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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12545

Mr PERRETT (5:34 PM) —I rise to speak to the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2009. Before I do so I would just like to touch on the contribution made by the member for Cook. They say a stopped clock is right twice in 24 hours.

Mr Ripoll —Even a broken one.

Mr PERRETT —Even a broken one is right twice. I waited for 25 long minutes there to see if at any stage the member for Cook would actually touch on the legislation before the chamber. Unfortunately, he did not come close. I will be focusing on the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 2). Beginning with the apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples at the very first sitting of the 42nd Parliament, the Rudd government has been working towards closing the gap to improve Indigenous health, Indigenous life expectancy and Indigenous education. It was quite an honour to be one of the 42 new MPs sitting there at the very first sitting of the 42nd Parliament—and I was 42 years old at the time. Probably much the same age as the member for Oxley, I would imagine.

Mr Ripoll —In fact, exactly the same.

Mr PERRETT —In fact, exactly the same age. The apology was quite a moving experience. The apology was not only an acknowledgement of past wrongs but also a sign of hope and commitment to a better future for Australia’s Indigenous people. I would like to think that it was the start of a new Australia, and certainly I have been told that by many of my constituents, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, affected by the apology. Certainly it was a step towards making a prouder and more noble Australia, one where there is dignity for all Australians whether your roots go back 40,000 years or just 40 minutes since you got off the plane from, say, France or somewhere like that.

A major part of the Rudd government’s commitment is in the efforts to address dire housing issues like overcrowding, homelessness and the poor standard of housing generally which can be found in remote Indigenous communities. Census data tells us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are four times more likely to become homeless and six times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than non-Indigenous Australians. That is a shameful set of data. As we know, overcrowding has negative flow-on effects, contributing to poor health, family violence and challenging educational outcomes. In a former life I was a union organiser in the independent education sector, doing enterprise bargaining at Waja Waja High School in the Woorabinda Aboriginal community. I remember looking at some of the horrific lifestyles and practices that went on in that community. That is not to take away from the many good people who were committed to changing that community around and many other communities. Certainly you do not have to look far to see the great efforts of many people in Queensland and throughout Australia to breach the gap.

I would particularly like to mention someone who is nominated to be the Australian of the Year—Dr Chris Sarra, who went to teachers college with me. He was a year below me at teachers college and has since gone on to bigger and brighter things. He has been nominated for his work in leadership in Aboriginal education. I wish him all the best, as I am sure the other Queenslanders in the room would, in the hope that Dr Chris Sarra is the next Australian of the Year.

It is estimated that well over 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households are overcrowded and more than 15,000 Indigenous households experience housing stress, paying more than 25 per cent of their income in rent. Those numbers are staggering—10,000 overcrowded households. We can only imagine the sadness and tears that go with those figures. The rate of homelessness for Indigenous Australians is also significantly higher than for non-Indigenous Australians, with Indigenous Australians making up nine per cent of the homeless population. Through COAG the Rudd government is working to turn this around by constructing and upgrading housing in remote communities, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia. This National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing is worth $1.94 billion over 10 years. It will deliver more than 4,000 new homes and major upgrades to almost 5,000 homes as well as  improving tenancy management.

As a former native title adviser to the Queensland state government, I know—unfortunately—that there is currently no way to quickly negotiate land use agreements on land that is, or might be, affected by native title. It is a complicated, drawn-out process and it is hard to do such things quickly—the ILUAs. Given the urgency of the housing needs in Indigenous communities, it is vital that our nearly $2 billion in housing can be built quickly. We need roofs now and rights later.

Obviously, to do so is not done lightly. The Rudd Labor government well knows the importance of native title. After all, it was a Labor government that was in power when on 3 June 1992 the High Court brought down the Mabo decision. Certainly, it was a Labor government that responded to this decision handed down by the judiciary. If we cast our minds back to 1992, the Australian reality and view of Indigenous rights then was not quite the same as it is now. It would have been great had a parliament handed down a decision like the Mabo decision, but the political will obviously was not there. But give Paul Keating his credit: with a difficult Senate, he responded in a way that brought forth a piece of legislation that we can be proud of.

Unfortunately, the state of Queensland has played an interesting role—some of it not always particularly noble, I would suggest. We can look at some of the atrocities, perhaps, visited upon Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland over the years—as the Bjelke-Petersen government, and I would even suggest that the Goss and Beattie governments, did not necessarily step up as much as they could have in terms of recognising the consequences of native title. There was a lot of fear out there in 1992 and in 1993, and also later when the Wik decision came down. There were definitely people beating the fear drums in terms of saying, ‘Your backyard is going to be taken,’ et cetera. In fact, it is interesting when we look back at that history—it has been quite a while now—and explore what Australia might have done. But, thankfully, the Keating government was able to steer that native title legislation through.

I have just been reading a book by Andrew McGahan, an author from Dalby in Queensland, called The White Earth, which explores this particular time, the hysteria and what it meant for the identity of Australia. It was certainly a very significant time. As I said, we do not treat native title lightly; the Rudd Labor government fully appreciates the importance of native title and how important it is for the aspirations of Indigenous people and in recognising their connection with the earth.

This bill will ensure that state and federal governments can get on with the job of delivering better housing in Indigenous communities, and that is now, not in the never-never. As I said, it is important to get a roof over a kid’s head right now and we will worry about the native title rights later. This bill amends the Native Title Act 1993 to allow the government to build housing and infrastructure in discrete Indigenous communities on land that might be affected by native title, without the requirement for an ILUA or compulsory acquisition. State and territory governments will still be required to undertake genuine consultation with possible native title holders as part of a new process and to report to the Attorney-General on this consultation. There is still some process there, but the exigencies of housing, on balance, mean that this is the most appropriate thing to do. The Attorney-General will have the power to amend the consultation requirements over time to ensure that the process works well for all parties.

This bill is all about ensuring the timely delivery of housing and infrastructure in Indigenous communities over the next 10 years. That is why this bill includes a sunset clause, to ensure that these amendments are operational for the duration of the funding. As a government, and as a caring country, we cannot stand by and allow the appalling standard of housing and infrastructure to continue in Indigenous communities for any longer. This bill ensures that we can get on with the job of improving Indigenous housing and, in doing so, help to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. I thank the Attorney-General and the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs for identifying the urgent needs and responding to them. I commend the bill to the House.