The 1992-1993 Cabinet – transcript

Transcript of the presentation given by Professor Nicholas Brown and the Hon Robert Tickner at the National Archives of Australia for the 1992 and 1993 embargoed Cabinet records release, Canberra, 2 December 2016.

Louise Doyle, Assistant Director-General National Archives of Australia

Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us today for the embargoed release of the 1992 and 1993 Cabinet records. My name is Louise Doyle, Assistant Director-General at the National Archives responsible for access and communications.

Before we commence the official proceedings, I'd like to take a few moments to tell you about the conditions for the embargoed release. Many of you may be very familiar with this process; some of you may be new to it. I'd like to remind you, and some of you may be aware, that the National Archives is currently undertaking a massive logistical exercise with the relocation of 15 million records from our repositories in Canberra to our new National Archives repository facility at Mitchell.

This is a process that's going to take around eight months or more. Fifteen million records is a huge pile of documentation to be shifting from a number of sites. We are relocating, getting our systems up and running, and ensuring that what goes onto a shelf exactly should be on a particular shelf and that we can find it again.

This does mean, though, that original records held by the Archives in Canberra will not be available to access until July 2017. Our online records remain available, as do original records in other states and territories. And of course, you have the selected Cabinet records on the USBs that we've provided to you this morning.

Firstly, this briefing is for accredited members of the media only, so hopefully you've all signed on the dotted line. This annual embargoed release of records by the National Archives occurs with the approval of the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for the Cabinet records of previous governments. The embargo prohibits the publication or broadcast of the information until 1 January 2017. The embargo applies not only to the Cabinet records and the information we provide to you on the USB, but also to everything you hear at this morning's event.

The other requirement is that you acknowledge in your coverage the National Archives of Australia as custodian of the Cabinet records. You can find the required wording in the media user guide on your USB. As usual, we have provided contextual information about the records, as well as our historian's selection of key Cabinet papers. The National Archives is also recording this event, which will be a podcast on our website from 1 January.

So, to the Cabinet records. With the gradual implementation of the 20-year access rule, we now have two years of Cabinet records coming into the open period each year instead of one. It has therefore become rather impossible to proactively access clear and release under embargo all Cabinet documents that become available from that two-year period. We had noticed in the past that media stories were based on only a very small proportion of the total records released, so for the past few years we've asked for your assistance to identify the Cabinet topics that you see as the most interesting. We provided media outlets with embargoed lists of record titles much earlier this year, and many of you took the time to identify those you saw as having the best potential for a great story.

This year, because of our move to the new repository, we asked that you select from four years instead of two, and I'd like to thank everyone who's been involved in that process. We need your input more than ever to identify Cabinet documents that are likely to provide you with the best stories possible.

The documents we're releasing today under embargo include 242 decisions, submissions and memoranda. Of those documents, a very small amount of material has been withheld from public access. You will find details of documents with exemptions and the reasons for those exemptions in the media user guide on your USB. We are pleased that we have been able to make available almost all of the records that you requested earlier in the year.

Departmental files that give background to many of the issues considered by Cabinet are not part of today's embargoed release. Those files will be eligible for public release from 1 January next year, when you can request access to them. However, noting the disruption to services caused by our move to the new repository means that they won't be available until July. Records from the Cabinets of 1992 and 1993 that are not available as part of this embargoed release – including the remaining submissions, memoranda and decisions, and the Cabinet Office files – will also be eligible for access through requests from 1 January.

Embargoed access to the selected records is provided again on the USB, as I mentioned, which we hope will make downloading larger files easier. You will also find the media user guide, which contains Professor Brown's paper – and some of you may have that in hard copy now – giving an overview of the 1992 and 1993 Cabinet, the conditions of the embargo and contact details. The historian's selection of records comprises a list of documents Professor Brown has chosen as having special interest. You will also find a list of all records that have been access-cleared for this embargoed briefing, along with searchable PDF copies of the documents.

As always, we have provided on our website high-resolution images and captions which you can download. The 240 or more selected records made available to you today will be available, as I've said, to the public from 1 January. When copies of these submissions, memoranda and decisions are loaded onto our online collection database RecordSearch, this will provide all Australians, wherever they live, with access to these records from their own devices.

Now it gives me great pleasure to invite Director-General David Fricker to the podium to introduce our guests. Thanks, David.

David Fricker, Director-General National Archives of Australia

Thank you very much, Louise, and welcome everybody. For those of you I haven't met, I'm David Fricker, the Director-General of the National Archives of Australia. First, let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Also let me welcome the talent, our two guest speakers today. The former Minister, the Honourable Robert Tickner, and our Cabinet Historian, Professor Nicholas Brown from the Australian National University. We're very grateful to you, Mr Tickner, and you, Nicholas, for being with us today.

Both of our speakers will give us some insights this morning into the world of government and the machinations of the Cabinet and the broader government issues of the day that were present back in 1992 and 1993. Professor Brown is going to summarise the political landscape of the time, while Mr Tickner will share his memories of those years, and there will be plenty of time for questions and cross-examinations of both of our speakers after the presentation.

For me, it's great to have this annual event because it's a reminder of the central role of the Archives, which is to uphold transparency, integrity and accountability of government. It's just a reminder that the Archives is not a collection of a few curiosities that let people sneak a peek into Australia's past. The Archives, we're in the business of memory here. We keep the essential memory of the Commonwealth government of Australia in order to carry that from the past into the future.

We're not a collection of curiosities. As I say, we're a national asset, an information asset. Our role here is to make sure that all Australians can reflect upon the past so that they can think about the future. That's why it's so great to have this event here today, and have the crème de la crème of the fourth estate among us here as well today, so that we use these opportunities, as I say, to really think about the past so that we can think about the future. So with that, I'll introduce our speakers.

Now, I might also point out as well the issue du jour for us, before I do go into this. One of the biggest issues facing us at the moment is how we've performed our role in the digital age. Because I'm sure all of you would know from the work that you do that keeping the memory of Australia or the business of government is done on digital platforms. The multiplicity of technology and the rapidly accelerating cycles of replacement of technology is our fundamental concern at the moment to ensure that we are indeed preserving the memory of the nation for future generations.

Anyway, enough about me. We're here, as I say, to listen to our talent for today. So let me start with introducing Professor Nicholas Brown. Nicholas is a professor in the School of History, College of Arts and Social Sciences, at the ANU. He's published extensively on Australian political, environmental and social history, including most recently A History of Canberra and, with Susan Boden, A Way Through: the biography of Rick Farley. He has chapters in The Cambridge History of Australia and A Companion to the Australian Media.

From 2002 to 2004 he was Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at University College, Dublin, and previously worked in the departments of Defence, and Foreign Affairs and Trade. Professor Brown is currently head of the School of History at ANU and is collaborating in a biographic study, supported by the Australian Research Council, of the Australian economist Sir John Crawford. So please join me in welcoming Professor Brown to the podium.

Professor Nicholas Brown

Thank you David, and it's a great pleasure to be here. Can I begin also by acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we meet.

In framing reflections on the release of two years of Cabinet records, it helps to have a neat way of bookending the period. In this case, the task is relatively easy. Paul Keating became Prime Minister of Australia on 20 December 1991. On 21 December 1993, the Native Title Act was passed by the Senate after the longest, and perhaps the most tumultuous, debate in that chamber's history. Both events, almost exactly two years apart, offer a sharp perspective on Australian government in the period we're dealing with today, and particularly on the workings of its core, the Cabinet.

Now, we've become accustomed to leadership change in our highest political office. Keating's challenges of Bob Hawke, first in July 1991, then successfully but by a very narrow margin – 56 votes to 51 – in December 1991, were perhaps the first in the modern cycle of such instability. If not unexpected, Keating's succession was nonetheless a shock, even I think to its perpetrators. As Don Russell, his principal private secretary, remarked, the top job would only come to his boss when the government was a wreck.

Keating assumed office promising, 'a cohesive and comprehensive plan to get the country cracking', but the task was daunting. With personal approval ratings at 25 per cent, a continuing slump in the dollar and unemployment levels tracking past 10 per cent – levels not matched since the Great Depression – the new year began with this Plácido Domingo under close public scrutiny. Cabinet and a vanguard of senior officials and advisors rallied quickly to give him an aria, the bold 'One Nation' package of economic stimulus to return the nation to jobs and prosperity over four years. Then Cabinet turned to what could actually be delivered and what could not as successive months offered little good news.

If that's how our period began by tracking, its ending in the passing of the Native Title Actreflected a rather different message, but one which is equally integral to the significance of those years. Robert Tickner is in a much better position than me to account for the process that saw the government respond to the High Court's June 1992 Mabojudgement with legislative measures that sought to break with the past of Indigenous dispossession for a future centring on a negotiated recognition of rights of land ownership, access, use and compensation for Indigenous Australians.

The Prime Minister, I think Robert will agree, was central to the success of that process. As the Sydney Morning Herald saw it at the end of 1993, native title, quote, 'could yet be judged the most profound achievement of Paul Keating's political career'. These two years bristled with the Prime Minister's energy to move on this, as on several aspects of revitalising Australia's image of itself – the flag, the republic, regional engagement among them. Cabinet was a vital part of that process, if not always – as the papers show – completely on his side. Our period ends with several senior, long-term members of the Hawke–Keating governments making a decision that it was time to leave.

So, a beginning and an end, and a contrast. Economic transformation soon transmuted into some hard realities and compromises, while a push on new ideas of the nation stirred debate but also a brooding reflection of its own. Around the middle of this period, of course, came an election in March 1993, which commentators thought Labor had little chance of winning. The fifth victory in a row and with unemployment then past 11 per cent? Come off it. But the campaign soon narrowed down to a tactical focus on the threat of the Opposition's GST and led instead to Labor securing an increased majority from those Keating celebrated as, 'the true believers'. It was a great night.

That support soon seemed to grow disenchanted as the government's own economic discipline bit harder, a deficit tracking well past $15 billion, unemployment still past 11 per cent, a delay in the introduction of promised tax cuts, a hike in imposts on petrol, wine and tobacco. The list went on. In this transition, some have seen the true believers begin to morph into the battlers that would have the Keating government gone by March 1996. There are some great stories for you to tell from those seminal two years.

Now, my role in surveying the Cabinet papers themselves does not convey the intense politics of those years. For that, you would need at least to look at the Cabinet notebooks and in July 1992 the 50-year closure of that material was affirmed. So they wanted you to wait until 2042 to get access to that stuff, but current practice means you only have to bide your time here until 2022.

But the Cabinet papers do reflect something of the quality of advice and information departments were feeding into those debates, and ministers framed in dealing with them, and the frameworks within which those policy choices were weighed.

Now, as the warm-up act, let me perhaps focus on that contrast and then get off the stage for the main act. Through 1992, Cabinet was regularly updated on deteriorating Budget projections. The figures are in my essay and they make for a fairly sobering trajectory. The costs of the recession were continuing to push a rise in outlays on a range of support measures, a fall in revenue, and a slippage in asset sales, crucial ways in which the government sought to find money.

The government had, again as my essay details, an extensive list of what it wanted to sell, from Qantas and the rest of the Commonwealth Bank, through to the Snowy Mountains Authority, but it was not a seller's market. In this context, the drafting of 'One Nation' in intensive weeks through January up to its release on 26 February 1992 reflected both an imperative and a problem.

The imperative was to kick-start recovery and offer a sense of that big picture vision that was so central to Keating's status. The problem was how to do so in ways that seemed responsible and sustainable, and also to make a dent in the momentum the Liberals' Fightback! manifesto still had. The press was quick to make judgements on each count.

Several Cabinet papers from that early, intense period show how carefully the One Nation package was put together. By early January, many policy options were being fed into the process, but they were being sifted with a fine attention to what would serve to advance the government's fundamental, continuing, microeconomic goals of increasing competition and boosting labour market productivity. That message had not shifted. A heavy emphasis was placed on investment in infrastructure that would contribute to those goals.

In one fascinating submission – at least to me, but I'm a bit boring – calculations were made, for example, of the likely gain in efficiency of a given sum of money invested in enhancing railway in contrast to road. Road tended to be favoured, particularly since it was relatively unencumbered by the assurances to be sought from the states and the unions that they would match any investment with their own commitments on matters such as workplace reform. You won't get the money unless you commit to what was frankly termed 'downsizing' rather than giving any such laggards any opportunity to relax out of the discipline of market competition.

'One Nation's' largesse, including the targeting of those $8 billion tax cuts, was about increasing policy leverage as much as it was about winning political credibility, and, as Paul Keating himself has conceded, that balance was not easily struck. So John Dawkins' argument as Treasurer that the package might include a deferment in the Superannuation Guarantee Levy was rejected by Cabinet. There would be no compromise on the government's commitment to a national superannuation system.

Equally, however, Brian Howe's suggestion that his Building Better Cities program, initiated in 1991, might be consolidated as part of the stimulus package of 'One Nation' through an encouragement of private investment in social housing was defiantly set aside. That program was instead to be oriented more decisively to infrastructure provision that could show a clear return on efficiency. Any ideas advanced of establishing a basic policy benchmark in areas such as housing affordability were simply out of the question.

With an emphasis, however, on focusing stimulus on the more disadvantaged communities, One Nation did seek to rejuvenate engagement with regional Australia, and this would become a theme in Cabinet discussion throughout the period that we're looking at today. But again, with the concession, 'that job creation and infrastructure development in such areas would be cheaper than in the cities'. You could get more political bang for your buck in investing in regional development than in dealing with the complexities of urban Australia.

Even here, the scrutiny was exacting. The textile, clothing and footwear industry in early January was identified as a valuable vehicle for such stimulus, but such a prospect was quickly brushed aside. Again, I'm quoting a submission: 'There must surely be a query over any plan to attract via subsidies new entrants to an industry which has demonstrated capacity for being unable to match international standards of competitiveness.' You might generate jobs if you put some money into regional textile, clothing and footwear industries, but for the past eight years we've been trying to close those industries down because they're unable to compete, so let's not go there', and that again was swept from the table.

If 'One Nation' looked like pork-barrelling and a remarkable departure for a government which had to this point stuck to toughing out the recession we had to have, it also remained true to the Labor agenda of the 1980s. It exemplified that tension John Button often worried about in 10 years as Minister for Industry and Commerce until he left politics with the 1993 election: Was economic uncertainty the best time to push ahead with national reconstruction?

This then was the general context. There were specific settings. The commitments of early 1992 were frequently revisited as the deficit deepened and the kick-start seemed not to have worked. Even as signs of recovery came, they were uneven, and so Cabinet was advised in mid-1993 that, 'Australia is likely to be one of the many countries that will be characterised by only moderate growth, relatively high unemployment and low inflation for quite some time to come.'

If Australian industries could not become more competitive, Cabinet was advised, 'then living standards will have to fall to increase national saving'. There were several moves to increase that competitiveness. In mid-1992 the government pushed past the deep reservations of the Industrial Relations Commission to introduce workplace agreements as the next, final stage you might argue, of its Accord process. The objective, as explained by Peter Cook, Minister for Industrial Relations, was, 'to facilitate the parties to take increasing responsibility for their own industrial relations outcomes'.

Yet actually getting a job in which you might exercise greater self-regulation was a bit of a challenge. It was proving hard for many. With a projection that the incidence of unemployment among young jobseekers in particular was likely to 'settle' – again was the phrase – 'at 30 per cent for quite some time to come'.

The government began a long-term consultative process to address these issues, with a particular focus on the young unemployed, leading to the optimistically titled 1993 Green Paper, Restoring Full Employment – that's a bold claim, isn't it – and, in 1994, to Working Nation. But for the time being, responses seemed to many to be piecemeal, perceptions which were highlighted in many aspects of the 1993 election campaign.

That campaign itself saw some moderating of positions from both sides, particularly over the pace and objectives of phasing out protection. Were such concessions expedient or considered? But there were principles being developed, drawing on perspectives that seemed to me quite fresh within the Cabinet papers.

One such perspective was an increasingly specific focus on the impact of social trends and of policy, on women in particular, in part reflecting the Cabinet's response to Michael Lavarch's 1992 'Half way to equal' report, and probably I suspect the appointment of Anne Summers to the Prime Minister's personal staff. If a core priority was to increase women's access to, and productivity within, the workforce, it still led to a series of initiatives in the provision of affordable childcare, for example, and amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to make dismissal on grounds of family responsibility unlawful and to ensure that a range of discriminative acts, including sexual harassment, became more enforceable in industrial awards.

Cabinet through these years received regular briefings on the impact of policy on women, or the 'sensitivities', as it was put, of women to policies, not necessarily the same thing. As I look back over the Cabinet papers I've read over recent years, this awareness seems new to the period that we're covering today, and to begin to bring issues with which we are now familiar, such as implicit cultural [permissions] to sexual violence, into closer consideration around the Cabinet table. A principle, a precedent.

Other, now-familiar, principles were also being consolidated. In a series of submissions through 1992, Gerry Hand as Immigration Minister proceeded, 'as a matter of urgency', to amend the Migration Act to, 'enable people who arrive by boat to be taken into custody, including those already living in the community'. He sought a power of detention that would – again, I'm quoting the submission – 'be inviolable from interference by the courts', a power Cabinet was prepared to concede as again, 'a last resort'.

If the first legislation sought to deal only with arrivals within a set period of time, and to limit the period for mandatory detention for 273 days, another precedent was nonetheless set and was soon built upon: mandatory detention of boat people. Equally, Hand sought to distance the provision of welfare assistance to asylum seekers from any direct association with the government, and as an entitlement, by seeking to channel funds set at rates that were determined to be significantly below any equivalent support for Australian citizens through a voluntary agency instead.

Cabinet worried over this, both the principle and the practicality of farming out the provision of welfare support to voluntary agencies, but eventually agreed. Australia must not become, as the Cabinet submission put it, 'an easy target' in the escalating business of, 'spontaneous people movement'. Interesting way of describing refugees: 'spontaneous people movement'.

This concern carried over from the last years of the Hawke government, gaining in intensity in the period we're concerned with today, so there's continuity. In other areas, I think there was a clearer sense of discontinuity, particularly in environmental policy. The compromises between economic development and the green vote had been one of the major issues fomenting discord between Keating's supporters and Hawke as Prime Minister, and even appeared in the language of the Cabinet papers we reviewed last week, openly canvassed discord within Cabinet over those compromises.

The Keating Cabinet, at least in 1992, 1993 – woodchips would change the story in 1994 – was careful to lock down and preserve the economic dimensions of sustainable development as against its environmental dimensions and to insist that areas – again, I'm quoting from a submission – 'should not just be locked up in the cause, for example, of the preservation of endangered species'.

A phrase – and it's often interesting to look at what happens to official language during this period. Each period I've looked at has its own kind of catchphrase. For this period, the phrase that I was struck by in several instances was a phrase that crept into submissions on conservation and resource security matters. The phrase was 'no-regrets policy'. The government should seek a 'no-regrets policy'. What did that mean? Which was defined in a 1992 paper as, 'actions which involve little or no additional cost, cause minimal disruption to industry or the community, and which also offer benefits other than environmentally related'.

Approaches which sought to include the widest range of stakeholder interests, to secure the interests of state governments to keep them onside, to offer stability became the preferred approach, exemplified by the Regional Forest Agreement process which began to be applied in this period. But as demonstrated in discussion of a late-1993 submission on approaches to one of the most protracted disputes over logging in the forests of south-eastern New South Wales, the need to preserve credibility of such processes did not trump the priority of giving certainty to some stakeholders who had more political clout than others.

There's not time to touch on all the issues canvassed in these Cabinet papers. The basic point I suppose I'm making is that the four-year promise of recovery in 1992 faded fast, and by the end of 1993, ministers were counselled that the scope for new policy was – 'severely limited'. Initiatives in education, for example, sought to create a more flexible response to – 'the significant decline in opportunities available to school leavers and also in the rates of progression from school to higher education, which had hit the lowest levels since 1979'.

In health – Keating having quickly dumped the first Medicare co-payment but raised the levy – Cabinet moderated an early confrontational approach to doctors by seeking to carefully handle the profession in gaining their cooperation in reducing fraud and over-servicing. The big picture was hard to hold in focus as these more specific areas of management had to be dealt with, and as the difficult problems conceded in 'One Nation' continued to seem unresolved.

Still, amid these challenges the Prime Minister did keep the refashioning of Australian nationalism before Cabinet. Ministers agreed in December 1992 to replace an oath of allegiance to the sovereign with a pledge of commitment as a citizen to the Commonwealth of Australia. The change was presented as, 'consistent with the Government's policies relating to strengthening the sense of national identity, citizenship and multiculturalism and to avoiding the anachronism and sterility of the past'.

In May 1993, Cabinet affirmed election commitments to establish a republic advisory committee. Chaired by Malcolm Turnbull, this group reported on options by the end of the year advising – again, I'm quoting its report – 'that a republic is achievable without threatening Australia's cherished democratic institutions'. In pursuit of a similar kind of maturity, Cabinet endorsed the amendment of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to include an offence of racial vilification encompassing acts, quote, 'that publicly incite others to hate, have furious contempt for or severely ridicule a person or group of people because of their race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin'.

As Minister for Justice Michael Tate explained in 1992, to amend the law in that way had an educative effect as much as an enforcement role, particularly in dealing with issues that were deeply shaped by social inequality. As Tate argued, 'by prescribing certain beliefs and acts as antisocial warranting the imposition of legal sanctions for a breach of community standards in this regard, we would deny emphatically whatever legitimacy may have been afforded so far to racist views because of government inaction and community indifference'. This resolution formed the basis of section 18C, which would eventually be included in the Act in 1995. Sound familiar? Relevant?

Part of the power of the records you are gaining access to today is in the ways in which they help us, as good history always should, to interrogate the present. Keating was really good at that. There was the Redfern speech of 10 December 1992, and there was the journey Cabinet embarked on as it rather tentatively engaged with the ramifications of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, issues which were then thrown into sharp relief by the Mabo decision of 1992, and then given a razor edge when the Wik peoples lodged their claim over Cape York land that included mining leases in June 1993.

But for that story, you have somebody much better qualified than me to listen to. Thank you.

David Fricker

Thank you, Nicholas. It does indeed. One thing about moving from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule: you really start to get a sense that these records are still alive, very much alive, and with a lot of contemporary relevance. So thank you very much. I'm not going to take up any time because, as I say, we want to move along to the star attraction for today.

Let me now introduce the Honourable Robert Tickner, just briefly, because there is too much of your CV to go through in detail. But I do just want to highlight a few things by way of introduction. Before his election to the federal Parliament in 1984, Robert Tickner held various positions. He was a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Business Studies at the Institute of Technology and principal solicitor to the New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service.

He also served as a Councillor on the Sydney City Council. Following his time in Parliament, he's worked in a range of humanitarian organisations. He worked as CEO of Job Futures, and CEO and Secretary-General of the Australian Red Cross. Currently, he's the chair of the board of a membership-based NGO promoting a new core humanitarian standard for delivering international humanitarian relief. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement recently appointed him as an independent monitor at the MoU between Palestine Red Crescent Society and the MDA [Magen David Adom] of Israel.

Of course, from 1990 to 1996, Robert Tickner served as federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and is the longest-serving minister in this portfolio in the history of Australian government. His achievements in that role are far too many to list, but I would like just to highlight the national response to the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

After the historic Mabo land rights decision of the High Court, his influence in the legislation to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of course resulting in the Native Title Act, and the final highlight, as I mentioned, is as Minister proposing the national inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people separated from their families that, of course, led to the Australian Government's apology to the Stolen Generations.

Again, these are pivot points in Australia's history and just provide a glimpse of the very profound developments over which Mr Tickner has presided. So please join me in welcoming Robert to the podium.

Robert Tickner

Well, good morning everybody. At the outset, I wish to also acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to their elders past and present. David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives, other members of the Archives family present here today, Dr Nicholas Brown, it's an honour to be invited to speak at this occasion, starting the process whereby Australians get their annual window into the Cabinet processes of our great and robust democracy.

I'm really humbled to be here. The debates of the Cabinet and in the wider Australian community during 1992 and 1993 massively impacted on my portfolio, and I was deeply immersed in all of them. I should add for the record that I've long ceased to be a partisan political figure and after politics reinvented myself and found other ways to give effect to my continuing humanitarian values. Some would say that my quality of life is immeasurably increased as a result.

I therefore come here today not to reignite a political career or to settle scores – because I have none to settle – or to re-enter the ongoing political fray. I stand here only for the purpose of commenting on those years and to make some non-partisan pleas to our political leaders to pick up the baton of reform in Indigenous affairs, learning the lessons of history as revealed in the Cabinet papers.

Before I deal with the Maboissues, I want to deal with the very important Cabinet papers that relate to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. There are three major submissions in those papers relating to the Royal Commission. For those interested in reading more, I've devoted a chapter to the issues in my book, Taking a Stand, published in 2001. By the way, I receive no royalties from this book. I gave them away, so when I mention it today, it's not to promote sales. But you can get it online, but I have no interest financially in it.

I was given the ministerial responsibility by Bob Hawke to coordinate a truly national Royal Commission response, not only within the Australian Government, but to also coordinate the response of state and territory governments. This was a massive, year-long, all-consuming task given that there were 339 recommendations with two-thirds directly linked to criminal justice-related issues, traditionally seen as the more direct responsibility of state and territory governments. I took a very personal, hands-on role and through a process best described as dogged determination, I achieved a remarkable buy-in and support by all political parties and every government in Australia to support the Royal Commission recommendations.

You'll also see from the Cabinet papers that Cabinet also put in place a detailed monitoring and accountability regime to hold governments accountable for their promises. With limited exceptions, the Royal Commission recommendations are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago, but overwhelmingly those recommendations have not been implemented, either by the national government or by successive state and territory governments. Worse still, governments of all political persuasions covered up their failure by eroding the agreed monitoring and accountability arrangements that were to be put in place.

Meanwhile, the numbers of Aboriginal people in custody and the number of Aboriginal kids in detention has gone through the roof. I warned about this 15 years ago in the book that I've referred to. As of June 2015, Indigenous prisoners accounted for 27 per cent of prisoners, and a staggering 54 per cent of juvenile detainees between the ages of 10 to 17 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids. With all due respect to the Australian Law Reform Commission, which does fine work in other areas, we simply do not need another report to tell us why Aboriginal people are over-represented in custody.

I use this occasion to call on our Prime Minister to support a national audit of the implementation of the Royal Commission recommendations, and then to personally drive a reform agenda at COAG as the Keating government was committed to do had it been re-elected. This is not a job for an Indigenous Affairs Minister but rather a job for a Prime Minister who can command the authority of the nation and his own government agencies to engender a whole-of-government response. These issues are no longer just state and territory issues. They're a truly national embarrassment over successive governments, and the Prime Minister needs to address these things.

This also ought to be an issue that's above party politics and one where Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten could stand together. In doing so, they'd be following the growing movement of political leaders internationally who are becoming champions of sweeping prison reform. If you don't believe me, read the speeches of prison reform by the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and those of Barack Obama. David Cameron, in a landmark speech before he left office, described prison reform as one of the great progressive causes of British politics.

Prison reform should also be a cause which unites left and right, as is increasingly occurring in the USA, where Republicans and self-proclaimed right-wing think tanks have spoken out and acted to champion prison reform, as has the Institute of Public Affairs in this country, commendably done. The IPA realises that in the Australian context we can get a much better bang for our annual expenditure of $3.4 billion by driving prison and criminal justice reform. I also welcome the support of the Law Council of Australia for the Change the Record campaign being led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

Turning now to the Mabo-related Cabinet documents, I have nothing but admiration for the diligence and dedication that Paul Keating displayed over the course of the 18 months following the judgement. I fully appreciate his repeated public acknowledgement that it was the most difficult thing he did during his time as Prime Minister.

Responding to the decision and to the non-stop, torrid and at times vitriolic public attacks on the Mabo judgement and the proposed government response also certainly dominated my own life through all that time and on a daily basis. Paul Keating showed great political courage to deliver a just outcome for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people after 204 years of the legal system denying their rights through that pernicious doctrine of terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.

Everything I say today should be seen in that context, and while from time to time I had strong disagreements that the direction the government was heading during the course of the Mabo Cabinet deliberations, I never believed for one moment that the battle could be won without the leadership of Paul Keating.

However, the work of the government was also part of a continuum and built on the reconciliation process I set in place during 1991, with the expressed intention of driving a national agenda for change. In that year, prior to the High Court decision, the Australian Parliament unanimously passed the legislation to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to carry the process forward. I acknowledge the work of Dr Michael Wooldridge, the Shadow Minister, in helping to secure the support of the Coalition.

The Cabinet papers released today record the continuing Keating government funding and support for the work of the Council. It cannot be disputed that the reconciliation process helped drive the response of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and of course, the just outcome in the Native Title Act. You will see that it's referred to repeatedly in the major Cabinet submissions and the Cabinet documents which are now being released.

I think it's fair to say that the reconciliation process has helped shape modern Australia and influenced the thinking of many people, including Paul Keating, as he's acknowledged. Most importantly, however, he was the one who put meat on the bones of the reconciliation process through his leadership of the Mabo response.

I was in the High Court on the day of the judgement in June 1992, and Rick Farley was there. Right from the beginning, the government welcomed the decision, with the Prime Minister saying that, and I quote, 'it removed a great barrier to reconciliation', as indeed it did. The earlier Cabinet papers show the progress of the response, with the government establishing a Mabo ministerial committee.

The government realised the huge challenge which lay ahead, with state and territory governments having traditional responsibility for land management issues, the powerful mining and pastoral industries having had a longstanding record of opposition to Aboriginal land aspirations, and an Australian community which did not yet understand the implications of this landmark High Court decision.

One challenge confronting the government was to convey the messages that the High Court had already overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, and recognised the continuing existence of native title on the mainland. The decision did not represent a threat to the land-holding interests of the wider Australian community, and backyards were safe.

The initial options for the government response were wide, and they were set out in a Cabinet submission put forward by the Prime Minister, Attorney-General, Michael Duffy, and me. What you'll see from the Cabinet papers is a real integrity in both the process and the good intentions on the part of the Government, with the launch of a genuine consultation process and a search for workable solutions.

In the six months after the Mabo decision was delivered in the High Court in 1992, the cross-party support for the government's consultation process largely continued. Significantly, as 1992 drew to a close, Paul Keating delivered the Redfern speech, and in doing so set the bar very high for the government to respond in a principled way to the judgement and to meet the expectations of the reconciliation process.

Following the federal election of March 1993, however, the political climate changed radically, and the cross-party support which existed was ripped away, principally in my view because of the pressures of the Australian mining industry and those from state and territory governments led by then-Premier Richard Court, but also including pressure from the Queensland Labor government.

The fundamental difference I had with the strategic direction of the government's proposed response to the High Court decision over those 18 months was that I never believed that there was a snowflake's chance in hell that the Australian mining industry – as it was then, and I think things have changed –, and indeed most state and territory governments would ever agree to any proposed legislation in which mining interests were subject to the very reasonable and modest interests of Aboriginal people. The view Mr Court promoted was that the Commonwealth should leave it to the states, and Mr Court wanted to effectively wipe out native title.

It was thus my view right from the beginning of the Mabo debate that there was simply no way that the Liberal and National parties would ever have supported the government's legislation in the Senate. It's also strongly my view that the endgame must always involve a process which sought to properly respect Aboriginal aspirations, and there not only needed to be a just outcome but it needed to be both seen by Aboriginal people and by history to have protected and respected their interests at this historic time, and I was determined to do all I could to ensure this outcome.

Many of you in this room today, and many even younger Australians, would understandably have no real appreciation of the vitriol, intolerance and scaremongering that was perpetuated in the debate on Mabo during 1993 in particular. Some of it makes Donald Trump's election campaign look like the free-flowing milk of human kindness.


Really. There's not time today to go into the detail of the attempts of these spoilers and wreckers who sought to derail the integrity of the Maboresponse, but the whole gory detail is set out in my book for those who want to understand the context in which these Cabinet discussions were taking place.

During the course of 1993 there were also two major clashes with the mining industry that for a time derailed the government's Mabo response and fractured the trust relationship with Aboriginal people. Both were highly complex issues and they're dealt with, as I've said, in the book. The first was the proposed McArthur River mine, and the second arose from the lodgement of the Wik claim. The bottom line of these Cabinet deliberations was that the majority of the Cabinet was prepared to go to lengths to over-ride Aboriginal interests to meet the demands of state and territory governments and the mining industry.

However, I want to make it clear I never saw Paul Keating cowed by any pressure from state or territory premiers or the mining or pastoral industries, either in the public debate or in the Cabinet process. This was further reflected in the fact that the government was not prepared to legislate to obliterate title on pastoral leases, believing that whether or not native title co-existed was ultimately a matter for the courts to decide. In any event, no decision could take away the existing rights of pastoral interests.

It also needs to be said, however, in the gentlest possible way, that very often in the Cabinet processes it got very lonely for a Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs as some of my other colleagues were fierce advocates either for the interests represented in their portfolio or in some cases for a state Labor government. As the recent book by Troy Bramston confirmed, I frequently clashed both with those ministers and with public servants who advocated similar views. They were advocating in good faith but I honestly believe that they were wrong on both history and principles.

As the year progressed, the pressure on the government became even more intense, and when the final fork in the policy road appeared, Paul Keating had a choice either to push for a deal with some states that failed to meet Aboriginal aspirations, or to reach a negotiated outcome with Aboriginal leadership. Of course, we know he chose the ethical route, the principled response that cemented his place in history.

I cannot emphasise how important these subsequent negotiations were, and I think it can be accurately said that this was the first time, from 1788 until then, when the Aboriginal people of the land or their representatives were in face-to-face, genuine negotiations with the leader of a state or territory government, let alone with the Prime Minister of Australia. Lowitja O'Donoghue was magnificent as a leader, and she had strength and stamina and she set a cracking pace for the younger members of the negotiating team.

The Aboriginal negotiators were strong, clear of purpose and courageous, and an outcome was negotiated with the Prime Minister that both respected the High Court decision and gave them some important additional rights and interests while making sure that the rights of non-Indigenous Australians were protected. The outcomes were subsequently confirmed through the Cabinet processes and a final package was then painstakingly negotiated through the Senate.

It's now 24 years down the track and I wanted to give you some insight into the fact that politicians are people too, and that life goes on despite the huge pressures of that portfolio and of having a marginal seat. To share the joys of ministerial life during that time, during '92 and '93, I had a dead rat sent to me in the mail, my electorate office was partially destroyed by an arson attack, and I had repeated death threats which resulted in guards being placed on my home.

In the middle of all this, my son Jack was born, on 28 September 1992, and then for me, another huge life event took place as the pressures of the Mabo debate began to rage in the early days of 1993. I kept it secret from the media, it was an intensely private matter, and I speak of it now only for the first time to share this personal dimension. In January of 1993, as an adopted person, I was reunited with my birth mother on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. It began a private journey as transformative for me as was the public journey Australia travelled over the Maboresponse.

The release of these Cabinet papers tells us much about the importance of making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues an area of policy which should be led by our Prime Minister if we are to achieve a just reconciliation for our country. I'd like to raise two areas of unfinished business for consideration by our current political leaders. Firstly, tackling the critical issues of outstanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage is a matter that ought to be common ground on both sides of Parliament, but working in close partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations.

There's no serious disagreement from anyone that things are moving too slowly. There's still a challenge and much work to be done to tackle that disadvantage in such areas as health, housing, substance abuse, violence in communities, employment, education and other priority areas. There's also a huge overlap here with the underlying issues recognised by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody giving rise to the hugely disproportionate rate of Aboriginal imprisonment. These are fixable social problems. I've always believed that, but things won't change much and won't be prioritised unless our current and future prime ministers seize the agenda and become its champion in the same way that Paul Keating did for Mabo.

I think Malcolm Turnbull is a good and decent person who wants to do the right thing in Aboriginal affairs, but expressed good intentions are not enough without the necessary leadership to generate real change, and I desperately hope he seizes the moment on this. I think he needs to capture the momentum of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which occurs on 27 May next year [2017], to announce major policy commitments to address these issues. But he needs to do so in a way that enjoys strong support from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as well as the Opposition, as the referendum did almost 50 years ago.

If this does not happen, which I would find very sad, and the challenge is left to a future Labor government, I'm encouraged that Mr Shorten has given himself responsibility for Indigenous affairs, especially with Senator Patrick Dodson having the role to assist him in this area. However, they have much work to do.

Additionally, a social justice package of measures was to be the Keating government's committed third-stage response to the Mabo decision, and such an initiative was later supported by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Prominent Indigenous advocates have recently reminded the nation of this unfinished business, and I strongly support their advocacy in this regard.

Secondly, I want to add my voice to that of Paul Keating in renewing the call for some kind of treaty or negotiated document with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as one of the outcomes of the reconciliation process. This is what the Parliament committed to properly consider when the reconciliation process was set up in 1991, and this issue will not go away. Personally, I'm not hung up on the word 'treaty', but the title of the document can come later.

What is important is that we think about how the outcome of the reconciliation process can best be embodied in a negotiated document. We don't need to be afraid to have some slow-burn public discussion around these issues, and it need not be seen as an alternative to some form of constitutional recognition, as challenging as that's proving to be. The reports of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation give us valuable insights and information on options of proceeding down this path.

To end my contribution today to the release of these Cabinet papers, let me say how privileged I believe I have been, firstly to have worked for the Aboriginal Legal Service as a young man, and then to have been gifted the role by two prime ministers to be the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs at such a pivotal time in Australian history. For that I remain ever grateful, and especially grateful for working with so many inspirational Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the years. For me, being in the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio was the best job in the Parliament except for being Prime Minister. Thank you very much.


David Fricker:
Thank you very much, Robert, for that, and thank you also for sharing with us your personal insights and also that very personal moment in your life, which as I sat there listening to it, I was thinking about you managing the reconciliation …

Robert Tickner:
It was a busy year.

David Fricker:
Yeah, it was a busy year. But there was a moment of reconciling the Australian nation with the first peoples of Australia and then you had your own moment of very personal reconciliation. So thank you very much for sharing that with us, and for that inspirational speech that you've just given us. Thank you also for speaking as much about the future as you did speaking about your recollections of the past. What I'd like now to do is to hand over to Louise Doyle, who will facilitate some Q&A for both of our speakers. Thanks, Louise, over to you.

Louise Doyle:
Well, thank you. Thank you to Nicholas and to Robert, and now we have the opportunity for you to ask questions. We have two roving mikes. Put your hand up; I'll point to you. We'll invite Robert back up here to the microphone, and Nick will stay at the front here, and we will guide the questions to the relevant responder.

[Aside discussion]

Louise Doyle:
What I'd like you to do is indicate who you are and who you're representing, if a particular media outlet, so that we can capture that. We have a question over the back there.

Markus Mannheim:
Thank you. Markus Mannheim, Canberra Times and Fairfax. I just wondered – I hope this is a simple question, for Robert Tickner – it's about the Native Title Act. You mentioned it was a lonely time to be Aboriginal Affairs Minister. I wanted to know the extent to which your Cabinet colleagues opposed the very concept of native title, or at least some of them. Also, if you look back in hindsight now, the Native Title Act was amended significantly under the Howard government. What do you think might have happened if it hadn't been amended? Would the welfare of Australian Aboriginals be different today, with the Wik amendments?

Robert Tickner:
Thank you. First of all, can I just repeat what I said before, that in the way the government conducted its Cabinet deliberations, there was a real integrity, and I really mean that. I'll never forget Paul Keating sitting at that table with his very imposing pen, always deep in thought, always focused – seriously – on incredibly complex issues. So there was that integrity. And I can also say without hesitation there was no equivocation by anybody in the Cabinet room ever about the importance of Mabo, the importance of the reconciliation process.

The question was where you draw the line in respect of Aboriginal interests. The heart and soul of the Labor Party was with a just outcome and that's why Keating is acclaimed so publicly. More than that, I truly believe that the heart of the nation was for a just outcome. Thinking people knew that this was not going to come again as an opportunity. On the second question, you'll notice that I've tried to steer away from the Howard years.

I do think that the amendments were regrettable. I think it was in 1998, and I do regret the fact that there was that failure to apologise to the Stolen Generations, and I think there were some lost years. I'm sorry for John because I think John Howard did some other important things – on Timor-Leste, on gun control – but I don't think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs was where he left the mark that he could have, and I'm sad about that. Thank you.

Louise Doyle:
Middle, and then Troy, and then on this end here.

Brendan Nicholson:
Hello, Mr Tickner. Brendan Nicholson from The Australian. Many of us would remember the atmosphere at the time now, without the knowledge of the intensity and the vitriol that you faced. But there was a real sense in the nation of very strong movement and a feeling that all of this was going to be solved. Now you've talked about the need for leadership from the current and future prime ministers, you've talked about the starting point being an audit of the implementation of the Royal Commission's recommendations. Are there particular recommendations that you feel would have made a difference or could be more easily implemented now?

Robert Tickner:
Thank you for your question, because it allows me to have quite a dialogue and exchange around the Royal Commission. The first thing to say is two-thirds of the Royal Commission recommendations related to criminal justice issues and the evidence is that while there have been some improvements in some areas:
there are less people hanging themselves in cells because the fixed points that people could use to hang themselves had been removed, and some other very significant changes in state policing in various areas, and some other very welcome reforms.

Of course, there have been a great many recommendations that haven't been implemented, and imprisonment being the last resort is obviously one of those that the evidence shows completely the contrary outcome.

The second thing that the Royal Commission said was that there had to be a total shift in the way we dealt with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations. The old, paternalistic way; the old way of governments simply acting without negotiation, talking, and without targeting funds and resources to Aboriginal community-based organisations; to fundamentally change the way that governments do business with Aboriginal people; that unless those underlying issues were addressed, then there would be no change.

So there's two broad things in the Royal Commission recommendations:
the criminal justice recommendations; secondly, the underlying issues, which is about the marginalisation of Aboriginal people which led to that incarceration or substantially contributed to it. For example, overwhelmingly, the 99 people who died in custody were unemployed as at the date of their incarceration, there were massive substance abuse issues. I think 43 of the 99 were separated from their families by policies of government. You've seen these statistics and I don't want to go into that detail.

My point today is yes, an audit would be valuable because why would you want to reinvent the wheel when the principles have been agreed to by every political party and by every government in Australia of all political persuasions? We're spending public money here; come on. The blueprint for change is there. I think it would be a valuable starting point, but my other point, when I reached out to Mr Shorten and Mr Turnbull, was to really get them to seize the day, to seize the moment, and particularly look at that 50th anniversary of the referendum as a very symbolic way to do something very wonderful for the country.

The reason I call on a Prime Minister to do that is because you need to understand what it's like for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander minister who goes into a Cabinet process asking for resources. You haven't got too many friends in the room. Have a look at the – and I'm not speaking of the Keating government, I'm speaking of all governments – because you've got Treasury, Finance always wanting to reduce expenditure. There's always other priorities.

That's the first problem, but also, more importantly, if you mount the argument that the Indigenous Affairs portfolio shouldn't be the responsible organisation on its own for dealing with these disadvantages. If you say that the education systems of the states and territories and of the Commonwealth, that the employment departments and resources of the states and territories of the Commonwealth, of the health departments of all those governments, with all their vast resources, if you want to really drive change.

Let me tell you, no Aboriginal Affairs Minister, whether it's Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, or me, or the current one, no one can change the rules. It's got to be driven as a national leadership issue, as a national priority, by our Prime Minister. Keating did it on Mabo, and subsequent prime ministers, someone is going to – in that office up on the hill, someone is going to do this. Because at the moment it's ineffectual, half-hearted and doesn't have the full resources of a Commonwealth commitment behind it, which was envisaged by the '67 referendum.

Louise Doyle:

Troy Bramston:
Troy Bramston from The Australian newspaper. Thank you for your presentation, Mr Tickner. Can I ask you to again reflect on the Cabinet process to do with the native title legislation and particularly two things? I know that you and Paul Keating were sometimes on the losing side of Cabinet debates. Can you reflect on that because we won't often hear that story in the Cabinet papers?

Secondly, the discussions that you had in your own mind about possibly resigning as minister during that process, which you write about in your book, could you also reflect on that and how close you came?

Robert Tickner:
Well, first of all, I referred to your book and thank you for some of the things you wrote in that book, it was quite interesting, I think. People have written books about the Cabinet processes, and Neal Blewett I guess is one of those. Neal Blewett is a wonderful fellow but you'll never find me saying 'Mary said this, Tom said that, John went out to the bathroom'. That's not what I do. I'm not comfortable with that and I don't think it's right for me.

I don't want to go into individuals, but it's a matter of record. Some of it's in your own book and what I've written, that during the course of particularly the debate around the pressure on the government from the mining industry and the Queensland government in response to the Wik decision, that it was a very difficult time and didn't turn out the way that I hoped it would. At the end of the day I think that we were able to get through all that and get the just response.

Sorry, the other part of your question was?

Troy Bramston:
Well, about being on the losing side of argument with Keating and the two of you.

Robert Tickner:
Oh yes, I know.

Troy Bramston:
And the resignation.

Robert Tickner:
No wonder I forgot it.


Robert Tickner:
Well, look, I'm not a prima donna. I was never going to use resignation as a stunt, but I think I would have resigned with a broken heart, with a broken heart, if we hadn't got a just response because I couldn't have lived with it. That's how it was. I've never sought to grandstand on this. I've never talked about it publicly before, but hey, it didn't happen. I tell this story of basically coming out of Jervis Bay as we're down there the day after this epic Cabinet meeting, this fork in the road, when there was every indication that the Government was going down the road of doing the deals with the states.

When I got back on the highway from Jervis Bay, the phone rang and it was Lowitja O'Donoghue on the phone and she was jumping out of her skin, she was so fired up. Of course, she had led that important media conference. Terribly painful for Paul and I'm sure he was incredibly angry at the time, but you know what? It was the turning point, the breakthrough. Of course, he then challenged the Aboriginal negotiators to talk with him. They didn't need the challenge but they were there ready to go. That's fantastic, fabulous history.

When I said about the first time there was a real negotiation from 1788, I really meant it. Of course, what the [power] Aboriginal people had was the weight of argument with the Labor Party, where there was this huge expectation that we were going to do the right thing. And of course, the challenge of the Senate, where already the Coalition had pretty much made it clear they weren't going to vote for this legislation no matter what happened, and Richard Court was their cheer squad.

Meanwhile, in the Senate the Greens and the Democrats were holding the balance of power, so it was a genuine negotiation. The Government was never going to give everything that was demanded and Aboriginal people were, I think, overwhelmingly hard-headed and principled in what they sought to negotiate. They weren't about wrecking the mining industry or wrecking the pastoral industry. They just wanted for the first time in the history of our country some rules, some principles that would essentially give them a place in the sun as the Indigenous people of the land. It was heady, wonderful times.

Max Blenkin:
Max Blenkin from Australian Associated Press, Mr Tickner. There's a bit of mythology now that no one was more surprised about winning in '93 than Labor and Paul Keating. Did you think you'd win, and what was your reaction when you did?


Max Blenkin:
And out of left field, what would you think of Tony Abbott being Indigenous Affairs Minister now?

Robert Tickner:
[Laughs] Well, look, I was a marginal seat-holder, marginal enough. I always thought I was going to lose from the day I was elected when there was a redistribution. Yeah, look, I hoped to heaven that we would be re-elected because I had a vision, I had a view, I knew what things I wanted to do. I've told this story in the book that I wrote that I got back to my office late night after campaigning and there was a fax there from Michael Wooldridge that said something like 'at least people can't say that we didn't do our best or make use of the time that we had'. It's pretty good.

Meanwhile, back at the war zone, that election campaign was incredibly tough, but you don't need me to tell you that Paul Keating was a very formidable campaigner, and obviously we got over the line. I tell this story in my book, for what it's worth, about the way in which the political climate operated before that election. That was very important, I think, for our country that Mabo didn't become a war zone at that time. Look, I think I'll decline to speak about Tony Abbott; thank you anyway. My appeal today is to Prime Minister Turnbull and to Mr Shorten.

Troy Bramston:
Thank you.

Louise Doyle:
Further questions. Questions for Nicholas Brown?

Gabrielle Chan:
Gabby Chan from Guardian Australia. You talked about the vitriol that was happening at that time and that was particularly so in regional Australia, and you note that Rick Farley was involved as well. Also, I guess that whole debate was happening just before '96 when you lost. How much of the Mabo debate and the Wik debate do you think played into the loss?

Obviously you were at the end of a long life of government, but those people that Nick mentions in his essay that were the true believers who morphed into Howard's battlers after the economic recession, how much of it was the Mabo factor as well, given that Pauline Hanson's incarnation was in that '96 election and she talked about again, reverse racism, Aboriginal populations getting so much more than white populations?

Robert Tickner:
Well, it's a good question. I should say at the outset that Pauline Hanson, can you believe this, was actually expelled from the Liberal Party for attacking me. For attacking me. Goodness, how the world has changed, huh? But look, I don't subscribe to the view that what was done in the Mabo response was an adverse impact on the government. I think it was an inspirational outcome for a whole massive core constituency of concerned Australians. So I differ from some views expressed by others on that matter. Of course, when Pauline Hanson stood for election, she wasn't as high-profile at that stage, so it wasn't on the agenda. That's the way I honestly think. Thank you.

Nicholas Brown:
From my perspective, I suppose, you referred to the work that we did on Rick Farley. Robert's fundamental point is this is an issue of leadership, and Farley was one of those leaders who I think was a real change-maker. But the change required people to fall in behind him. The executive of the National Farmers Federation was rock solid behind Farley in negotiating, in taking the National Farmers Federation into a positive response to Mabo. They were conscious that there was a lot of the constituency that didn't like it, but there was a sense of, as Farley put it, this issue is not going to go away and if we don't go on the right side we're going to be written out of any bargain that follows on. So there's a certain pragmatism there as well.

What I often find quite sad, and maybe this comes back to the word 'sadness' that Robert's used a couple of times, is that at the end of that process, effectively the executive of the National Farmers Federation said to Farley, 'Thank you for doing the work but now it's over, you've got to go, because we've – it's not that we don't support you, it's that now we need to recalibrate the message to our constituency to rebuild that kind of vote that we've lost'. The next executive director of the National Farmers Federation and the leadership of the National Farmers Federation was picked to, in a sense, catch the way that the Howard Government represented it.

The sadness that I found was that sense of 'Look, we like what you've done and we've been behind you and we've realised the risks, but these risks can't go any further. We need a change in symbolism.' I think that's part of the fascination of leadership that we're talking about today.

Shane Wright:
Mr Tickner, Shane Wright from The West Australian. You've mentioned Richard Court a couple of times, and Western Australia, and particularly the mining industry. How difficult was it to face up to their complaints and their concerns, and did you have to deal directly with Richard Court? Can you give us some of the insights into some of the conversations you and the former Premier and now the Japanese Ambassador-select shared?

Robert Tickner:
Firstly, could I just add to the answer, the previous one, because it's impossible in 20 minutes, which I had, to give the proper account of things, but in the book I give very strong, warm support to the work of Rick Farley. He was amazingly principled. I think basically what he did was realise that this was an important time when major industry bodies had to operate not only to protect the industry interests, if you like, but also realise that they had to move into, if you like, modern times to deal with contemporary issues and change relationships.

That's a segue into responding to your question about Western Australia, because things were pretty bad with respect to the mining industry and Aboriginal people back in those times. There were very, very few people in senior levels of the mining industry who were prepared to actively embrace an agenda of working with Aboriginal people and organisations, and driving Aboriginal employment. Robert Champion de Crespigny was one and I appointed him to the Reconciliation Council.

Others were still – including CRA, as it was in those days [Conzinc Riotinto of Australia, now Rio Tinto] – were like these old world warriors. They just couldn't bring themselves to respect and to negotiate with Aboriginal people or to give them any equitable share of what was happening as a result of the mining on their land. The crazy thing was that these companies regularly dealt with Indigenous people in other parts of the world. That's why in my contribution I very carefully said as things were then, because I think things have changed.

One of the beautiful things about the Native Title Act – we were just saying in the room outside before we came in – that it's actually been really wonderful in so many ways to contribute to the reconciliation process because it's brought people together. It's got industry groups and Indigenous people talking, negotiating. I love country newspapers; I love country towns, being a country person myself. I always read the papers and I see the most incredible stories in country towns where a local negotiated settlement has happened. But I also see big things where the mining industry has come to the table.

I did meet Richard Court, I've dealt with it in the book, I don't want to revisit; after all, he is an ambassador. I bear no …

Not yet.

Robert Tickner:
I bear no – I do, I bear no grudges or acrimony towards anyone, but it wasn't a productive meeting. My book reveals a little bit about that. At the end of the day, I suppose, had he not been so campaigning to suggest suburban backyards were at threat and all this other drama that was very worrying to people in Western Australia, I guess that the outcome in Canberra may have been different. So maybe it was meant to be.

Louise Doyle:
One more question, or two short questions, depending.

Damien Murphy:
Thank you. My name is Damien Murphy; I'm a reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald. Mr Tickner, you mentioned your call for an audit on prison numbers, and I just wonder, in that context you were saying that both the federal and the state governments had not acted on the recommendations over the years. I was in Darwin a couple of weeks ago looking at the Royal Commission, Don Dale. I also reported on the deaths in custody. While it was sad observing that, they were both about the same things. We don't seem to have learnt very much at all. Government gets recommendations. Why?

Robert Tickner:
In all my life, in all my time in public life I don't think I ever wept in public. I always used to control it, suppress it, but you could make me weep, because you're right.

Damien Murphy:
[I'm sorry].

Robert Tickner:
No, but I'm not going to weep because there's two responses, or I could be angry, and I'm angry. We should all be angry. All that public money, all those commitments, all those promises and yet all that consequence of tens of thousands of wasted, damaged lives as a result of the failure to implement the Royal Commission recommendations. People whose life potential was never fulfilled because governments didn't do what they promised.

If this happened in a contemporary parallel area, such as for example the current child abuse royal commission and there was a failure to implement those recommendations, how long do you think that would last? You'd be – the media and the public would be at the throats of government demanding action. It hasn't happened here, and that's why it does require a Prime Minister to step up and take some leadership. That's why I've issued that call today, but these are fixable problems, they really are, but we just never had someone as the leader do what Paul Keating did over Mabo. This is my view.

Louise Doyle:
I think at this stage we'll halt questions. There is the opportunity to interview both Professor Brown and Robert Tickner, and also to view some records, in the Bruce Room. Anne McLean can take you through if you're keen to see copies of some of the Cabinet records that we've been talking about today. If you wish to interview either Nicholas or Robert, please see Elizabeth.

Also, stay around, have a cup of coffee, cup of tea, something more to eat, and thank you very much. Thank you for coming to be with us today for the Cabinet release for 1992–1993. Again, thank you to Robert Tickner for being our very special guest today, and also to Professor Nicholas Brown for again providing the essay, doing the research and helping with the selection, and of course, being here today to discuss with you, answer your questions. Thank you.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018