Australian South Sea Islanders

Australian South Sea Islanders

(Motion, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

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

That this House:

  1. notes 25 August 2013 as Australian South Sea Islander Recognition Day, marking 150 years since about 50,000 people on 62,000 indenture contracts from around 80 Pacific Islands were recruited or kidnapped to work in sugar cane fields where they were exploited;
  2. notes the Australian South Sea Islanders suffered inhumane treatment, the highest mortality rates of any immigrant group to Australia and mass deportations when the White Australia policy was introduced;
  3. notes many of the 40,000 Australian South Sea Islander descendants who live in Australia remain marginalised and disadvantaged;


4. notes thousands of Australian South Sea Islanders live in New South Wales but an official number has not been established;
5. notes then Premier Carr's memorandum of understanding of 1995 called for adequate programs and services;
6. acknowledges the Community Relations Commission's initiatives in relation to South Sea Islanders and requests the Government to liaise with the National Body for Australian South Sea Islanders in preparing a demographic, social and economic community profile; and
7. acknowledges the contribution the Australian South Sea Islander community makes to New South Wales and its history in Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Debate can be viewed HERE.

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