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Wednesday, 11 March 1998
Page: 968

Mrs STONE (1:16 PM) —When the Native Title Act 1993 was passed, the indigenous people of Australia had the expectation that it would usher in a new era, an era that would give them a straightforward and easy process for the claiming and granting of native title. In fact, the Native Title Act 1993 has delivered nothing but misery and tension in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. It has torn families apart.

There has been confusion and concern throughout the Australian community as a whole as something that was meant to help reconciliation in this country has gone very wrong—the issue of native title has turned sour. Members on both sides of the House agree that we must amend this act. We must make sure that we do not have the current counterclaiming and vexatious claiming, thus putting this business into the hands of those who simply seek to make substantial financial gain out of the process. Through the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] , we have to ensure that the act becomes workable. We have to bring the issue of native title into the arena of community understanding, with all Australians able to accommodate and accept it.

Last weekend, I met two Aboriginal women from Western Australia who grew up together on Mount Margaret Mission. They told me that they had been advised not to speak to one another because they are claimants in separate claims over the same area of land. They are childhood friends, yet they have been told not to have anything to do with each other during the months and years that it will take to resolve their counterclaims. That shows the absurdity of the current legislation. In my electorate of Murray, the Yorta Yorta claim is working its way through the courts at the moment. That claim should have been a cause for local celebration, with an acknowledgment that parts of the crown land in that area can justifiably be put into the hands of the local Aboriginal people. Instead, the community has been torn apart.

The government amendments will make this act workable. They will be fair. They will have transparent and practical processes. Unfortunately, the debate has been captured for party political purposes; and that is a great tragedy. Too often, the media takes the side of the loudest voices, the ones who make the most outrageous statements. We must hope that this issue is debated on the grounds of what is best for indigenous people so that their native title claims can be swiftly resolved.

The core of the problem at the moment is that virtually no threshold tests are in place: any individual or group can walk in and make a claim. That has caused a great amount of tension. Another problem is that a lot of the debate has been caught up in the right to negotiate issue. We believe that the problems with the right to negotiate, which has had people tearing at one another's throats, will be resolved by our amendments. However, concentration on this issue has meant that we have not been seen to be supporting the voluntary agreement approach.

This government endorses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working together with pastoralists, town people and any other interest groups to try to resolve the issue of native title. We strongly endorse the voluntary agreement approach. Indigenous land use agreement provisions are in the bill, and they make the approach a real alternative to long drawn out and adversarial court cases—the sorts of court cases that are tearing individuals and communities apart and which are costing dollars that could be better spent on Aboriginal health, housing and employment initiatives.

Our amendments provide strong, fair and legally certain frameworks for agreements about native title—and that is not the case with the current act. The amendments to this act which the coalition is trying to put through will deliver an outcome that every Australian can understand. They will deliver certainty across the nation for all interested parties. They will move Australia towards reconciliation, when the community understands that native title can and should be delivered where claims are absolutely consistent with the law.

When native title is delivered to the people who make legitimate claims, then we as a nation can celebrate how richly diverse we are. Our indigenous people have contributed mightily to this nation. They were the owners of this country before white settlement. I call upon everyone in this House and the Senate to put aside party politics and look at the interests of the indigenous people of Australia. The government amendments will then be seen to represent the commonsense approach.