INDIGENOUS AND DOMESTIC POLICY

Lake Condah Aboriginal mission. Has been blockaded by some of the traditional owners.

Lake Condah Aboriginal mission. Photo: Glen Watson

The Hawke government continued to grapple with the sensitive issue of indigenous land rights. In March 1986 Aboriginal Affairs Minister Clyde Holding told cabinet that NSW, Queensland and South Australia had enacted legislation and Victoria was preparing to do so, but that Tasmania and Western Australia rejected the concept of land rights legislation in principle.

Some of cabinet's style was caught by Gareth Evans last month when he recalled a meeting to extend the proposed Bill of Rights and its universal suffrage clause in order to enable challenges to the well established gerrymanders in Queensland and Western Australia

Prime Minister Bob Hawke, pictured at a the launch of the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy at Parliament House, Canberra on 17 November 1987.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke, pictured at a the launch of the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy at Parliament House, Canberra on 17 November 1987. Photo: Bill Errington

"My diary notes recall that PM Hawke supported by Kim Beazley, describing this 'half-arsed proposal, the politics are so absurd that I can't understand why it was ever considered'.

"John Dawkins saying that, on the contrary, that 'he'd listened to Beazley's horror stories for the last three years and had we ignored them as we should have we'd at least have land rights legislation in place rather than the mess we'd got ourselves into.

"And then Bill Hayden making a passionate plea about the need not to run away from every proposition likely to generate controversy saying 'politics is about arguments, conflict, views and failure'.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke on a Yellow Waters billabong cruise with Kakadu National Park rangers. 08-11-1986.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke on a Yellow Waters billabong cruise with Kakadu National Park rangers. Photo: AAP

"But as with just about every piece of law reform legislation during the life of with this government, Hawke's view prevailed."

Cabinet again endorsed its 1985 Preferred National Land Rights Model, but agreed to negotiate with Western Australia on non-legislative measures such as community funding and the granting of long leases to Aboriginal reserves.

The Tasmanian and Victorian governments presented the Commonwealth with conflicting challenges. In December 1986 Mr Holding told cabinet that Tasmania refused to recognise that Aboriginal people had any legitimate claim to land.

A study had identified 10 priority areas for claims, most of them small and remote. The Oyster Cove settlement south of Hobart and Wybalenna on Flinders Island were the most significant, but the minister had little hope that Tasmania would agree to a land swap to secure them.

In December 1987 cabinet decided that if discussions with Tasmania failed, the Commonwealth would move to compulsorily acquire Oyster Cove and Wybalenna.

In Victoria the opposition-controlled Legislative Council refused to support the grant of inalienable (as opposed to freehold) title for the Lake Condah and Framlingham communities and opposed Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation.

In February 1987, Mr Holding told cabinet that aspects of the proposed Victorian legislation went further than the preferred Commonwealth model, but this was not a reason to reject it.

Cabinet agreed to legislate on behalf of Victoria and during 1987 the Commonwealth Parliament approved the transfer of Lake Condah and Framlingham to the relevant Aboriginal corporations.

The government was concerned that the parlous state of the Aboriginal community might become an issue of moral and political embarrassment during the 1988 bicentennial celebrations.

In July 1986 cabinet considered the Miller report on Aboriginal employment and education. Among its findings: a third of working-age Aboriginal people were unemployed and even those who did have work were usually in lower paid, casual or seasonal jobs. With 80 per cent of the Aboriginal population in small towns, communities and outstations unemployed and also the collapse of rural employment in the face of structural and technological change, their prospects were bleak.

Cabinet accepted Miller's recommendation that money paid in unemployment benefits should be redirected to the Community Development Employment Program for work on community and municipal projects. Cabinet approved a range of employment, training, community development and small business funding initiatives.

In December 1987, cabinet endorsed the recommendations of a House of Representatives committee for the establishment of small decentralised communities of close kinship groups on land of social, cultural and economic significance to them. However, the naming of these communities raised difficulties: cabinet rejected the original title of "homelands'; because of apartheid connotations.

The government also established the Muirhead royal commission to investigate the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police or prison custody. Planning and consultation for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission proceeded, the establishment of which had been announced by the Prime Minister on July 14, 1987.

Decontaminating radioactive sites

The McClelland royal commission on British nuclear tests in Australia had recommended that the Maralinga and Emu test sites should be decontaminated to a standard suitable for unrestricted habitation by the traditional owners.

But a technical assessment group found that even the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars would not achieve complete decontamination.

The Resources and Energy Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, recommended that Cabinet consider the lesser option of decontamination sufficient to allow casual access to a larger area than was currently permissible. This option might cost between $20 and $30 million, "much more within the ball park that the UK Government is likely, on present indications, to be prepared to contemplate".

Cabinet also decided that compensation claims for diseases that might have been caused by radiation would be resisted if the Commonwealth did not believe that a liability existed.

Cabinet considered McClelland's recommendation that compensation, in the form of technology and services, should be paid to the Aboriginal people (and their descendants) displaced from the test sites.

The minister for Aboriginal affairs, Clyde Holding, told cabinet: "The actions of previous Australian Government in shepherding Aboriginal people from their traditional lands for the purpose of conducting atomic tests were both immoral and appallingly executed. The resultant disruption to Aboriginal life has been catastrophic; Yalata, where many were resettled, is testimony to that. If we deny compensation, we shall stand condemned as surely as those who committed the outrage of dispossession in the first place."

Traditional owners had been dispersed to Yalata and the Pitjantjatjara lands in South Australia and Coonana in Western Australia. Cabinet allocated an initial $500,000 for projects of lasting and general community benefit.

Meantime, on Christmas Island

Long before Christmas Island became a staging point for boat people, federal cabinet decided it was just the spot for a casino.

On October 28, 1987, the federal cabinet agreed to the closure of the Phosphate Mining Corporation's Christmas Island mine and there were concerns about the employment opportunities for locals, descendants of indentured labourers who arrived in the 1890s from Singapore, Malaya and China.

Partly to address local employment fears, cabinet had, just before the previous Christmas, given the go-ahead for a casino on Christmas Island.

The fanciful development, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, had been conceived by Perth real estate agent Frank Woodmore after the Indonesian government closed three casinos in Jakarta in 1981.

The Hawke government climbed on board in the hope that the casino would pick up the job slack but the Union of Christmas Island Workers was not supportive of the mine closure.

The minister for territories, John Brown, told cabinet the union's intransigence removed a central plank in the government's strategy: "Namely, employment in the mine to 1989 as a 'bridge' to the casino. Successful resettlement is, therefore, now vital to our CI strategy. With limited employment opportunities, post-mining CI cannot be expected to support anywhere near the current 1700 population. Most current residents do not have skills relevant to the post-mining needs of CI."

Indonesian interests started building the casino almost immediately and it eventually opened in December 1993.

Gerry Hand, then leader of the Victorian Left and immigration minister when cabinet discussed the casino in 1987, became the Christmas Island casino's main lobbyist when he left parliament in 1993.

After a few years' profit, the casino closed in 1998. Some of its facilities have been leased to served Christmas Island's latest industry: boat people.

A casino for Canberra

Cabinet started looking around for new projects to enhance Canberra's tourism potential with building construction activity following the wane which would occur with the completion of Parliament House in 1988.

Casinos were in the air. State governments in Tasmanian, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia had embraced the gambling table as an easy source of tax revenue.

Cabinet also opted for a casino-led recovery.

The minister for territories, John Brown, in a submission to cabinet on December 7, 1987, said he considered a casino essential to widening the rather narrow ACT's taxation base.

"There is a need to look to a range of new and innovative initiatives which will enhance the tourism potential of the City," he said.

"It has the potential to generate up to $3 million in casino tax revenues in its first year of operation, and possibly higher levels in subsequent years. These revenues will contribute to the ACT's overall budget."

Cabinet gave the casino the go-ahead. It opened in temporary premises in 1992.

Industry reform

As always, industry reform was easier in theory than in practice. In November 1986 cabinet considered an Industries Assistance Commission recommendation to reduce protection for the textile, clothing and footwear industries to a tariff level of 50 per cent by 1996.

But theory was easier than practice as even 50 per cent was three or four times the average level of protection for Australian manufacturers.

Cabinet's November 1986 decision raised both social and political problems, since the industry employed many older and migrant workers with limited prospects of finding alternative employment.

The most vulnerable areas were suburban Melbourne; Victorian regional cities; Hunter Valley, Illawarra and Lithgow areas in NSW and north-western Tasmania.

The unions and industry argued for a 75 per cent tariff, but cabinet agreed on a phased reduction to 60 per cent for clothing and 50 per cent for footwear.

Meanwhile, maritime industries, with their powerful unions deep in the ALP's heartland, also proved difficult to reform.

A memorandum prepared in February 1986 outlined a litany of problems. Less than four per cent of Australia's overseas trade was handled by Australian-crewed ships; Australian pay and conditions were generous by international standards, and crewing rates were high and productivity poor.

The Australian shipping industry needed to become much more efficient and the unions more responsive to the national interest. The ship repair industry was also in decline, despite a long-running union campaign to force more repair work to be undertaken in Australia.

In the stevedoring industry, union resistance to reform had resulted in terminals being over-manned by up to 50 per cent and there was little incentive for the workforce to perform efficiently. A ship could be turned round in Singapore in eight hours, whereas in Australia it took three or four days.

In December 1986 cabinet considered the report of an interdepartmental committee, the majority of whose members favoured allowing foreign ships to handle some of Australia's coastal trade. The suggestion was opposed by transport minister Peter Morris, who said that coastal shipping had been regarded as a domestic industry for more than 60 years. Change, he said, would be resisted strongly by the unions and would prejudice reforms already agreed between unions and the industry.

Cabinet supported Mr Morris, although it was agreed that foreign ships might carry small amounts of coastal cargo on their normal voyages.

Civil aviation proved more amenable to reform.

In June 1987 the government announced that it would give the requisite three years' notice of its intention to terminate the Two Airlines Agreement. The agreement had given Ansett and Australian Airlines (formerly Trans Australia Airlines) a virtual monopoly on major domestic routes for 35 years.

Qantas and Australian Airlines would not be merged because this would encourage Ansett to press for international rights but Qantas would regain its right to carry passengers of other international airlines within Australia, but would not be permitted to carry general domestic traffic.

Cabinet rejected a proposal to sell the international terminals at major airports, noting that private owners might choose to maximise their profits by minimising investment in new facilities.

Going private

The Hawke cabinet embarked on a most unusual journey for a Labor government: it surveyed the politically and industrially sensitive issue of the privatisation of Government Business Enterprises (GBEs). In July 1986 the Prime Minister's, Treasury and Finance departments suggested that a task force be set up to consider the sale of Trans Australia Airlines, Qantas, Australian National Line, Housing Loans Insurance Corporation, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Pipeline Authority and Australian Industry Development Corporation.

The memorandum noted that ministers were opposed to the sale of the Commonwealth Bank, Overseas Telecommunications Commission, Telecom and Australia Post. It also acknowledged that GBEs such as Telecom and Australia Post were natural monopolies that raised more difficult issues than GBEs which competed directly with the private sector, although it would be possible to sell up to 49 per cent even of the natural monopolies.

Gareth Evans said cabinet bravely countered the dollar plunge by bravely taking on the old shibboleths and in December 1987 it approved the preparation for Caucus of papers canvassing the possible privatisation of 17 organisations, including all those mentioned above, together with Australian National Railways, Snowy Mountains hydro-electric and engineering enterprises, AUSSAT, ACT Electricity Authority and Health Insurance Commission.

Among other reforms, cabinet agreed to establish the Australian Securities Commission to replace the cumbersome joint Commonwealth–state system.

The Commonwealth Bank was permitted to offer the same range of financial services as the private bank and foreign investment proposals were to be approved automatically unless they were considered contrary to the national interest, the 50 per cent Australian equity rule for new real estate developments was removed, and foreign takeovers of businesses worth less than $5 million and rural properties worth less than $3 million were no longer to be scrutinised.

Cabinet also agreed to replace the $2 note with a coin, but not to abolish one and two cent coins.

Industrial relations

In May 1986 cabinet accepted the Hancock committee's recommendation that the existing Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the Industrial Division of the Federal Court be replaced by a new Australian Industrial Relations Commission and an Australian Labour Court.

Disenchantment with sanctions within the industrial relations system had encouraged employers to use common law actions and the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act in recent disputes such as those at Dollar Sweets in Melbourne and Mudginberri abattoir in Arnhem Land.

In November 1986 the minister for industrial relations Ralph Willis told cabinet that a sanctions system based only on non-monetary penalties would be inadequate, particularly if employers were to be discouraged from seeking alternative statutory or common law remedies.

Cabinet agreed to allow a presidential member of the Commission to make an order prohibiting a particular industrial action. Any party could then seek to have the order enforced by applying for an injunction to the Labour Court. Failure to obey an injunction could lead to the imposition of monetary penalties. Cabinet also agreed that the Labour Court should have the power to deal with breaches of the secondary boycott provisions (sections 45D and 45E) of the Trade Practices Act, but only after the Industrial Relations Commission had certified that a dispute could not be resolved or a boycott ended. The unions were strongly opposed to sections 45D and 45E, but an attempt to repeal them in 1984 had been defeated in the Senate.

The government's industrial relations reforms were submitted to Parliament in the Industrial Relations Bill 1987, but lapsed with the 1987 election. The 1987 Bill prohibited access to injunctions under common law to combat industrial action and gave the proposed Labour Court the power, if conciliation had failed, to deal with trade union contraventions of sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act. These provisions were opposed by employers.

Lionel Murphy

On October 9, 1986, nine days before Lionel Murphy died, cabinet agreed to a payment of $420,473 for costs the High Court judge and former Labor senator had incurred in two court cases he faced charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Cabinet decided Murphy should receive $182,623 to reimburse him for legal costs for which he was liable and has been personally billed, with the remaining $237,750 representing a partial payment of $200,000 against the account submitted by Freehill, Hollingdale and Page, and a payment of $37,750 to cover unpaid counsel's fees for which they are liable.

Murphy was convicted in the first trial and found not guilty in the second.

The media

Shortly after 11am on December 3, 1986, Rupert Murdoch walked into the foyer of the old Herald and Weekly Times building in Flinders Street to claim his birthright, the newspaper denied his father Keith by the Melbourne Establishment.

Journalists, photographers and television cameramen crowded into the lift with Murdoch as it rose to the floor holding the citadel, the H&WT boardroom.

The Age reporter watching Murdoch avenge the slight to his father was the only one to record the television set in the boardroom. Here, the men carefully selected by the local Establishment ruled one of Melbourne's great old media empires - an empire that supported wars, made and broke governments and served as the Praetorian Guard of Melbourne's hegemony as Australia's business heart. The television set was a 17-inch black and white model, a relic from 30 years before - from the time of the 16th modern Olympic games - when a euphoric Melbourne felt it ruled the world.

Five days after Murdoch strolled into the citadel federal cabinet endorsed Murdoch's $1.8 billion takeover bid after a two-hour at-times acrimonious debate that saw the minister for foreign affairs Bill Hayden the main heavyweight to oppose the News Limited juggernaut.

Cabinet washed its hands of media cross-ownership concerns.

"The timing of recent decisions, including on cross-media ownership, and the Murdoch takeover bid was simply a coincidence; and that such a bid could well have been made in any case with more serious consequences for concentration of media ownership," a cabinet minute noted.

"Divestment by Mr Murdoch of certain television stations and of print media already owned in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth had already been foreshadowed publicly and was under discussion with the Trade Practices Commission; and .... the government would continue to monitor the situation."

ABC and SBS

The Hawke government's turn-it-on-turn-it off media policy saw cabinet reverse its decision not to merge Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

Cabinet had decided against it in 1985 but after changing its mind in July 1986 it backed away after the proposal was resisted strongly by ethnic communities and the government abandoned it again in 1987.

In July 1986 cabinet also considered but rejected the possibility of permitting SBS to carry advertising, on the grounds that it was unlikely to be viable and would be strongly opposed by commercial television channels. Cabinet also noted in July 1986 that corporate sponsorship for the ABC would produce only "insignificant" savings and would be the "thin end of the wedge" towards commercialisation and interference with editorial standards.

In March 1987 Finance and Treasury unsuccessfully proposed that ABC and SBS should be permitted to accept corporate sponsorship (retaining 50 per cent of the revenue therefrom) and carry blocks of advertising for around five minutes of each hour.