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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 3395

Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of ANZAC) (12:38): I first say that I am pleased that the opposition is supporting this legislation. It does, as the honourable member has said, add to existing Jabiru town and certain adjacent portions of Northern Territory land in schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. It also provides a further parcel of land for the Patta around Tennant Creek to schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. Five portions of land known as Patta in the Northern Territory were previously scheduled by legislation in 2010. This new amendment will enable the further parcel of land to be granted to the relevant Aboriginal land trust, something which I very strongly support.

I do, however, want to concentrate my remarks on the bill adding to the existing Jabiru town land and adjacent portions of Northern Territory land to schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. You would know, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Murphy, that both the Patta land trust and the land trusts around Jabiru are part of my electorate of Lingiari and this legislation and its passage underscore again the government's commitment to reconciliation with Australia's first peoples and rights a historical wrong put in place over three decades ago—that is what I think is fundamentally important.

By adding this land to schedule 1 of the Land Rights Act, it allows for the land granted as Aboriginal land to be handed back to the traditional owners, the Mirarr people. There has never been any question that the Mirarr people were the traditional owners and are the traditional owners of Jabiru. Their connection to this country goes back many, many thousands of years. In fact Australia's oldest human occupation site, you might be interested to know, known as Malakunanja II, is the traditional lands of the Mirarr, as is of course the Ranger uranium mine and the site of the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine.

The Mirarrs' native title claim to the traditional lands at Jabiru is one of Australia's oldest native title claims. The Mirarr have always indicated that their ultimate aspiration to own the traditional country to be recognised and that aspiration was entirely lost—indeed, one might say ignored by the previous coalition government. It has been the Australian Labor Party that has listened to the Mirarr people, initially under then Attorney-General Robert McClelland, who was here earlier this morning, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, and later progressed further by other colleagues, and in 2009 a solution was arrived at to the long-running native title claim.

The solution recognised—and it was very important that it did this—Aboriginal ownership and averted years of disputation in the Federal Court and possibly High Court of Australia. They took the view that native title existed and that what we should do is sit down and negotiate rather than try and affirm or have you prove, in the case of the Mirarr, your rights to that land in the courts. It also gives government and business security, security of tenure and security for future planning and further investment.

The solution from the Labor government was to schedule Jabiru as Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in exchange for the withdrawal of the Mirarr native title claim and the issuing of a long-term lease for Jabiru township under section 19A of the Land Rights Act amongst other things. This is very important. They have used the Land Rights Act as a vehicle to deal with an issue around native title and give people absolute certainty in a form of inalienable freehold title about ownership of that land—it is very, very significant. All the surrounding lands, including Kakadu National Park, are inalienable freehold title and that parkland has been leased back to the Commonwealth for the purposes of a national park.

Once the offer was made, all parties, including the Northern Territory government, set out to make it a reality. I want to acknowledge the former Labor government in the Northern Territory for its strong participation and support for this program. During the negotiation process, the Mirarr people came to a common understanding as to Jabiru's future. That is in itself significant. As a consequence, and flowing directly from that ALP government's initial 2009 offer, a new settlement was proposed whereby the land once branded Aboriginal land will be leased to the Northern Territory government.

In both scenarios the land at Jabiru remains part of the Kakadu National Park and will be managed in sympathy with the World Heritage natural and cultural values the park is famous for. What we have really done is spread the impact of that Kakadu National Park across the whole region.

The settlement at Jabiru that this amendment facilitates is not just a practical form from a political, community and economic perspective; it is just the right thing to do. In the 1970s—it is worth knowing this, and I was around the Northern Territory at the time—the Ranger uranium environment inquiry or the Fox inquiry's very famous report recommended that Jabiru not be made Aboriginal land for the stated reason that the customary development veto enjoyed by traditional owners and all other land rights cases in the Northern Territory be denied the Mirarr in the case of the Ranger proposal. This was a way of overcoming the rights of Aboriginal people to ensure the future of the development of the Ranger site. This has led us, ultimately, to the Ranger mine.

On this basis, Commissioner Fox said on pages 270 and 271, 'If the whole clan area becomes Aboriginal land, the Northern Land Council will have the right to refuse consent to the regional centre Jabiru as proposed. They could in this way stop the mining project.' The direct intention here was to override the interests and rights of Aboriginal people for the purpose of ensuring the development of the Ranger uranium mine. Recognising this threat to the development, the commissioner recommended that the area remain Crown land and become part of a national park.

So, as I said, the reason that Jabiru was not recognised as Aboriginal land in that instance and scheduled in the Land Rights Act is an absolute historical anachronism and an indictment of the then government for proceeding in this way, because Ranger has now been operating since 1980. This fact was entirely lost on the Fraser and Howard governments, as was the moral dimension in this case.

I commend the bill to the House because it establishes a certainty, genuinely engages with Indigenous aspirations, is good for the community, good for business and paves the way for an ongoing effective dialogue between the Mirarr, as the traditional owners, other local Aboriginal people, government, business and industry. I might just say for the purpose of this discussion that the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, passed as it was by the Fraser government in 1976 and originally drafted by the Whitlam government prior to their demise, is a really significant piece of legislation. It is the strongest piece of law in this country to recognise Aboriginal rights to land.

It transfers to them, once recognised, land in an unalienable freehold title—it cannot be sold. It can only be secured, but it can be leased for the purposes of commercial development under section 19. This is very important, and as they have done here in the case of the Jabiru town. For many, many years it has been seen as an impediment to development, because people wanted to see it as an impediment to development. It is not an impediment to development. There are now many commercial arrangements with Aboriginal people for Aboriginal land and the development of that land as a direct result of their capacity under the land rights act to negotiate. That means that there are commercial opportunities which are being developed by non-Aboriginal and non-Torres Strait Islander interests in this case; for their own benefit, but sharing the benefits in some way or another—directly or indirectly—with Aboriginal people. That is a really positive thing.

I am very pleased to be supporting this legislation.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 12:48 to 15 : 59