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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 714


Mr ABBOTT (Leader of the Opposition) (8:58 PM) —The Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 is, I would like to think, an important and significant attempt to give the Indigenous people of Cape York back their birthright, because the Queensland government, through the application of the wild rivers legislation to the rivers of Cape York, has effectively taken away from the Indigenous people of Cape York the ability to use what we say is their land in the way that they would like. We understand, throughout this parliament, that the great challenge is to ensure that Aboriginal people have the same economic opportunities that other Australians do. We understand that the great challenge is to enable them to use their land not just as a spiritual asset but as an economic asset, because, if they cannot use their land, it is not really theirs. That is the problem with the Queensland wild rivers legislation.

In moving the historic apology two years ago, the Prime Minister said:

… unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

In making that statement, the Prime Minister was absolutely right: unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. Yet, paradoxically, on the same day that the Rudd government subscribed to the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Bligh government in Queensland applied the wild rivers legislation to the significant rivers of Cape York—effectively blocking Aboriginal people from developing their land in the catchments of the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart rivers in Cape York.

I lead the Liberal and National coalition in this parliament. The Liberal and National parties in this parliament are the traditional defenders of the rights of the states, but the truth is that where a state government has erred in a very significant way and where the national government has the ability to correct that error, it should do so. Under section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution we in this parliament have the power to make laws for the people of any race, and I think we should make laws to ensure that the Indigenous people of Cape York are given back their birthright in respect of their land. That is why I have moved this private members’ bill.

As I said, the great challenge is to ensure that Aboriginal people are not just honoured as the first citizens of this country, are not just honoured as the first Australians, but actually enjoy full participation in our society. They will never enjoy full participation in our society if they are not able to start a business, to own a home and to earn an income in the same way that other Australians take for granted. Yet how can they do that if in the land that they love, in the land where they and their ancestors have lived for millennia, they are prevented by yet another layer of bureaucracy from doing what the rest of us take for granted? That is why this legislation is important.

I know that the last thing the Rudd government would want to do is to pick a fight with the Bligh Labor government in Queensland, but I think the Prime Minister was sincere when he made that apology. I think he was sincere when he said that the symbolism of the apology had to be accompanied by practical action to help Aboriginal people to lead a better life. So, in the spirit of bipartisanship, in the same spirit in which the Prime Minister invited the then opposition leader to participate in the war cabinet on housing, I invite the Prime Minister to think seriously about making time for this legislation to be debated and voted upon. If he thinks there is a better way of doing it, I am not proud. I am happy to concede a better way of doing it, but something must be done— (Time expired)

Bill read a first time.

Ordered that the second reading be made an order of the day for the next sitting.