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Thursday, 12 May 2011
Page: 3893

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (17:15): On behalf of the Standing Committee on Economics I present the committee's report on the inquiry into Indigenous economic development in Queensland and the advisory report on the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 incorporating a dissenting report together with the minutes of the proceedings.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: by leave—On 3 November 2010 the House Standing Committee for Economics was handed a referral by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the honourable Jenny Macklin MP. The committee was asked to look into a very important topic: to examine the scope for increasing sustainable Indigenous economic development in Queensland, including the Cape York region. This scope for increasing economic development would have regard to the aspirations of the Indigenous people and the social and cultural context surrounding their participation in the economy. This was to include issues surrounding the Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005

On 17 November 2010 the House of Representatives referred the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 to the committee for inquiry and report. The bill was introduced as a private member's bill by the Leader of the Opposition on Monday 15 November 2010. The bill was introduced without an explanatory memorandum and it provides that the development or use of native title land in a wild rivers area cannot be regulated under the Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005 without the agreement of the landowner in writing. Submissions addressing the bill were received as part of the committee's broader inquiry into issues affecting Indigenous economic development in Queensland.

The inquiry found that issues of isolation, distances between centres and lack of infrastructure in the regions in Far North Queensland including Cape York mean that Indigenous people face additional hurdles to participating in the market economy. The inquiry has brought out many of these problems but has also highlighted opportunities and successes in areas such as resource management and Indigenous cultural activities.

The inquiry's focus on the Queensland Wild Rivers Act led the committee to recommend improvements to the processes of that act but we also concluded that improvements need not obscure the legislation's main picture: that the act benefits Queensland because it preserves the natural values of rivers that have all or most of their natural values intact. At the same time, Indigenous economic development is permitted and a suitable environment for traditional activities is maintained.

Unfortunately, on the ground many of the positives of the Wild Rivers Act have been overshadowed by negative misinformation. After a number of hearings in Far North Queensland, it soon became apparent that a large degree of misinformation had been circulating about the act. Perhaps one of the inquiry's messages is that consultations under that act need to be improved. It is self-evident by the fact that misinformation has been believed by many of the people in these areas. It was made clear that the Queensland government did expend significant resources in travelling to remote communities to discuss with those communities the act and its declarations. But we have heard resounding messages from some Indigenous communities that the consultations were not sufficient. As I said, certainly the fact that there is this misinformation that is believed is perhaps in itself evidence that further work needs to be done in relation to consultation

An important measure was announced, however, during the inquiry by the Queensland government that goes to the heart of the issue in relation to consultation. This announcement was that consultations on the Wild Rivers Act would be improved by the Queensland government. This measure that they announced centres on the establishment of Indigenous reference committees for any potential wild river area on the Cape York Peninsula. These bodies will ensure members can directly advise the minister about the declaration proposals as well as their community's aspirations for future economic development.

The Queensland Government will also facilitate economic growth in the Cape York area by way of strategic regional economic development plans. It will examine how to create jobs in the cape, including nature based opportunities that are being enhanced by the Wild Rivers Act 2005. The state government will also establish an independent economic development mentors support network, and also build the capacity of Indigenous councils in dealing with planned legislation.

Mr Katter: Will you have us basket making as well?

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: The member for Kennedy made a submission to the inquiry that was largely based on erroneous information—

Mr Katter: Ah, erroneous information.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Yes, information that was not in fact correct. That was one of the problems we had in assessing the actual effects of the legislation because misinformation was often being put out there.

Mr Katter interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): The member for Kennedy will sit there in silence; otherwise I will have to deal with him.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: I thank you for your assistance, Deputy Speaker Scott. The report's first recommendation is that the Commonwealth government continues to address the economic and geographical barriers to Indigenous economic development for its Closing the Gap programs across Australia.

Mr Katter interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Kennedy will withdraw that comment.

Mr Katter: I withdraw that comment.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a shame that the member for Kennedy is so out of control in relation to this issue because one of the things we heard about was some great projects that Indigenous Australians had participated in, set up from the ground and got to work. I think it is offensive to those people, who have put their livelihoods on the line, who have made commitments—

Mr Katter interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! Member for Kennedy if you do not desist I will deal with you.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: The member for Kennedy is totally out of line. It also shows how out of touch he is in relation to things that are happening in his own backyard. I will continue in relation to the report.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Dobell will resume his seat. The member for Kennedy on a point of order.

Mr Katter: Mr Deputy Speaker, I claim to have been misrepresented. He said that I am out of touch.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Kennedy will resume his seat. There are procedures for stating where you have been misrepresented.

Mr Katter: Yes, I am going to state that now. The misrepresentation was that I was out of touch with the people. The elected representatives, the mayors, have asked me to address everyone at their council meetings. So I would hardly say I was out of touch.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Kennedy will resume his seat.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Kennedy's performance, I think, illustrates the point I was actually trying to make in terms of how in touch he is in relation to this issue. The committee also notes the economic benefit of major infrastructure and investment programs and recommends that the Queensland and local governments in Cape York work with Infrastructure Australia and regional development authorities to progress these programs.

Further recommendations are about maximising opportunities in Indigenous training and employment which result from these infrastructure and investment programs.

Mr Katter: Training for what!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Kennedy has had a number of warnings. He will leave the chamber under standing order 94(a).

The member for Kennedy then left the chamber.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: The committee has recommended the Commonwealth continue to partner with the mining industry to facilitate training and employment so that workforce participation in that industry becomes a mainstream employment option for Indigenous people.

The committee would also like to see the Queensland government mentors support network initiative be linked to the Commonwealth government's initiative for Indigenous small business development in tourism and administration.

As I have earlier said, a main focus of this inquiry was consultation and communications under the Wild Rivers Act 2005.

One of the committee's key recommendations is that the Queensland government strengthen its consultation and engagement framework for the act. The committee notes the establishment of the Indigenous reference committee group under the Cape York Sustainable Communities initiative is intended to address this and to work directly with Indigenous stakeholders on improving the wild rivers consultation process.

To follow this theme, the next recommendation from the committee is that the Indigenous Reference Committee framework be developed and extended. The purpose would be to service Indigenous peoples throughout Queensland on issues relating to economic development. It is important in the committee's view that all stakeholders be engaged in this process and endorse the framework.

Another recommendation is that the state government provides information to Indigenous communities and individuals which assists them to step through the operation of the Wild Rivers Act 2005 and other conservation and land management legislation.

It might be appropriate that the member for Kennedy also be involved in that process as he clearly does not understand the processes involved with wild rivers. It is important that as many people as possible, all stakeholders, understand what is involved and the decision-making processes that are gone through.

There are a variety of reasons why the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010—introduced into this House last November—is unworkable.

The inquiry process has revealed a flawed document which amongst several problems uses ambiguous definitions which would result in confusion, likely division in Indigenous communities and would override the Wild Rivers Act 2005, putting the successful Wild Rivers Rangers program at risk. Importantly the committee has recommended that this bill should not be passed.

The inquiry heard that the bill has a number of problems. Many of those criticisms were that the bill is poorly worded, confusing and unworkable. The Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation provided a succinct summary of the bill and its problems. They said:

The Bill makes allowance for declaration of a wild river only with the consent or `agreement' of 'owners'. Further, the Bill states; `The development or use of Aboriginal land in a wild river area cannot be regulated under the relevant Queensland legislation unless the owner agrees in writing.

They went on to point out the difficulty with this and that is, to quote them:

There is no clarity in the Bill about what is meant by the concepts 'consent', `agreement' and 'owner'. Consent and agreement are not properly defined, and the Bill provides eight different definitions of 'owner'.

The bill is also unclear in its intention and lacks detail as to how to achieve its underlying intentions. The Queensland Conservation Council noted that:

... the terminology of the Bill is extremely vague and nebulous and does not really describe well what it is intended to do.

The bill's diverse definitions of 'Aboriginal land' and 'owner' and their combinations, according to the Queensland government, has the potential to render the existing Wild Rivers Act 2005 unworkable and open to litigation. During the inquiry the Queensland government stated:

The 'owner' as defined, encompasses a wide range of people. Because of the historical displacement of Indigenous peoples, there will likely be disputes over who the owners are for different areas. Some Indigenous people elect others to make decisions on their behalf because they do not want to sign documents. Others are unable to do so for various reasons: some owners have moved from their traditional country and live in other parts of Australia. It may be difficult to identify all the owners, leaving any declaration open to legal challenge.

The committee's report has found that the question of legal challenge is of great importance as such action could lead to conflict between different communities. The Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation expressly stated their concern that if the bill is passed it will result in conflict between Aboriginal individuals and groups and between traditional and non-traditional owners. There are many other reasons and arguments outlined in the report that present the basis for the committee's recommendation that the bill not be passed. The bill is not in the interests of Indigenous people. It is about the Leader of the Opposition playing politics with the lives of Indigenous people in Far North Queensland. He should be condemned in relation to that, and this bill should be rejected by this parliament.

The committee heard that while there are many barriers to Indigenous economic development in Cape York and other areas of Queensland, there are ways to address these problems. Apart from the underdeveloped nature of the region, barriers to development are capacity constraints in Indigenous communities and community organisations.

Addressing poor education and literacy levels, workplace readiness and participation and organisational governance and expertise will greatly assist people to make choices about their own livelihoods and opportunities.

The committee was told that a diverse, integrated economy is inherently more robust and sustainable than an economy that comprises a restricted number of sectors. A diverse economy is less prone to seasonality, provides greater economies of scale, offers more opportunities to small business, provides more choice of employment and enables transfer of skills and technology.

With so many factors affecting Indigenous economic development in Queensland, it is imperative and urgent that Indigenous people be supported to engage in analysing opportunities in community, hybrid and mainstream economies, determining and participating in capacity building about their own future. Tracey Ludwick, at the hearing we had at Weipa, summed this up in evidence:

The approach should be from the grassroots up, not from the top down.

The economy in Cape York could not be described as a normal economy. It does not have the breadth of interrelated industries that would typically trade with each other and sustain a basic level of economic activity. Rather, it largely depends on trade with the remainder of Australia for goods and services that would usually be internally generated.

This is reflected in the employment profile of the cape. The most jobs, both generally and in the Indigenous population, are in public administration and public services such as health. Private sector jobs are mainly in mining. One effect of this is that establishing and running a business is much more difficult than in cities and towns. Mr David Donald, a tourist operator in the cape, described it as follows:

The cape is so far away from everyone. People drop in for a couple of hours or a couple of days and then go back to the wilds of Brisbane and Canberra. They have absolutely no comprehension of what it is like to live here and to run a business here. We do not just go down to the corner store and buy things. We have to source stuff from Cairns, which is 850 kilometres away—things like that. We have transport difficulties. The roads close for four months of the year and we cannot get things even. We are looking at a totally different situation and almost a totally different country to what normal society operates under.

The committee's view in this report is that the role of government in Indigenous economic development is to be a facilitator. Although Indigenous communities benefit from public sector employment and participating in the customary sector, they will have more choices and will have a larger role to play in society if they increase their private sector employment as well.

In evidence, Mr Gerhardt Pearson of Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation stated that this was one of their aims. He also stated that governments should focus on coordinating partnerships:

Because you have the money, the programs and the truckloads of bureaucrats, the government's role must not be one where you disempower the community in bringing solutions. Your role is to assist in coordinating the partnership between the corporates, the philanthropics, the community and us.

Governments already conduct some of this work, or at least recognise that they should do so. For example, the Commonwealth's draft Indigenous Economic Development Strategy discusses developing partnerships with the private sector to find mentors for Indigenous business people and to match employment supply with demand.

The Queensland government has helped establish an arts hub and arts fair to build the profile of Indigenous artists. The Queensland Conservation Council recommended that governments should support the creation of more business hubs, particularly in cultural and conservation economies.

This is clearly an area of comparative advantage for Indigenous people, although business hubs could be created in other industries if it were so chosen.

The committee would like to see the Commonwealth and Queensland governments do more to support Indigenous business hubs and other types of partnerships because this would be a vocational, hands-on way for Indigenous people to pick up relevant skills and advice. Further, this is sought after by one of the main Indigenous development bodies in the region and is seen by Indigenous people themselves as a priority. The Queensland government's Sustainable Cape Communities initiative would be a suitable vehicle for achieving this.

The committee's 10th recommendation is that in consultation with Indigenous communities, the Queensland government increase opportunities for Indigenous business partnerships under its Sustainable Cape Communities initiative.

The Queensland government did outline the range of initiatives supporting Indigenous economic development. It will facilitate economic growth on Cape York through a regional strategy and examine further how to create jobs in the cape.

I commend the Queensland government for taking an active approach during our inquiry and bringing these initiatives to the attention of the inquiry and making the necessary changes in their response during the inquiry.

Indigenous economic development is a large and complex issue and this report can only cover part of such a wide topic. However this report does include important recommendations on how the Commonwealth can be more involved in assisting Indigenous economic development in Cape York. I also anticipate that the material presented to the committee and made public will contribute to a greater awareness of these issues and assist policy development in the future.

From our inquiry visits to the far north of Queensland, as a committee and as individuals we were able to see at least to some degree how some of the difficulties and issues with such factors as isolation, distance and infrastructure present huge challenges to Indigenous communities and their economic development. We sincerely hope that this report will help alleviate some of those issues and strongly urge that the recommendations in the report be adopted.

Lastly I would like to thank those who made submissions to the inquiry and the witnesses who attended the hearings. The committee appreciates their assistance, the expertise that they displayed and the courtesy that they displayed in welcoming us to their communities. I also thank my colleagues on the committee for their contribution and thank the secretariat of the committee and the staff who worked very hard to produce this report. I commend the report to the House.