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Wednesday, 30 August 2000
Page: 16980


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Industry, Science and Resources) (5:38 PM) —I would like to say a few words on this debate as the Commonwealth minister for resources, as one of the architects of the 1998 legislation and as the person whose lot it was to take it through this parliament on the three occasions before it was finally passed. Today is a very grim day for Australia's magnificent resources industry; it is also a very grim day for the prospects of Aboriginal employment in Australia's resources industry. It is a day of utter humiliation for Premier Beattie and a day on which we can nail Mr Beazley as one of the weakest leaders the opposition has ever had. The saddest part for me was Senator Faulkner's speech. I am sure Senator Harradine, who was so intimately involved in the very difficult process with the 1998 legislation, would agree that it revealed that the person who wrote the speech on behalf of the federal ALP—and who therefore reflects the ALP's position—really does not, even eight years later, have any real understanding of what the Mabo decision was all about, let alone the Wik decision of 1996. It is clear that the author, and therefore Senator Faulkner and the ALP, do not understand what common law native title really is, what it constitutes, what it is all about, what the High Court actually said about it and what the relationship of common law native title is to statutory title across Australia.

It is also clear from the ALP's position today in effectively gutting the Queensland regime that there is absolutely no understanding, or willingness to comprehend, because of partisanship, the very significant procedural rights that are guaranteed to native title claimants in the 1998 legislation. What Labor has done today is a smokescreen for completely gutting the Queensland scheme by abandoning the Queensland government's proposed section 43A alternative provisions to the right to negotiate. There is not much left at all that enables workable procedures to operate in Queensland. The position adopted by the Labor Party today ignores the fact that section 43A provides guarantees of substantial rights on pastoral leases for native title claimants. Those rights are in fact in excess of the procedural rights of the pastoral lessees. The High Court made it clear in Mabo and Wik that the statutory titles are stronger than the common law titles. When you have a clash between the common law native title and the statutory title, the statutory title must prevail. That is the basis in essence of our whole legal system. Whether the statutory title is held by an Aboriginal person, an Anglo-Saxon person or an Islamic person, it makes no difference. In our legal system the only way it can operate is if the statutory title holders' rights prevail where there is a clash with the common law. We did work out a system where you could satisfactorily ensure that those rights could coexist. We did it in a very sympathetic way and, with the very strong position taken by Senator Harradine on behalf of Aboriginal Australians, ensured that the statutory procedural rights available to native title claimants on pastoral leases were superior to the procedural rights of the pastoral lessees. They are rights which any reasonable person would regard as more than satisfactory in respect of proposed mining or exploration on pastoral leases where it affects the native title claimants.

The Labor Party's support of the disallowance motion by the Democrats today in relation to the core elements of the Queensland legislation will result in all mining applications on pastoral leases in Queensland having to run the gauntlet of the full right to negotiate process which, it must be recalled, was never designed to apply to pastoral leases. A fundamental fact which Labor always seeks to ignore of the 1993 legislation, which contained this new, incredibly complex and legalistic process called the right to negotiate, is that it was based on the then clear legal position that native title was extinguished by pastoral leases. In other words, the whole foundation of the legislation was that this right to negotiate process would never apply to mining applications on pastoral leases. That is an absolute fact supported by people like Bob Collins. The right to negotiate process has, as is conceded by many, proved to be a huge stumbling block and an unworkable process in many respects for the development of Australia's resources industry and therefore—something that Senator Brown continues to ignore—for the prospects of employment for Aboriginal people who live in regional Australia.

In my view, despite Premier Beattie's best attempts to put a gloss on it, the outcome today guts the legislation and is a disaster for the Queensland resources industry. It is, as I said, a humiliation for Mr Beattie, who has been beaten by the left faction in Canberra. I understand Mr Melham has resigned but I must say I do not know why. I think he has had a considerable victory in ensuring that the section 43A provisions have been wiped out.

The fact is that some 50 to 60 per cent of Queensland is covered by pastoral leases or reserved land that would have been covered by this section 43A determination. It is also a fact that about 63 per cent of Queensland is land claimable under native title and about 90 per cent of that has been claimed; in other words, 54 per cent of Queensland is under claim. Together with the fact that over half of Queensland is pastoral lease land, what has happened today really will be a complete disaster for the Queensland resources industry.

I think the future looks extremely grim for the resources industry, not only in Queensland but Australia wide if this process continues. Exploration has, in effect, collapsed in this country. It is going overseas at an increasing rate. A recent world risk survey of the resources industry and of the 20 major nations that are prospective for minerals rated Australia equal worst for land access; that is, 20th out of 20 for risk in relation to land access. There are many other countries that are becoming much more prospective and willing to welcome investment in their resources industries and that are aggressively competing with Australia. We cannot assume that the Australian resources industry will continue to grow in the face of this increasing difficulty to access land.

That has enormous implications for Australia's economy and for the living standards of every single Australian, including those in Sydney and Melbourne. But more particularly and I think more tragically—and as recorded only recently by the Queensland Labor Minister for Mines and Energy—it has implications for the prospects for employment of Aboriginal people in regional Australia. For those Aboriginal people who live in regional Australia, the most prospective area of employment has to be the resources industry. There is no other industry in regional Australia that is likely to give Aboriginal people prospects for worthwhile jobs and employment than mining. By what can only be described as feelgood approaches of the kind that we are seeing in the Senate today, you are actually employing what has been described as the kindness that kills. It is the `kindness' that kills employment prospects for Aboriginal people in regional Australia. As Mr McGrady was reminding me only the other day, the Century mine, which was so aggressively opposed by so many on the left of Australian politics who think they are doing good, has fortunately proceeded. It has resulted in magnificent employment prospects for the local Aboriginal people who are engaged not only directly in the mine but also in businesses supporting and servicing that mine site.

As minister for resources in this country, I believe that, if this is a precedent for what is likely to happen with Western Australian legislation and for the future of any legislation in the Northern Territory, our critical mining states, this country faces very grim prospects if this continues. While the mining industry today is healthy, these are based on mines that are operating now and that had their approvals granted many years ago. There is very little coming down the stream. What are our children going to do for the sustenance of our standards of living and the health of our economy if we do not have exploration activity that discovers new prospective mineral deposits? It will simply cease to exist as an industry in this country. This is the one industry where we are world leaders. It is progressively being undermined and potentially destroyed by this action.

I close in commenting on what appears to be the foundation for the Democrats' ideological opposition to these state regimes. They have the argument that, because as a matter of fact democratically elected governments in the various states can alter these regimes in future, therefore even if they now satisfy every test that could possibly be applied to them, they should be struck down by this Senate—contrary to its whole foundation, which is as a states house. Their opposition seems to me extraordinary. It ignores the absolute fact that the state laws cannot legally or validly give native title claimants lesser rights than those set out in the Native Title Act of this parliament do. As a result of Senator Harradine's activities and work in this matter on behalf of Aboriginal people, it is a very substantial set of rights that cannot be abrogated by any state parliament or government. It sets a very high minimum standard which all state legislation must at all times comply with, and no amendments can ever reduce those rights below the standards set by Senator Harradine in his work in 1998. So the Democrat argument has absolutely no foundation. All they are doing is contributing to a very sad day for the Australian resources industry.