister reports to the parliament, adding another level of important accountability to the situation. Secondly, we have inserted a sunset clause into the bill to ensure that the minister's new extraordinary power can be removed in the future. This is very necessary, especially given the unusual speed with which this bill has been rushed through the parliamentary process.

Despite our concerns, the opposition will support this government's legislation because we feel that, on balance, we need to present a bipartisan position in the face of the huge challenges facing our APY lands. Quite simply, something has to be done to give the approximately 3,000 residents who live in the lands a fighting chance to live healthy lifestyles with the opportunities that they deserve—the opportunities that most other South Australians take for granted.

We can no longer pretend that the APY lands are not there. The government, our parliament and our state need to wake up to what is in the north-west corner of our state, and we need to take action. Politics and concerns about the government's record in this area aside, as members of the South Australian parliament the least we can do is give our first peoples the best chance of getting ahead. There is no doubt in my mind that there is deep and unwieldy brokenness within the APY Executive, and the people who call the lands their home deserve better. That is why I will support this bill.

Extracted from Hansard