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Thursday, 12 August 1999
Page: 8597


Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (11:15 PM) —I thank the honourable members for Banks, Indi, Charlton, Grey, Northern Territory, Shortland, Stirling and Barton for their contributions to the debate on the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1999 . I want to deal with the matters raised in two ways. Many of the speeches that we have had have wanted to deal broadly with issues of Aboriginal disadvantage. It is important to know that this government does have as one of its major priorities the task of addressing disadvantage suffered by Australia's indigenous people. We seek to approach this in a practical, realistic and effective way. We have been generous; we have provided something in the order of $2.2 billion this financial year.

People often want to make comparisons with what is done overseas. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a number of countries with indigenous populations, in many cases larger than ours. It is hard to find governments anywhere in the world that are as generous in specific programs to address indigenous disadvantage. It has been an integral part of our policy to encourage moves to economic self-sufficiency and away from welfare dependence. It is also important to recognise that we have an impressive record in returning to Aboriginal people traditional land in the Northern Territory, with five areas granted since we came to office, without the need for an inquiry by the Land Commissioner.

In June, my colleague the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs handed over the deeds to Bauhinia Downs and later this month he will hand over the deeds to Urraptyenye. In July the Governor-General handed over the deeds to the Tempe Downs and Middleton Ponds cattle stations and I attended with him the Central Mount Wedge site when the deeds to that property were handed over late last month. This represents one of the highest rates of grants in recent years. It demonstrates what can be achieved through cooperation amongst all parties, including the Northern Territory government. It is important that legislation governing the land rights act is workable and effective. At the moment, we have a number of anomalies and it is in the interests of all parties that these are clarified.

I will return to that in a moment, but I want to pick up some of the comments of the member for Shortland on the issue of indigenous disadvantage in particular because it is important to recognise that, in the context of the recent report dealing with the quantification of that disadvantage, the government's focus on health education, employment and housing is affirmed by the record.

In the area of health, the government has taken a number of initiatives to improve indigenous health, with an increase in funding of 61 per cent between the year 1996 and the year 2003. Wherever possible, we are seeking to facilitate immediate changes to the health status of Aboriginal people. We know it might take time; we know that in many cases it may even be generational. Our approach is not based upon quick fixes. We are committed to a long-term view involving partnerships and a strategic approach to enhancing access by indigenous people to quality primary health care.

In the area of education, we have increased expenditure on indigenous education programs by $16.3 million in 1999-2000 and the new Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program is in place for the next five years. We are working on strategies to improve indigenous numeracy and literacy and school attendance, as well as year 12 retention rates.

In the employment area, my colleague Mr Abbott, the Minister for Employment Services, has been very active in relation to issues of low indigenous employment. There are signs of improvement in the last 10 years, but the government's indigenous employment policy, involving an additional $115 million per year, will provide and promote employment and training opportunities for indigenous people.

In the area of housing, we have quarantined the expenditure from any forms of budget savings. We have allocated over $350 million annually to support the construction of 1,200 new houses and a similar number of housing upgrades, and we are very anxious to improve health related infrastructure such as power, sewerage and access to clean water. People would be aware that we have embarked upon an initiative using the Australian Army, ATSIC and the Department of Health and Aged Care. They are working together to address the pressing needs of housing and infrastructure in remote Australia.

It is important to recognise that, although we have a long way to go in addressing indigenous disadvantage to a point where all Aboriginals live at the same level as all other Australians, the fact is that there have been very significant improvements in Aboriginal conditions in the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, the infant mortality rate was 20 times higher in the non-indigenous population; that rate has since been reduced by 75 per cent. Twenty years ago, up to 20 per cent of indigenous families lived in improvised dwellings; today it is less than three per cent. When discussing these sorts of issues, it is important to recognise what has been achieved over time. If we were not able to boast of those achievements, I think the expenditures of money, which are very large, would obviously be brought into question.

Dealing with the substantive issue that we have in this legislation, it is legislation that is designed to cure certain defects in legislation implemented by earlier governments. The most obvious was the accidental inclusion in the schedule to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of the Elliott cattle yards and dip, despite clear legislative intention on the part of the previous government that they be excluded. Secondly, there are the stock route claims that remain on the books, unable to be dealt with by a land commissioner but causing uncertainty for government, land-holders and pastoralists, which again is against the legislative intention of the previous government, which clearly was to dispose of the claims. What we are now dealing with is the amendment which failed to pass to give effect to that intention. Thirdly, there is a sunset clause provision which requires clarification so that we do not end up with another group of claims which are unable to be heard. Finally, there are those cases where the Land Commissioner is unable to make a finding that there are traditional owners. These cases, too, have been left in legislative limbo and the matters need to be resolved.

The amendments that we are proposing to this bill are entirely consistent with the intent of amendments made to the act by earlier Labor governments. The member for Banks maintains that this bill is premature. He wants us to wait for the House of Representatives Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to release its report into the Reeves inquiry on the land rights act. He maintains that the bill involves fundamental and significant changes and he has been reinforced today in some of these comments by the opposition's legal affairs spokesman, the member for Barton.

On the first issue, when this bill was debated in 1997, the opposition wanted to delay consideration until the Reeves report was issued. Well, the Reeves report has been issued and it recommends early passage of this bill, including a recommendation that the Elliott stockyards error be remedied without delay. On the second issue, there are no fundamental matters here. The bill corrects administrative errors or vague drafting that occurred during the term of the previous government.

In relation to the Elliott cattle yards, the arguments for invalidating the cattle yards grant are compelling. The member for Banks—and I guess he has briefed his colleagues in this matter—has been somewhat careless with the facts in what has been a highly selective account. He has misinformed the House and his own party. The facts are these. The Northern Land Council, the Northern Territory government and the Cattlemen's Association originally reached agreement that the stockyards were to be excluded from the grant. The then minister, Mr Hand, said in the second reading speech in 1989:

In accordance with concerns raised by the Northern Territory, an area used for cattle yards and a dip at Elliott has been excluded from the area to be scheduled.

Those words are on record. They are unambiguous, and I think all members of the opposition ought to have been able to well understand them. In the event, as we know, an administrative error occurred in 1991 which resulted in the unintentional scheduling despite Mr Hand's statement. After the error was made, the next Labor Aboriginal affairs minister, Mr Tickner, wrote to the various parties in 1993 and 1994 and he said the traditional owners:

. . . should surrender the land in question . . .

And:

. . . if necessary, through the Commonwealth, it will need to examine other options for rectifying this error if my preferred approach of negotiation does not succeed.

Mr Tickner also said:

As long as the matter remains unresolved, it provides a basis for critics of the land council to argue that the traditional owners are now acting in bad faith, given the earlier consent for the yards to be excised from the grants.

They were words from one of the opposition's ministers who was thought to be one of the most compassionate, understanding and generous in relation to dealing with Aboriginal issues. And yet he said, in relation to this matter, that it left the matter open to be characterised as acting in bad faith if the earlier consent for the exclusion was not honoured.

Negotiations between ATSIC and the Northern Land Council and traditional owners of Elliott have resulted in an agreement to surrender the land. ATSIC funded community improvements for the Gurungu people and the title was not surrendered. All attempts since then to have the return by agreement have failed. Before handing back the title to the cattle yards, the Northern Land Council wants a covenant to the cattle yards lease which provides the Northern Land Council with legal right to enforce health and safety requirements and facilitate ceremonial activities. Obviously there are environmental health implications for the Gurungu people because of the proximity of the cattle yards, but the Northern Territory government has undertaken a number of improvements and the Chief Minister has confirmed that his government is committed to resolving health concerns and that ATSIC will assist in this matter. These environmental issues have been raised by members, including the member for Barton. I am informed that the Northern Territory has undertaken work to improve health and safety conditions, that ATSIC has already spent $100,000 on irrigation for a buffer zone of trees, and that the Northern Territory Chief Minister wrote to my colleague the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs on 3 June listing improvements including in relation to issues of mosquito control, carcass disposal and control of dust. He said that the Northern Territory remains committed to the resolution of the environmental health concerns.

In the time left, I will move on to say that, if the Northern Land Council really wants to demonstrate good faith and achieve a negotiated settlement, it should surrender the land now and avoid the need for this legislation. The opposition members criticised this amendment as an unfortunate precedent of compulsory acquisition of land. It is not a compulsory acquisition. It is invalidating a grant that was made in error. It is a quite clear and distinct situation which the members of the Labor Party when in office well understood.

The member for Banks calls for compensation. Compensation is not required because it is not a compulsory acquisition. The Gurungu people have not been disadvantaged by the error, and I am sure they do not expect a windfall profit because of the clerical error. However, the bill provides that the Federal Court can determine whether compensation on just terms is necessary. While this mistake remains, the integrity of the land grants process is compromised; the Northern Land Council and the traditional owners leave themselves vulnerable to criticism on grounds that they have reneged on the original agreement and are attempting to benefit unfairly from an error.

The bill seeks to clarify the situation in relation to claims over stock routes. The member for Banks maintains that there was no legislative intent to dispose of these claims. This is at odds with the words of Mr Holding when he was the Labor minister. He said:

. . . it has been the Government's position that it would be preferable, as a general rule, that claims to stock routes and reserves not proceed . . .

The previous government entered into a memorandum of agreement in 1989 with the Northern Territory government concerning the granting of community living areas to Aboriginal people in pastoral districts of the Northern Territory. As part of that agreement, the Commonwealth undertook to prevent by legislative amendment claims over stock routes and reserves, which in the Northern Territory were called spaghetti claims. They provided little benefit to Aboriginal people but considerable inconvenience to non-Aboriginal pastoralists.

The amendment was proclaimed in 1990, but it now appears it was technically deficient. It precluded the Land Commissioner from hearing claims lodged after 1 March 1990; however, it failed to deal with claims already on the books, despite clear legislative intention that they should be disposed of. This creates enormous uncertainty for the Northern Territory government and pastoralists.

In 1995 the Northern Territory government undertook to legislate to provide community living areas on pastoral leases for Aboriginal people ineligible to make claims under the land rights act in return for certainty over these stock route claims. The Northern Territory has drafted amendments to its Pastoral Land Act 1992 which meet the Commonwealth's concerns about security for Aboriginal people on community living areas. This bill will allow the Commonwealth to honour its part of the 1995 agreement, thus resolving a long and painful process of achieving an appropriate balance between the rights of Aboriginal people living on pastoral leases and those of the Northern Territory government and pastoralists.

The previous government provided a sunset clause so that no claims could be heard after 5 June 1997. The legislation does not, however, preclude new claims being lodged and, although this may be unlikely, if it were to happen, the Northern Territory would be affected in its ability to deal with the land. By making a simple legislative amendment now, we can give clarity and effect to the original intention behind the legislation. It is standard practice of a land commissioner in his report to find that there are traditional owners, or where that is not the case, to state that he is unable to find them. The wording of section 67A of the land rights act prevents any estate or interest being granted for that land. Where no traditional owners can be found, the land enters into a limbo period, I suppose it could best be described: it cannot be granted to Aboriginal people, but it cannot be granted to anyone else. The Labor Party recognised this problem when they were in government, and they entered into an agreement with the Northern Territory to correct this anomaly and allow claims to be finally disposed of. This amendment is consistent with that intention.

To sum up, this bill ensures that claims in the following three categories will be disposed of: where the Land Commissioner is unable to make a finding that there are Aboriginals who are traditional owners of the land; where the land claim is over stock routes or stock reserves and the Land Commissioner had not commenced a hearing by 1 March 1990—the relevant amendment was proclaimed by the previous government in that year; and, where the claim has been made on or after 5 June 1997, which is the date of the expiration of the sunset clause for land claims decided by the previous government. It corrects an anomalous and most unsatisfactory position in relation to the Elliott stockyards. The amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in the bill before the House add clarity and certainty to amendments enacted by previous governments. They make it workable and effective and benefit all parties, and for that reason I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The House divided. [11.38 a.m.]

(Madam Deputy Speaker—Mrs J.A. Crosio)

Ayes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76

Noes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65

——

Majority . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

——

Voting lists are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.

Question so resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.