PMB – Australian South Sea Islanders
Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (16:46): I move:
That this House:
(1) acknowledges the 20th anniversary of the Australian Government’s recognition of Australian-born South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic group in Australia;
(2) expresses deep regret
(a) over the cruel treatment of the approximately 60,000 South Sea Islanders, mainly young men, who were blackbirded (or essentially kidnapped) or lured onto ships and then transported to Australia for the purpose of indentured labour; and
(b) that a number of discriminatory acts followed, chief among these being the forced repatriation of Pacific Island labourers back to their place of origin in 1906, in many cases against the will of those being repatriated;
(3) acknowledges the considerable economic contribution of Australians of South Sea Islander descent to the establishment of the sugar industry in the state of Queensland, and other agricultural and industrial development in the north;
(4) celebrates the contributions of so many Australians of South Sea Islander descent to Australian life in every field of endeavour, from the football field to the political sphere; and
(5) calls for consideration of measures to ensure that Australians of South Sea Islander descent can achieve equity and assistance in this present day through:
(a) inclusion on the national census as a separate people group, by the simple addition of an extra question;
(b) access to diabetes treatment in the same way this is available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; and
(c) access to assistance in all areas of disadvantage such as health, housing, education and training.
Mr PITT (Hinkler) (16:52): I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.
Mr PITT (Hinkler) (16:57): The northern end of my electorate is completely flat. From the air, the cane fields look like a giant patchwork quilt. There is only one blemish on the otherwise flawless landscape—it is an extinct volcano known today as the Hummock. Just 96 metres above sea level, the Hummock Lookout offers ocean views to the east, to the west cane fields encircle the city of Bundaberg, and then there are the smokestacks that belong to the sugar mill and of course the rum distillery. The beaches are covered in volcanic rock but if you look closely you can see the fields have been cleared.
Dotted across the landscape are stone walls that were built by South Sea Islander labourers who worked the district’s plantations. These walls serve as a physical reminder of the blood, sweat and tears South Sea Islanders shed for the establishment of Queensland’s sugar industry. Most Australians have no idea that, even some 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, slavery was still rife in this country. Between 1863 and the early 1900s, South Sea islanders as young as 12 were ripped from their communities to work on Australian farms.
There is not enough time here today, in this place, for me to provide a detailed chronology of political and cultural events, but research shows about 60,000 South Sea islanders were blackbirded and in 1902 about 84 per cent of Queensland sugar labourers were non-white workers. It is widely regarded that, without Kanakas, very few of the old mills and plantations would have seen the light of day. In Queensland there are at least 40 pieces of discriminatory legislation on the statute books between 1900 and 1940—this includes the White Australia policy that resulted in many of them being forcibly repatriated. The practice of blackbirding was at one point rebranded indentured labour, to circumvent the slavery laws of Britain.
Australian South Sea islanders were not officially recognised as a distinct ethnic minority group by the Commonwealth until 1994. The Queensland parliament only formally recognised Australian South Sea islanders in July 2000 and in August last year the New South Wales parliament passed a motion acknowledging the ASSI community’s contribution to the state. As I understand it, the government in Vanuatu is now granting dual citizenship to Australian South Sea islanders. Their blackbirding history is now taught as part of the Vanuatu school curriculum. Australian South Sea islanders are defined as being those who are the descendants of the South Sea islanders brought to Australia as blackbirds or Kanakas. There are thousands of Kanaka descendants living in Australia, many in my electorate. Sadly, an official number has not been established.
This motion supports calls by the Australian South Sea islander community for a specific question in the Australian census to count them as a unique ethnic group in a similar method to questions 18 and 19 on some Centrelink forms. There is widespread confusion among many Australian South Sea islanders about how they should identify themselves on paper. In many cases, such as question 7 on the 2011 census, their only choice is between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. ASSI community leaders say this has resulted in many people slipping through the cracks. Without the necessary statistics to create a demographic, social and economic profile, government programs and services will not be as well targeted as they otherwise could be. Community leaders are working to finalise a national ASSI association constitution. In 2012, they held their inaugural conference in Bundaberg. I congratulate Matt Nagus, Joe Eggmolesse and Emelda Davis and many others for their efforts in seeking recognition for their people.
I worked in the sugar industry in Bundaberg from a young age both as an electrician and as a cane farmer. I grew up hearing stories about Kanakas and the backbreaking work they did it very difficult conditions. I have moved some of those rocks! To give the House some understanding of what they endured, I will read from a local newspaper clipping dated 4 October 1884: ‘John Arthur, the white man who put an ounce of lead through a Kanaka recently at Bingera, has been acquitted on charges of murder brought against him because Polynesian witnesses who were to give evidence could not be made to understand the nature of an oath or declaration.’ The report goes on to say: ‘Arthur made 12 Kanakas share a single ration,’ which was one pound of meat per man per day. The potatoes he gave them were not fit for pigs.
There are unmarked Kanaka graves on farms right across my electorate, and I have seen them. In some cases, they were buried right where they died in the field. The former member for Hinkler, Brian Courtice, fought to have 29 graves on Sunnyside farm heritage listed for protection. His family purchased the farm in the 1920s from local businessman Edward Turner. Turner financed the slave ship Ariel to bring South Sea islanders back to work on the local plantations. Brian continues to be an effective advocate for recognition of Australian South Sea islanders. A memorial garden and community centre is being created at the unmarked mass grave site on Johnston Street near Bundaberg cemetery.
It is important that we continue to ensure ASSI graves across the district, and indeed the country, are preserved. The contribution Australian South Sea islanders made to Queensland’s sugar industry and Bundaberg’s social fabric is extraordinary. Their story is one that is so little known but it deserves to be recognised for what it is—that is, an integral part of Australia’s history and its future.