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Thursday, 12 August 1999
Page: 8590


Ms JANN McFARLANE (10:37 AM) —I rise to my feet today to raise my concerns about the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1999 . As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the bill is an attempt to do two things: first, invalidate part of a land grant made to the Gurungu Land Trust in 1991 and, second, to add three new ways in which a traditional land claim can be taken to have been `finally disposed of'. That is the technical effect of the bill. But for a moment let me talk about what the bill stands for morally and socially and what it means for the process of reconciliation that some of us hold dear.

As my colleague the shadow minister Daryl Melham has already outlined, the bill, if allowed to proceed, will set a precedent by giving the Commonwealth the power to compulsorily acquire land granted to the Aboriginal people by the Gurungu Land Trust. What does this say about the government? It says that, although government members may speak the words `reconciliation' and `consultation', that is not genuinely in their hearts and minds. Passing the bill means a refusal to consult. How can the government be genuine about consultation if it refuses to consult? How can it say it is genuine about finding ways to work with Aboriginal people to resolve issues if it refuses to negotiate? No, it is easier for this government to legislate. The Australian people entrusted the government with the power of governance with an obligation to use it wisely, fairly and for the good of all, not to impose its view and its desires unfairly on the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory.

This is not just about a small parcel of land known as the Elliott stockyards in the Northern Territory; this is also about the message this proposed legislation sends other state governments. From my research into this matter, it is apparent to me that the return of the stockyards has been a matter of some discussion between the Northern Territory government and the Northern Land Council, representing the owners. The Northern Territory government has been unable to get its own way on this matter and has been taking back the land without addressing some of the original environmental health issues which were agreed on at the time of the land grant in 1991.

The Northern Territory government wants to take back the valuable land but not comply with its part of the bargain, which was to fund the planting of a screen of trees to address the dust, flies and smell problems coming from the stockyards. So what do the bureaucrats do when they cannot get their own way? They run to their mates in the federal government and ask Big Brother to simply change the laws so that they do not have to participate in the morally appropriate negotiation process, so they do not have to spend any of their precious pieces of silver assisting Aboriginal people to lead a decent and healthy life. And the shame of it is that this federal government has agreed to do the Northern Territory's bidding.

Mark my words: if this bill is allowed to proceed, other states will jump on this bandwagon. In Western Australia we have a Liberal Premier who has already spent enormous amounts of taxpayers' dollars trying to make his own native title rules. After he had spent several millions of dollars of taxpayers' money, the High Court effectively told Premier Richard Court to get lost. But that did not stop him and to this day he continues to use scare tactics to try to undermine the public's confidence in the justice of the native title process. These tactics include telling people that their suburban backyards are under threat and that their access to the Swan River may be limited by a successful claim—utter nonsense but political dynamite.

I would like to look to the federal government for leadership and for a mature and responsible debate about the right of Aboriginal people to use the processes open to them when the government decides to overturn a legal, designated land claim. But again I am disappointed. Not only will this government not say sorry, it will not even say, `Let's talk. Let's see if between us all we can work things out.' No, instead it just legislates.

I want to talk for a moment about the 1997 bill. One of the things that disappoint me most about this bill is that we have essentially seen it all before. The government put forward a bill in 1997 which attempted to introduce three new ways to determine that a traditional land claim had been `finally disposed of'. We in the Labor Party quite rightly took the view then that the introduction of such a bill was inappropriate in light of the government's announcement of a review of the land rights act. It was our view then that the bill should be deferred until the review was complete and debate had taken place about a wide range of other associated issues which needed to be discussed.

As some of you know, in October 1997 the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs appointed barrister John Reeves to conduct a review of the existing Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Although that review is now complete—and it does, I believe, contain a vast number of recommendations—there is currently a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into the so-called Reeves report. That committee is drafting its report as I speak. What I fail to understand is why the government seeks to have the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1999 passed before the processes it put in place to review the issues of land rights and legislation are finished.

Why did the government not follow the accepted practice and process of consultation, negotiation and report presentation before drafting this legislation? Is the government afraid it will not like what it hears? So what is John Reeves to make of the government's commitment to his report? What do the MPs who make up the standing committee feel about being pre-empted in this way? Most importantly, how do the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have participated in these white fella reviews and inquiries with good faith, feel about their treatment by the government of Australia?

What are they to make of a government that says, `We are interested in your views and we are listening,' and then passes legislation to enact its own desires anyway? As a communi ty and welfare sector worker for 25 years, I can assure you that people are interested in process. Process provides the ordinary people on the street with their democratic rights—the right to be heard and the right to have a say in the issues that involve them.

Increasingly, this Howard led government is undermining people's confidence that they will be heard. This is just one example of how, by pursuing its agenda so ruthlessly, this government is crushing the democratic rights of all its peoples. The irony is blatant. Look at the title of the bill: Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1999 . You could be forgiven for thinking that this bill was about Aboriginal people having land rights in the Northern Territory. You would think this bill was about Aboriginal people's views, thoughts and feelings on the subject. It is not.

Perhaps the bill should be labelled for what it is—`The Howard Government's View of How it Should Decide on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory Bill (No. 2) 1999'. The changing of the names of bills has been a very relevant issue in the House this week. There has been great community outrage about the way that some of these bills are named and what their real intent is. A renaming of this bill would give a more accurate depiction of what this bill is about: what this government's thoughts are rather than what Aboriginal and indigenous people's rights and wishes are.

I urge the government to rethink this bill and to do the right and honourable thing and withdraw it and shred it. I ask the responsible minister to ensure that the drafting process be put on hold until three things have been achieved: (1) negotiations with the Northern Land Council are resumed and genuine discussion is entered into regarding a resolution of the issues surrounding the Elliott stockyards; (2) discussions are held on an alternative solution that would see the land council continue to own the land and lease it back to the Cattlemen's Association; (3) the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which is carrying out extensive interviews and research on these issues and which is consulting widely with Aboriginal people, be allowed to make its findings public. Only when these three things have been achieved should this government look at whether it has a positive role to play legislatively in clarifying the process or the legal status of the parties and situation.

While contemplating the ironies apparent in this bill, I cannot help but comment on the fact that, as it stands, it appears that this bill will potentially expose the Commonwealth to a significant compensation payment in respect of the Elliott stockyards land. The Gurungu Land Trust has held that land for 7½ years. Although the bill provides no statutory entitlements to compensation for resumption of the stockyards, it does refer to a constitutional entitlement which would give the Federal Court jurisdiction to determine whether the claimants can establish a constitutional entitlement to compensation and what would constitute `just terms'.

The only thing that is clear about all of this is that it is a legal nightmare and that any actions along these lines would be complex, protracted and, ultimately, expensive for all concerned. This government, which will not say sorry in case it opens the way for compensation claims by Aboriginal people who are members of the stolen generation, appears all too happy to expose itself to a compensation claim by enacting this bill to take back land which a federal Labor government granted in 1991. If, as claimed, the small parcel of land containing the stockyards was granted in error, then surely sensible negotiations can provide a better, more sustainable outcome than the enactment of this piece of flawed legislation.

I understand that to build a comparable stockyard outside this parcel of land would cost in the vicinity of $1.5 million. It seems to me that this would be a much cheaper option than paying out the money which would be spent on litigation. If the government cannot work out how to come to a compromise win-win solution, then perhaps it should ask the advice of the various mining companies in Western Australia which recently sat down with the traditional landowners and came to an agreement about mining and other exploration activities on the various sites. It can be done if the commitment and desire is there to achieve an outcome which benefits all parties in some way. Perhaps the problem for the federal and Northern Territory governments is that they have discovered that bullyboy tactics do not play a role in mature negotiations.

The headline on the front page of the West Australian of 23 June 1999 was `Miners in historic native title deal'. The article said:

KIMBERLEY Aborigines and seven big mineral and petroleum exploration companies have signed a deal which will bypass Federal and State native title laws and speed up agreements.

The historic memorandum of understanding between the Kimberley Land Council and exploration giants Acacia Resources, BHP, Glengarry Resources, Rio Tinto, Shell Development Australia, Tanami Gold and Western Metals Zinc was signed yesterday in Broome.

That was a breakthrough. Despite the constant rhetoric of the Western Australian coalition government that native title is a dreadful thing for Western Australia, those seven large companies were able to sit down with the local Aboriginal people and come to an agreement that would be of economic benefit to the region, of benefit to the Aboriginal people, of benefit to the mining companies and, of course, of benefit to their shareholders and the taxpayers of Australia because of the mining revenue and taxes that would come into the federal coffers. These are the kinds of arrangements that can be worked out between people of goodwill and mature disposition.

My final comments are in respect of schedule 1 of the bill, which seeks to add ways in which a land claim can be taken to have been finally disposed of. While I can understand why the Northern Territory government is impatient about having to effectively lock away pieces of land where a claim has yet to be decided, it is, unfortunately, an outcome of due process. By adding items 3 and 4 of the bill, which allow the Land Commissioner to decide that he or she is unable to make a finding about the traditional owners or that the land was claimed after the sunset clause of 5 June 1997, there is a great risk of injustice occurring.

While it might be fine for us—coming from a heritage which is documented in great bound publications—to hold the view that evidence of a historical connection either can be found within a given time frame or does not exist, it is not an appropriate way to approach evidence of Aboriginal occupation in connection to particular pieces of land. I am tempted to ask: why the rush? Is there a great profit to be made by determining that a piece of land cannot be subject to claim? Surely it is better to allow time for all to ensure there is no claim over a piece of land than to dictate artificial time lines and impose artificial restrictions on evidence.

While the Elliott stockyards and the Northern Territory may physically be some way from my Western Australian electorate of Stirling, I believe the issues raised in this bill should be of concern to all decent Australians, because that is what is at its heart. The questions the coalition should be asking are these: does the bill allow a fair go for all? Does it treat all folk decently? Does it demonstrate moral and political leadership which we can be proud of? I am somewhat saddened to say the answer to all of these questions is no. It is perfectly clear: the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1999 must not be allowed to proceed.

I will read a few points made in the Central Land Council submission to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee about the bill:

The particular case of the Elliott stockyards and dip is for the Northern Land Council to comment on—

and I comment today in support of their view—

but the amendment presents an unacceptable backdoor compulsory acquisition.

. . . . . . . . .

The Commonwealth should not be enacting legislation to finally disclose of stock route claims until the Territory implements a proper system of granting pastoral land to Aboriginals in accordance with Aboriginal tradition. If . . . the Commonwealth is not prepared to insist on that outcome, it should at least require the Territory to comply with the 1989 and 1995 agreements about living areas on pastoral land before enacting such amendments.

Their comments on the legislation review process are:

The amendments were all the subject of consideration in the Reeves report. There is no warrant for giving these matters priority consideration before the post-Reeves process has run its course. They are certainly not mere technicalities. They should be the subject of a full parliamentary process, along with the rest of the Reeves recommendations.

So the process is flawed. We have the Reeves report process not finalised, the report in the final draft stage not presented, yet we are going to enact legislation in this House which will take away rights granted to Aboriginal people only in the last 7½ years. It is a shame and a disgrace. I can only say again that the bill must not be allowed to proceed.