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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 19984


Mr TOLLNER (12:50 PM) —In speaking on this report of the Standing Committee on Industry and Resources, I would first like to thank the members of the committee, particularly the chairman, the member for Forrest, the deputy chairman, the member for Lyons, and the secretary. I especially thank those who have lent me their support, advice and experience over the past month and those who have given submissions to the committee.

I believe the committee has come up with a report that confirms the widely held and long-held view that there are very real impediments to mining and petroleum exploration in Australia, and the report identifies those impediments and suggests means to overcome them. Because my time is limited and because my constituency is in the Northern Territory, I wish to concentrate my remarks on a particular area of the committee's work, and that is in relation to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The difficulties for the mining industry in dealing with native title land, or what may be native title land, are addressed at length in the report, and that is as it should be.

However, the impediments concerning access, negotiation and resolution in relation to native title are compounded many times when the mining industry confronts the processes required under the land rights act in the Northern Territory. I therefore draw members' attention to recommendation 21, which calls upon the responsible minister to:

... implement a simplified and accelerated process for granting exploration licences on land granted under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 with a view to reducing the economic transaction costs emanating from the existing provisions of the ... Act.

There was a clear conflict of views arising in the committee's hearings into this aspect of impediments into mining investment. On the one hand we had mining company representatives tell us, albeit in cautious language, that the costs of and delays in negotiations created by the act were a considerable disincentive—and one could say an insurmountable barrier—to exploration expenditure. On the other hand we had representatives of the Northern Territory's major land councils insist that the act's provisions were appropriate and necessary to properly protect landowners and argue that the act did not require amendment.

Almost coincidental with this report is a joint submission to the Indigenous affairs minister from the Northern Territory government and the land councils which, in a limited way—and reliant on goodwill rather than legislative amendment—recognises the need for a simplified and accelerated process. But let me get to the nub of the matter, and that is that experience has shown that the 1987 amendment to the act which removed the double veto has not been effective in overcoming the main difficulty that the mining industry faces in negotiations. That difficulty is that, as long as one negotiating party has the right to veto a proposal altogether, it has the whip hand in enforcing its demands, even unreasonable or questionable demands, at the negotiating table. While the situation may or may not be exploited as leverage at the negotiating stage, what is certain is that the possibility creates uncertainty for the mining industry. That uncertainty could be said to be the major reason, not forgetting either the internationalisation of the industry or the decline in commodity prices, for the lack of investment in exploration of the most prospective land in Australia. At the same time the mining industry, through its representative bodies, reluctantly accepts that the veto is an essential element of Aboriginal land rights.

The committee has therefore handed the responsible minister a conundrum that many reviews of the act and the 1987 amendments have not resolved. I do not presume to present solutions, but as a representative of my constituency I point out that the arguments surrounding this issue are not confined to the continuing power of the mainland Territory land councils as the champions of the rights of Aboriginal landowners; rather, the issue is central to ending the current disadvantage and poverty amongst Aboriginal Territorians, the continued growth of the regional economy of the Northern Territory and, to a proportionate extent, the creation of national prosperity for all Australians. With those priorities in mind, I commend the committee's report to the House.