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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 8551


Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (11:16): I rise to speak in support of the Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. There are few issues of greater national priority than those affecting the first Australians. This bill predominantly concerns the issue of Indigenous land rights and represents significant progress in the way in which native title is recognised and managed. Additionally, this bill transfers ownership of land near Borroloola and of the Port Patterson Islands to the relevant Aboriginal land trust. This specific provision of the amendment bill concerns a native title claim made under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act.

As the member for Robertson, I understand that native title issues are very significant in the Northern Territory. In a way they are not quite as dominant in the landscape of the seat of Robertson. Despite this the Central Coast, including my electorate, has a proud Indigenous heritage which I always feel very proud to represent here in this place. Indeed, this heritage is demonstrated with the proud culture of the Darkinjung and Guringai people from my area, who I have the privilege of being in contact with in my role here as a member of parliament. Whilst the Darkinjung land council operates under New South Wales legislation, it is an immensely significant organisation in my electorate which effectively represents the interests of the Darkinjung people. There are large numbers of significant leaders in the Aboriginal community right across the Central Coast doing wonderful work for our community.

The welfare of the first Australians is something that affects all Australians. Whilst the issues in this bill may largely be geographically confined, the welfare of Indigenous Australians and the cultural heritage of our nation are issues that affect us all. Indeed, whilst the Darkinjung and Guringai people are separate nations of Indigenous people, the large geographical distance from the Northern Territory does not prevent a shared cultural heritage or mean there is a lack of interest from afar.

Since the Mabo and Wik decisions of 1990, native title has achieved a long overdue significant place in Australian property law. I understand and respect the role of native title in legally respecting and recognising traditional land ownership. Indeed, it is through native title and the Native Title Act that we as a parliament recognise that Australia was not terra nullius, or a land that belonged to nobody, before 1788. It is through this Native Title Act that the custodial relationships that our first Australians have with the land, stretching back 20,000 years, can be recognised in legal form. As a member of parliament, I am proud that as a nation we have eventually been able to develop a just and mature approach to recognising native title and enabling it to be maintained within the boundaries of Australian property law.

This bill reflects the ideal that native title is best established and administered through settlements rather than through expensive litigation. Litigation will always have the disadvantage of being inherently adversarial, and in the context of native title it is prone to community division. Therefore, in my opinion, the promotion of native title through settlement is inherently culturally appropriate and beneficial in the maintenance of Aboriginal land rights. I believe that this bill will be very successful in advancing this practical and pragmatic objective.

A significant reform of this bill is enabling the minister for Indigenous affairs to make guidelines to which the Indigenous Land Corporation must have regard before deciding to perform its functions in support of a native title settlement. This will assist in providing guidance to the Indigenous Land Corporation, enabling it to be more effective in the manner in which it carries out its functions. As the minister stated in her second reading speech, the Indigenous Land Corporation was established shortly after the Native Title Act came into being in 1993. The establishment of the Indigenous Land Corporation was recognition that not all native title claims would be successful and that alternative means of recognising Indigenous land ownership were needed. The Indigenous Land Corporation plays important roles in assisting Indigenous communities to acquire and maintain land. The ILC acquires land and grants it to Indigenous corporations for the purpose of achieving economic, social and cultural benefits. To acquire land grants by this method, Indigenous communities need to demonstrate a commitment and a capacity to sustainably manage the property. They also have to show a capacity and a commitment to the achievement of continuing benefits, particularly in the areas of training and employment. The ILC also plays a vital range of roles in assisting Indigenous communities to manage land through land management projects. These projects have the goal of ensuring that Indigenous land ownership leads to very practical and tangible economic, social and cultural gains.

Such achievements require a huge effort, and there will always be challenges. However, as a member of parliament, I am proud to support this government, which is persevering in our aim to improve the living standards of our first Australians. Matters affecting the first Australians should never again be out of sight or out of mind, which for far too long they were. This bill reflects recognition by the government that the Indigenous Land Corporation is useful in assisting with resolution of native title disputes. It will provide the minister with the ability to make guidelines concerning matters to which the ILC must have regard and improve its functions in support of settlement. roposed section 191F(2A) will require the ILC to have regard to these guidelines when making any decisions to perform its functions in relation to a native title settlement.

The third component of this bill is the reforms to the elections and composition of the Torres Strait Regional Authority. It is vital to recognise the distinct difference between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and the importance of being aware of these differences is embedded in the amendment. Again, the issues that affect Torres Strait Islanders affect all Australians. This is because of the need to sustain our treasured national cultural heritage, in which the Torres Strait Islander people play a significant role. Indeed, it was a Torres Strait Islander who took the step of successfully asserting land rights in the High Court. Regardless of differing opinions concerning native title, it can never be denied that Eddie Mabo's successful High Court challenge forever changed and improved the manner in which we view Indigenous land ownership.

This bill seeks to confer greater authority to the Torres Strait Regional Authority by firstly by removing the connection between elections to the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Queensland local government. This reform is required because section 142Y of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005 requires that elections to the Torres Strait Regional Authority occur every three years. However, since 2009 Queensland local government elections have been occurring every four years. Additionally, amendments to section 142S of the ATSI Act remove a connection between the TSRA and Queensland local government. This provides the minister with the freedom to determine how the TSRA is constituted. Importantly, this reform will reduce the potential for conflicts of interest between the roles of people elected to both the TSRA and the Queensland local government councils. This will further ensure that the TSRA provides good governance for the Torres Strait Islands.

It is within the national interest that the proud people of the Torres Strait are provided with the means of effective self-governance. Indigenous affairs has been one of the most challenging issues affecting our nation and one we should all endeavour to address in the short, the medium and the long term. Indeed, throughout the last 20 years many significant events in our national history have occurred concerning the past treatment of Indigenous Australians. We had the Mabo and Wik decisions, in addition to the Native Title Act, establishing the legal basis for the traditional ownership of land. We had the groundbreaking Bringing them home report, released in 1997, exposing once and for all the terrible and shameful reality of the stolen generations. We had the apology that occurred a long 10 years after the report, and a recognition that, as a parliament and as a nation, we accept responsibility for actions which when we look back can only be described as reprehensible.

The road to improving the living standards of Indigenous communities and increasing educational outcomes is a long one. The Northern Territory intervention is perhaps one of the most contentious policies ever passed by an Australian parliament and enforced by Australian governments. I welcome the proposed replacements to the intervention when the Northern Territory Emergency Response ends in 2012. Like this legislation, those replacements will ensure that future policies in relation to Indigenous communities are developed and enforced in partnership with those communities.

As a parliament, we must never shy away from our obligation to fight to ensure that the next generation of Indigenous Australians has a better future than the previous generations. We must remain ever vigilant in moving towards closing the gap. It is by doing this that we can ensure we achieve justice that honours our first people and enhances our democracy. On that basis, I commend the bill to the House.