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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 11681

Ms HOARE (10:56 AM) —I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak in the debate on the motion to take note of the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs entitled Unlocking the future . Since 10 December 1998, the committee has been holding an inquiry into the recommendations of the Reeves review into the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. On 30 August 1999, the committee presented the Unlocking the future report to the federal parliament. I was pleased and honoured to be involved in that inquiry. The committee was able to present a unanimous report to the parliament, even though the committee consisted of members of the Labor, National and Liberal parties.

The Reeves report into the Northern Territory land rights act was commissioned by the Howard government following the 1996 election. John Reeves QC was paid between $280,000 and $300,000 by the government to recommend changes to the land rights act. After many months and more than $1.3 million later, the report of the Reeves review was released in 1998.

John Reeves in his recommendations advocated dramatic changes to the land rights act which would have seen the basic principles and tenets of Aboriginal land rights stripped from indigenous people and a whole range of white bureaucratic processes and organisations implemented which would severely impede any steps towards self-determination.

The implementation of the Northern Territory land rights act was the cornerstone of land rights throughout the country. It committed the Commonwealth government to recognising land rights, to recognising Aboriginal people as the first occupants, owners and custodians of the land. Since 1976, Aboriginal people have had to fight in the courts to continue to have their rights enshrined in law. We saw the Mabo High Court case and the native title legislation which followed that. Then we had the Wik decision, which was followed by this government watering down the original Native Title Act. Then we had the Reeves review.

As the chair of the committee reiterated time and time again during our hearings, now is the time to look forward and not to dwell on the mistakes of the past. Hence the title of the report: Unlocking the future. However, we must never forget the mistakes of previous governments if we do want to continue to move forward on reconciliation and on increasing the quality of life of Australia's indigenous people. We, as legislators, must ensure that the same mistakes are not made and that we continue to learn and benefit from the knowledge of previous policies in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

This report, Unlocking the future, is the culmination of 10 months work by the committee. From December 1998, following my election to the committee and the minister's request for the committee to conduct the inquiry, it was an intense period. I had to come to grips with, understand and comprehend the committee system. I then had to very quickly gain a comprehensive understanding of all that had preceded my short time here. With respect to the original land rights act and the Reeves report, what were they and what did they mean?

On 2 March this year, I attended my first ever public hearing as a member of the committee, in Darwin. We were treated to a historic welcome from the Larrakia people in the Northern Territory Parliament House. This was the first time they had welcomed anyone onto their land within the confines of that new building since it was first opened in 1994. At that first hearing we also had a performance by members of the Northern Land Council, telling the committee in song, dance and traditional language what they thought of the Reeves review and what they wanted us as a committee to do about it.

John Reeves, in his report, recommended some far-reaching proposals to change the way land rights work in the Northern Territory. As I have mentioned before, the report cost $1.3 million plus and the review took place over nine months from November 1997 to July 1998. The final report of the review was published in August 1998 and ran to 617 pages without the appendices.

The most far-reaching and outrageous proposals from Reeves were rejected unanimously by our committee. These included, first, the abolition of the four land councils in the Northern Territory and the establishment of 18 small regional land councils. Second, Reeves called for the establishment of a new central bureaucratic unelected and unrepresentative body titled the Northern Territory Aboriginal Council to oversee the running of the land councils and to determine the distribution of Aboriginal moneys for mining royalties, investments and other income streams.

Third, Reeves outlined radical changes to the Aboriginal Benefits Reserve and the way again in which Aboriginal moneys were distributed. He did this while under the—I believe incorrect—assumption that Aboriginal money is public money. It is not. The majority of it is money received for activity being allowed to be carried out by mining interests on Aboriginal land or as compensation to Aboriginal people for losing the right to carry out traditional activities on their land.

Fourth, Reeves proposed that the system of obtaining a permit to enter Aboriginal territory be abolished and that Aboriginal people must apply the interpretation and use of the Northern Territory trespass laws if someone or a group of people is illegally on their land. This was to apply to vast tracts of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. What Reeves was saying, in effect, to traditional Aboriginal owners was that if you happen to find someone is illegally trespassing on your land you then must apply to have the trespass laws interpreted and implemented and the Northern Territory penalties would then apply.

The system which currently stands and works is that any person must apply to the relevant land council for a permit to enter Aboriginal territory or to go onto Aboriginal land. This system allows for the protection of traditional values and of sacred sites. It also allows for the protection of the natural environment and various ceremonial procedures. As the chairman quite correctly pointed out to the groups we spoke to in the course of the inquiry, the committee members as Australian landowners do not allow anyone to walk onto our property without permission and why should Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory expect anything different.

The report I am pleased to be speaking in support of here today and the recommendations proposed in it from our committee revolve around four core principles, which all the committee members agreed to. First, that Aboriginal land rights under the land rights act should and must be preserved. Aboriginal land rights must not be diminished in any way and Aboriginal people must have the inalienable right to make their own decisions about their own land: the way it is to be managed and the uses and purposes to which the land may be put.

Second, that Aboriginal people have the same rights and opportunities as non-Aboriginal people and must be allowed to make decisions affecting their own lives without hindrance—the way all citizens have that right. I have quoted the powerful words of Jeannie Herbert in this parliament before, and I will again. She was quoted in our report as saying, `Let us manage our lives, our destinies, our aspirations and our future. It is our future.'

Third, that constructive partnerships be formed between Aboriginal people and governments and Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people to enable the progression and allow the facilitation of true reconciliation in the Territory. Fourth, that all Australians have mutual rights, opportunities and obligations and Aboriginal right to land must be respected by all territorians and by all governments. Fifth, that there be flexibility incorporated into the land rights act to allow for future amendments and changes in interpretation as the circumstances of Aboriginal people affected by the act change. Sixth, that any changes to the land rights act or indeed any other legislation affecting Aboriginal people can only be changed or amended or introduced or scrapped with the fully informed consent of those affected.

These core principles stood us in good stead in the course of our inquiries and during our deliberation over the evidence which had been presented to us. With these core principles in mind, we as a committee within the framework of the inquiry made recommendations regarding the Reeves recommendations.

I am also extremely pleased that we were able to produce a unanimous report. Although members of the committee did not always agree on everything because of different ideologies and backgrounds, we found at the end of the day that a couple of sticking points were best left to the Aboriginal people themselves to decide within the framework of the project teams suggested within the report.

The Reeves recommendations regarding the breaking down of the land councils and the establishment of the umbrella organisation NTAC were rejected by the committee. It was clear that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory wanted to maintain the established land councils, but they also wanted a bit more autonomy. The committee agreed that the land councils be able to devolve more functions to the regions and that the land rights act make it less obstructive for new land councils to be created if the Aboriginal people want that.

The committee did not agree with the Reeves recommendations that there be major changes to the distribution of Aboriginal monies via the ABR, but we agreed that a proposal for change or the maintenance of the status quo go to a project team for consideration. I am also very pleased to say that the committee rejected outright the abolition of the permit system. We did not believe the proposal from Reeves to subject Aboriginal people to the Northern Territory trespass laws was at all appropriate. We did recommend, though, that avenues be explored to cut down on some of the bureaucratic red tape that is sometimes required to obtain a permit.

Over the past 10 months the committee held many public hearings and listened to thousands of people who had an interest in the act, who were affected by the Northern Territory land rights act or who would be affected if any changes were made to that act. As a committee, as well as holding public hearings at Parliament House in Canberra, we travelled to many remote communities in the Northern Territory and to Darwin and Alice Springs. In March we went to Darwin and Bathurst Island. In April we travelled to, met with and listened to traditional owners and community members from Alice Springs, Kalkarindji, Tennant Creek, Ti Tree, Yuendumu and Mutitjulu. In May we travelled to Katherine, Ngukurr, Yirrkala and Groote Eylandt. In June, the committee travelled again to Darwin and then on to Daly River and Maningrida. I was pleased to attend all hearings in Canberra and the Northern Territory, except those in June.

While in the Northern Territory, we travelled mainly by Caribou aircraft. I must say that, while it is not the most comfortable way to travel, it is certainly one of the most adventurous and exciting ways. I take this opportunity to echo the words of my committee colleagues in thanking the officers and crew of 34 Squadron and 35 Squadron of the RAAF, who flew us throughout the Northern Territory and who also provided good humour and friendship. If our friends have found themselves in East Timor, I also take this opportunity to wish them well and a safe return.

The communities to which we travelled also provided huge challenges to the Hansard reporting staff who travelled with us. However, with great expertise, good humour and wonderful efficiency, Karin Oldfield, Brian Lindell and Alan Savage were always able to find a long enough extension cord and set up their equipment in these remote areas. They listened to and taped the hearings, ensuring that all evidence gathered and submitted was correctly and accurately recorded. Another challenging task for these reporters is that the majority of indigenous Australians providing evidence and information spoke very little English or none at all. So I applaud Karin, Brian and Alan for their work and thank them for their good humour and their friendship.

Once again as a new member, I could not have hoped for a more efficient and friendly committee secretariat. They always knew what had to be done and they just did it. They were able to cope with all our personal idiosyncrasies with sincere friendliness and goodwill. They supported me in my position as one of the two new committee members. For their friendship, dedication, diligence and goodwill, I would like to thank James Catchpole—and I wish him well in his new position—Sara Cousins, Katrina Gillogly, Claressa Surtees, Jennifer Cochran and Fran Wilson. I appreciated being able to work with them during this inquiry.

Finally, I would like to thank and commend my colleagues on the committee: the chairman, the Hon. Lou Lieberman; the deputy chairman, Harry Quick; my Labor colleagues, Daryl Melham, the shadow minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, and Warren Snowdon, the member for the Northern Territory; my Liberal colleagues, Barry Haase, the member for Kalgoorlie, Barry Wakelin, the member for Grey, Trish Draper, the member for Makin—and my only other female colleague on that committee—and Jim Lloyd, the member for Robertson; and my National colleague, Bob Katter, the member for Kennedy.

I applaud this report and I hope the minister acts on the recommendations in it. I hope it will continue to further the steps towards true reconciliation in our country.