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Monday, 27 October 1997
Page: 9871

Mr MELHAM(6.27 p.m.) —by leave—In rising to speak to the third minority report of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund, I remind the House of my words when speaking to the motion to refer the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 to the committee. At that time on 4 September 1997, I said:

The committee bears an onerous responsibility . . . It must fairly and dispassionately allow stakeholders a last desperate chance to be heard . . . The committee owes it to the parliament and the people of Australia to be a servant of the parliament and an agent of an incisive and fair inquiry. It should be neither a lackey to the government nor an agent of obstruction. Members of that Committee, burdened though some might be by declared or undeclared vested interests, must do what the government has failed to do. They must listen openly to criticism of the bill and show how it can be improved.

The committee met over 12 days with more than 92 hours of sitting time. Over 2,050 pages of evidence were received into evidence. There is over 15 volumes of submissions, with each volume having some 200 pages; so that is over 5,000 pages of submissions.

The fact that there is a substantial minority report signed by ALP and Democrat members is a measure of the failure of the coalition members of the committee to take up the task set for them. They did, in fact, allow themselves to be used as instruments of the government rather than as servants of the parliament. They failed to address their task with any semblance of rigour or open-mindedness. In the face of overwhelming evidence of disquiet on all sides as to the fairness and workability of the bill, they have chosen to toe the government line.

We had the unseemly experience of a chairman going onto the public record as being in favour of the Australian Law Reform Commission appearing before the committee, only to reverse his attitude following the government expressing its opposition to the move. The committee did not hear the view of all key stakeholders. As reported in the media today, and commented upon in the minority report, indigenous people in the Kimberley region have not been heard.

Despite travelling hundreds of kilometres to give evidence and despite the availability of translators, their evidence is unrecorded, and thus given no weight or credence. It is simply noted in Hansard that some witnesses gave evidence in a language other than English. Unlike every other witness before the committee and despite their names being spelt out for the Hansard reporters, they are not even named—so much for platitudes about coexistence; so much for platitudes about reconciliation. This was not reconciliation, this was humiliation.

In returning to the substance of the legislation, it was incumbent on the minority to say the things the coalition members dared not. We have reflected on the overwhelming evidence presented that the legislation is unworkable, that it is unduly complex, that it will visit unprecedented bills for compensation upon the Australian taxpayers and that it is doomed to multiple challenges in the courts. Expert witnesses by the score came forward to demonstrate that the legislation in its present form is unworkable, and a recipe for uncertainty and economic stagnation in regional Australia.

The committee could refuse to hear the Australian Law Reform Commission but they could not silence them. Together with the Victorian Law Institute and the New South Wales Bar Association, the commission is now on the public record in its trenchant and detailed criticism of the bill. The institute, the New South Wales Bar Association and the commission cannot be dismissed as `vested interests', easily consigned to the `you would expect them to say that' category.

The coalition members of the committee are joining the government in whistling in the dark if they think that they can proceed without heeding the authoritative and irrefutable criticism coming from organisations such as these. The Labor and Democrat members of the committee could not in conscience do so. Whilst endorsing the praise that witnesses appearing before the committee had for aspects of the bill, such as its enhancement of indigenous land use agreements and the role of representative bodies in resolving native title issues, we have been obliged to give voice to the widespread concern expressed by witnesses at fundamental flaws in the legislation.

The recommendations made in the minority report provide a framework within which the bill can be amended and made workable. In contrast to the majority report, we have provided a comprehensive analysis of the legislation, a full consideration of the evidence presented to the committee and recommendations that reflect an open-minded consideration of what we have read, and seen, and heard.

All of the stakeholders—miners, the petroleum industry, pastoralists, governments, pearling and fishing interests, indigenous peoples and the Australian taxpayer—have every right to expect that those gathered in this place will work together for their benefit. They have a right to expect that we will approach legislation such as the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 and the problems it seeks to solve with openness and rigour. They should expect, as a minimum, that any such legislation will solve more problems than it creates.

This legislation fails that basic test. The minority finds that it is seriously flawed, unworkable in practice and destined for successful High Court challenge. Beyond this, it also contains the seeds of social division and international condemnation. I commend the minority report to the House and, in so doing, repeat the offer made often and in good faith from this side to work with the government to deliver certainty on this issue through decent and workable legislation.

At the time that the parliamentary committee was inquiring into the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997, a debate ensued in this House on the second reading. Fifty speakers spoke in that debate: there were 24 from the opposition, five from the Independents and 21 from the government. The Attorney-General (Mr Williams), who is the minister at the table now, was the only minister who spoke in the debate. The Prime Minister (Mr Howard)—who made this issue dear to his heart—did not speak, nor did the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Tim Fischer) nor any other minister or office holder.

From the opposition's point of view, we had 13 members of shadow cabinet speak in the debate. These included: Mr Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition; Mr Evans, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition; 11 other shadow ministers; and two shadow parliamentary secretaries. That is indicative of the seriousness with which the opposition has entered this debate. Yet on the government side only the Attorney-General spoke. Last time in 1993, the then Prime Minister, Mr Keating, introduced the second reading debate into the House and then four ministers and two parliamentary secretaries spoke during the debate. It is disturbing that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister did not choose to speak in the second reading debate.

I commend the minority report to the House. I hope that it does allow further consideration on what we say are real problems with this bill.

Sitting suspended from 6.34 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.