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Thursday, 19 September 2002
Page: 6675

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (9:35 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill reflects the continuing commitment of this government to securing the legitimate title to traditional lands on behalf of Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976—which I will hereafter refer to as the land rights act—provides a mechanism whereby traditional Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, referred to in schedule 1 of that act, may be granted to Aboriginal land trusts to hold title on behalf of Aboriginal people with the agreement of this parliament. Since the land rights act came into operation in 1977 a total of some 64 separate parcels of land have been scheduled under the act. This amendment will bring the total to 69.

The effect of this bill would first of all be to bring within schedule 1 of the land rights act four areas of land that were the subject of the Upper Daly (Repeat) Land Claim. The land, situated about 250 kilometres to the south-west of Darwin, not far from the township of Pine Creek, was the subject of an agreement between the Northern Territory government, the Northern Land Council and the claimants. The agree-ment was entered into on 15 November 1999 and finalised in February 2002 after discussions relating to native title, the granting of other titles to the Northern Territory government and the making of a lease-back agreement in respect of the Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park Reserve. The area to be scheduled comprises nearly 110,000 hectares.

The bill will also bring within schedule 1 of the land rights act a single block of land, situated some 40 kilometres north of Alice Springs, near the Stuart Highway. This scheduling proposal arises from the government's decision to provide funding to enable the construction of one of the greatest infrastructure projects in Australian history to proceed: the Darwin to Alice Springs railway.

Title to this block of land will be granted to the Harry Creek East community. The community's current land is situated on the old north-south stock route and has been rendered unfit for community purposes by its proximity to the Darwin-Alice Springs railway corridor. Hence, the former government of the Northern Territory agreed to grant the community another parcel of land, located only a few kilometres to the south-east of their current land.

With construction of the Darwin to Alice Springs railway having now commenced in the area concerned, the Central Land Council, which has jurisdiction over the area, requested that this land, some 450 hectares of vacant Northern Territory crown land, be granted to the Arnapipe Aboriginal land trust, on behalf of the members of the Harry Creek East community. The Northern Territory government has agreed to this scheduling proposal.

As a result of the scheduling of these parcels of land, the Aboriginal people concerned will be able to have the full rights of enjoyment of their traditional lands in fee simple—in other words, a freehold title in perpetuity.

This bill is further evidence of this government's commitment to land rights and its acknowledgment of the cultural and spiritual importance of land to Indigenous Australians. However, while supporting the return of traditional land to its Aboriginal owners, the government considers that the land rights act in its current form is in urgent need of repair because it has not assisted, as it should have, in improving the social and economic position of Aboriginal land owners. The provisions relating to exploration and mining on Aboriginal land are a case in point. There has only been one new mine on Aboriginal land in 25 years. There have been over 1,000 applications to explore on Aboriginal land but more than half of those applications remain outstanding.

The government believes that many traditional owners are interested in the development of their lands but the cumbersome provisions in the land rights act are preventing that occurring. With no circuit-breaker in the act, there are endless negotiations.

The land rights act maintains paternalistic aspects, particularly in relation to Aboriginal people needing to go through a distant land council bureaucracy to manage their own land. Regionalisation of decision making in relation to the Northern and Central Land Councils, and even establishing new land councils where people want them, would assist in quicker land use decisions and greater local control.

The land rights act is over 25 years old and has not been substantively amended since 1987. There are continuing calls for changes to the act, particularly from the land councils, ATSIC and Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. The government is currently waiting for the views of the Northern Territory government and the Central and Northern Land Councils on a paper canvassing options for reform, which the government circulated to interested parties earlier this year. I am hopeful that I will receive these views in the near future so that reform of the land rights act can be progressed.

As I have said, amendments to the act are long overdue. However, this bill demonstrates that the government is prepared to continue to work with the existing legislation. This is an act of good faith on our part and I ask the other stakeholders, particularly the two major land councils and the Northern Territory government, to join this government in good faith in seeking the reform of the land rights act.

I ask the opposition to give the matter of amendments to the land rights act priority and to support changes, which will contribute to improving the lives of traditional owners and other Indigenous Australians.

There are no financial implications arising from this bill.

I certainly commend this bill to the House and I present an explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.