Speeches – Re Recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders:

1) NSW Recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders – Hon Member for Sydney – Alex Greenwich

Mr ALEX GREENWICH (Sydney) [10.32 a.m.]: I move:

That this House:

(1) notes 25 August 2013 as Australian South Sea Islander Recognition Day, marking 150 years since about 50,000 people on 62,000 indenture contracts from around 80 Pacific Islands were recruited or kidnapped to work in sugar cane fields where they were exploited;

(2) notes the Australian South Sea Islanders suffered inhumane treatment, the highest mortality rates of any immigrant group to Australia and mass deportations when the White Australia Policy was introduced;

(3) notes many of the 40,000 Australian South Sea Islander descendants who live in Australia remain marginalised and disadvantaged;

(4) notes thousands of Australian South Sea Islanders live in New South Wales but an official number has not been established;

(5) notes then Premier Carr’s memorandum of understanding of 1995 called for adequate programs and services;

(6) acknowledges the Community Relations Commission’s initiatives in relation to South Sea Islanders and requests the Government to liaise with the National Body for Australian South Sea Islanders in preparing a demographic, social and economic community profile; and

(7) acknowledges the contribution the Australian South Sea Islander community makes to New South Wales and its history in Australia.

I welcome to the Chamber Danny Togo, Shireen Malamoo and Lola Forrester, community leaders of the Australian South Sea Islander community. Today is an historic day for the New South Wales Parliament as we come together to acknowledge the suffering, the exploitation and the role in our history that Australian South Sea Islanders have played. First, I thank the Minister for Citizenship and Communities, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and his staff for agreeing to meet with the Australian South Sea Islanders and to work with them. I thank also the Government for its support of the motion.

Between 1863 and 1904 about 50,000 people were recruited or kidnapped from about 80 Pacific Islands to work on sugarcane fields in Queensland on 62,000 indenture contracts. Ninety-five per cent were adolescent and young adult males; the rest were women. In the first two decades kidnappings and underhand recruitments were prevalent; and although recruitments became more common in later years, kidnappings accounted for about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of labourers throughout. I have heard shocking stories of islanders being coerced onto boats, having their canoes sunk and being detained through force. Even recruitment contracts took advantage of islanders, who came from small-scale societies, were paid cheap goods and legally bound in a way that they could not understand.

Islanders were often cruelly exploited. They were beaten, starved and whipped. Rare police inspections were not unannounced. Justice was rare in cases brought to the courts. In the 1870s the Reverend J. C. Kirby described seeing a group of islanders walking through Dalby without shoes, accompanied by armed men on horseback, as a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Australian South Sea Islanders see themselves as descendants of slaves. Indeed, many people regard this as Australia’s slave trade. Coming from isolated islands, islanders lacked immunity to common diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, dysentery, measles and chicken pox, causing massive mortality rates. Eighty-one out of 1,000 islanders died in their first year in Australia, and overall 74 out of 1,000 died. At the time mortality rates for Australian Europeans of the same age were nine or 10 in 1,000. While official records show that 14,564 islanders died, the true figure is likely to be more than 15,000, given data collection gaps. Yet the Australian Government continued the program for more than 40 years, knowing its impact.

In 1901 the Australian Government passed the Pacific Island Labourers Act as part of its White Australia policy to remove islanders from the country through gradual attrition and forced deportation. Sugar farmers were compensated with an embargo on foreign sugar and subsidies for sugar produced by white labour. There were mass forced deportations between 1906 and 1908. Protests from islanders led to exemptions for those who had lived in Australia for more than 20 years, were aged or infirm, had children in school, owned land, were married to someone not from their island, or could prove safety risks if they returned home. About 2,000 to 2,500 remained and most Australian South Sea Islanders are descendants of this group.

Incentives in the sugar industry to hire white-only labour relegated islanders to menial farm work or subsistence. They lived on the fringes of society and suffered discrimination. This is a shameful chapter in Australia’s history. Australian South Sea Islander Recognition Day on 25 August is a time to reflect and move forward for the 40,000 descendants, whose social and economic disadvantage is equivalent to that of Aboriginal Australians. Many descendants live in New South Wales but there are no official figures. If people identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander they cannot also identify as Australian South Sea Islander, despite the widespread amalgamation of islanders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Australian South Sea Islanders can access education, housing, health and legal programs aimed at Indigenous Australians but there are no specific programs for them, despite being defined as a distinct disadvantaged ethnic group.

In 1995 then Premier Carr’s memorandum of understanding called for adequate services to target Australian South Sea Islanders. Australian South Sea Islanders want self-determination, and vital to this is acknowledgement of past atrocities and data on the current state of affairs. The State Government should involve the national representative body for Australian South Sea Islanders to prepare a demographic, social and economic community profile and develop a plan of action to remove disadvantage in line with the 1992 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report recommendations. I am grateful that the Minister for Citizenship and Communities has agreed to meet with the national body in response to this motion. The 150th anniversary provides an opportunity to make a formal recognition statement to help build community esteem and a positive future. I commend the motion to the House.

2)  NSW Recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders – Hon Member for Sydney – Jamie Parker – GREENS

Mr JAMIE PARKER (Balmain) [10.52 a.m.]: On behalf of The Greens I support this motion marking 150 years since approximately 50,000 people from about 80 Pacific Islands were recruited or kidnapped to work in the sugarcane fields. On 25 August last year I learnt a lot more about this issue when I attended a South Sea Islanders function at St Johns in Glebe. In particular, I was introduced to a word that has come to signify the great shame of this period: “blackbirding”. We heard also about Faith Bandler, the daughter of a South Sea Islander who was blackbirded into the Queensland cane fields. It was a sad and shameful period in our history, and today’s motion goes some way towards addressing it. I recognise the presence of representatives of the Australian South Sea Islander community in the Speaker’s gallery. Their dedication and commitment to highlighting the difficult history of Australian South Sea Islanders is most important, and we thank them for taking the time to be here.

This motion is important because it recognises that, as a community, we must look to our shared history and acknowledge when great injustice has occurred. We do this for a number of reasons. We do it to learn from our past and to make a shared commitment to strive never to let injustice occur again. We also do it to honour the lives of those upon whom these injustices were visited as well as those who continue to live with that legacy today. I am particularly grateful to those who have made the effort to come to the Parliament today to support this work, as they and their many colleagues live with the legacy of what occurred. We need to work to address that injustice. I have met a number of times with representatives of the Australian South Sea Islander community, including those who attended the twentieth anniversary of the national body for Australian South Sea Islanders. I especially acknowledge Emelda Davis for her fantastic work, particularly in my electorate, on this issue.

As Australians we must recognise the history of Australian South Sea Islanders. This recognition will play an important part in healing the past and addressing present challenges. Importantly, this motion acknowledges the scale of exploitation of Australian South Sea Islanders—50,000 people on 62,000 indentured contracts from around 80 Pacific Islands. Those 50,000 people were either recruited or blackbirded, or kidnapped, and became indentured slaves working in the sugarcane fields. These people suffered incredibly inhumane treatment and mortality rates were high. Many islanders did not have immunity to common diseases and 81 out of 1,000 died in their first year in Australia. South Sea Islanders were taken from their homes and it is important to remember not merely the impact this had on them but also the great cultural loss this represents—the potential of each of those 81 young men to build families and communities was stolen from those islands. We must acknowledge that their culture was also stolen.

What is the living legacy of this dark history? Some 40,000 descendants of those affected are living in Australia, and a significant number of them reside in New South Wales. Many of these people suffer social and economic disadvantage but there are no specific programs aimed at addressing disadvantage in this community. Although they have access to programs aimed at Aboriginal Australians, this is not good enough. As we have learned, the key to addressing entrenched disadvantage is recognising the unique attributes of each community. The memorandum of understanding by Bob Carr was a useful first step, but it is important that the Government liaise and work on a long-term path to achieving justice and equality in line with the 1992 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report. I urge the Government to support the report. I commend the member for Sydney and hope that this important motion is the start of a path towards real social justice and recognition.

3) Hon. Ms LINDA BURNEY (Canterbury) [11.01 a.m.], by leave: I will speak to this debate and begin by recognising the three outstanding visitors to the House today: Auntie Shireen Malimoo, who I have known for 35-years, Lola Forrester, who I have known for approximately the same length of time and Danny Togo, who I have met today. It is an honour to have you in the House. It brings legitimacy and reality to this discussion. You are the descendants of this story: Thank you for attending. I thank the Minister for Resources and Energy for the history lesson. It is important that we recognise the truth and understand the genesis of stories that are part—bad or good—of this country. It is a shame that the former Prime Minister was not able to do that with an apology to the Stolen Generation.

Today’s debate carries several messages and one of those is the importance to Aboriginal, South Sea Islander and Torres Strait Islander peoples to have their story acknowledged and legitimised and to have the identities of generations of South Sea Islanders recognised in the narrative of this nation. That is what this motion does: It provides a long overdue acknowledgment of the story of South Sea Islanders in this country. I remember clearly as a student in New South Wales with an Aboriginal background the shock I felt when I first came to understand that there was a system of slavery in this country; we have to call it what it was. The idea that I studied Australian modern history in school but was not told of this story is a travesty.

The Minister for Local Government, and Minister for the North Coast stated that this story needs to be highlighted but it has an awfully long way to go. It should be a prominent part of the school curriculum in New South Wales and I am not sure that is the case at present. I welcome the move to have the health and housing needs of South Sea Islander people recognised through the Australian census so we can be informed of the number of South Sea Islanders living in Australia. I cannot imagine what it must feel like as an Islander to not know how many South Sea Islander people are living in this country today. I pay my respects to old friends and new.

4) NSW Recognition for Australian South Sea Islanders – Mr CHRIS HARTCHER

Mr CHRIS HARTCHER (Terrigal—Minister for Resources and Energy, Special Minister of State, and Minister for the Central Coast) [10.57 a.m.]: The Government supports the motion, which is the product of consultation between the Minister for Citizenship and Communities and the mover, the member for Sydney. It is important that Australians know the story of South Sea Islanders in this country. Two sections of the Australian Constitution are particularly relevant in this debate. They came about because people were brought to Australia from the Pacific Islands via the practice of blackbirding. Originally, section 51 (xxvi) stated that Parliament shall have the power to make laws with respect to:

… the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

The people for whom it was “deemed necessary to make special laws” were the Pacific Islander people. The Constitution then went on to give the Commonwealth further power, referring to “the relations of the Commonwealth with the islands of the Pacific”. Those two sections were incorporated as part of the Constitutional Convention deliberations in the 1890s. The trade union movement—what is now the Australian Workers Union, which in those days was the dominant union for rural industries in Queensland, where the sugar industry was based—was determined to ensure that islanders were returned to the Pacific Islands and not allowed to stay in Australia.

Among the first bills passed by the new Commonwealth Parliament after its inauguration in 1901 was legislation removing Pacific Islanders from Australia and transporting them back to the islands of the Pacific. It is important to put this in historical context. The legislation was introduced and passed at the insistence of the Australian trade union movement, which was determined to prevent Pacific Islanders—whom it regarded as a source of cheap labour—from competing with European labourers. The history of the Australian Labor Party is built upon that story. While Australian Labor Party members happily support the motion today they tend to gloss over the history of their own political party. The trade union movement now endorses these principles but once again they gloss over the history of their actions. There is a famous quotation by the philosopher Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We should never forget the past. The purpose of this motion by the member for Sydney is to inform us of the past and the true story about how badly the South Sea Islanders were treated. There needs to be an understanding of the origins of the story because glossing over the past and pretending it never existed is an injustice to these people.

It would be an injustice not to place upon the record the true story of what did happen. I acknowledge that the South Sea Islander people were wrongfully treated. I support this motion and the Government supports this motion and acknowledges that in the past a wrong was done to the South Sea Islander people and it should be redressed. But we cannot redress a wrong unless we know the origins of that wrong. The origins of that wrong stem very much from a section of the political community that insisted on this course of action at the constitutional debates. If you read the debates which established the constitutional convention and determined many sections of the constitution you will see what Labor Party representatives supported. The Labor Party was founded in 1891 and was represented at the constitutional convention. See also what the trade union representatives had to say about the Pacific Islander community working and operating in Australia.

C/- Emelda Davis – President, Interim National Body for Australian South Sea Islanders.
(Port Jackson) Ltd – branch.


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