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Monday, 8 October 1984
Page: 1367


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.12) —I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Commonwealth Government to clarify its intentions with respect to overriding uniform land rights legislation by stating, without equivocation, whether it will legislate in accordance with its five principles including giving Aboriginals the right to veto mining on their land or whether it will accept State approaches which deny the veto.

The Opposition brings this matter forward as a motion of urgency because there is a great amount of concern among the public, Aboriginals and miners about the Government's intentions in this area. We have a clear conflict between what is proposed in the State of Western Australia and what is proposed in the policy documents of the present Government. Just a few minutes ago in the House of Representatives, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Clyde Holding, said that he did not intend to prejudge the legislation that was to be introduced by the Burke Government, and lauded the fact that the Commonwealth was taking part in the preparation of that legislation. The fact is that it is already clear and on public record-it is clear from the documents which have been issued by Premier Burke-that there is a substantial and important conflict of principle between the Burke Government and the Commonwealth Government. It is important that the people of Australia, including the Aboriginal people and the resource industries, should know whether this Government proposes to impose its views on the whole of Australia or whether it intends to accept the various solutions which have been worked out around the States.

It is important to remember that this is not just a matter of a potential conflict between the views of those who live in Western Australia and the views of those who run this Government. None of the land arrangements, whether in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland or New South Wales, meets the requirements of the five principles which have been laid down by the Federal Government-and in particular none meets the requirement that there should be Aboriginal control of mining. I refer to the Government's supposed policy position which has been laid out on a number of occasions. I wish to refer to two sources. The first is the Minister himself who, in a statement on 8 December 1983 and on other occasions, affirmed what he saw as the five key principles.

Those principles-I shall not go through them all-include a particular form of title under which the land should be held, and that is a matter on which there is considerable variation from State to State. It affirms the protection of Aboriginal sites, a matter on which there is unanimous agreement in this chamber although there is significant difference as to whether that should be done by local or national legislation. The third key point outlined by the Minister was that there should be Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land .

If we turn to the constitutional documents of the ALP which are supposedly binding on this Government, we find a more specific statement. We find that there is a commitment to incorporate in its land rights legislation the following principles:

Aboriginal and Islander people shall have the right to refuse permission for mining on their land or to impose conditions under which mining may proceed. To set aside a refusal, or conditions imposed, shall require an Act of Parliament.

I do not think there could be a clearer indication that the shorthand expression which is widely used, that there should be an Aboriginal veto or there should not be an Aboriginal veto, rightly expresses the policy commitment which has been laid down by the ALP. I contrast that with the statement which was put out by Premier Burke recently which includes as one of his conditions that there will be no Aboriginal veto on mining or exploration. The Premier at the time that he issued his statement of principles indicated that that was one of the principles which were non-negotiable. In other words, although it may be true that the Western Australian Government is involving the mining industry, the pastoral industry and this Government in the preparation of legislation, the fact is that the Premier has made it clear already that the question of Aborginal veto is not negotiable. So we have, whatever the results of that legislative effort, a conflict between the Federal Government on its fundamental principle and the views which have been adopted even by its State Labor colleagues.

I believe that this is all just part of a conscious effort to postpone this issue, to take if off the political agenda. The Government is simply trying to use woolly words to obscure its real intentions. I remind the Senate that this debate is taking place in the context of a recent demonstration by this Government that it is prepared to legislate nationally in at least one of the areas of its five basic principles. We had a lengthy debate in this place about the heritage legislation which was passed notwithstanding the opposition of the Liberal and National parties. That was a firm legislative act by the Hawke Labor Government to impose a national solution in that area. I believe that it is incumbent upon the Government to come clean with the Australian people and with the many groups which have a fundamental interest in this area and to let us know whether it intends to introduce other legislation which will similarly impose a national view in accordance with the five principles.

We have brought this matter forward because it appears clear to us that there has been a quite deliberate attempt on the part of the Government to obscure its stance on this issue. I refer to both the statement which was issued by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the Premier of Western Australia last Friday and some of the reports and further comments which were elicited on that day. We find if we look at the various reports which were made of that statement some various interpretations. We find, for example, that in Western Australia it was reported that there was Canberra land rights support for Burke and that the Premier was confident that the Federal Government would not legislate to override the Western Australian Aboriginal land rights package. We find a similar interpretation in another Western Australian newspaper, the Western Mail . That newspaper concluded that Mr Burke had won a free hand. Yet we find that at the same time doubts are being cast upon the Commonwealth's real intentions. The Western Mail stated:

But Aboriginal leaders who met Mr Hawke later yesterday-

that was on Friday-

left saying that the Prime Minister had not guaranteed WA that Federal legislation would not apply in the State.

Of course, Mr Hawke has a habit of saying what his audience wishes to hear. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mr Hawke told the Premier of Western Australia a rather confused yes on the one hand and told the Aboriginals something different a little later the same day. We find the Sydney Morning Herald reporting the same thing. It said:

A spokesman for Mr Hawke refused to say whether this meant that the veto of mining would be imposed on the States through national legislation.

The sad fact is that the Government is not game to speak clearly on this matter. It is the view of the Opposition that the Government is bound both in fairness and in equity and as a matter of justice to the people with whom it is dealing to come clean on this issue.

What words were actually used by the Prime Minister and the Premier? Let us look at what they said. I quote their Press release which states:

The Federal and State Governments will work together to ensure that common principles are adopted in the formulation of land rights legislation.

The Commonwealth remains committed to its constitutional responsibilities in this area, but in fulfilling these responsibilities the Federal Government will acknowledge the particular needs of Western Australia.

It is that latter sentence I have read, on which the interpretation that the Commonwealth will not intervene, is based. But I point out that in the first sentence that I read there is no attempt to identify just what are the common principles that are to be adopted. As I pointed out, a non-negotiable principle has been put forward by Mr Burke that there should be no Aboriginal veto and there is a fundamental principle put forward by Mr Holding that there should be an Aboriginal veto. I believe it would be the simplest thing in the world for the Government to tell the truth in this matter and to indicate whether it does intend to impose, by its legislative fiat, its will on the people of Australia, including all of the five principles which have been laid down.

I do not think there is any shortage of evidence of political duck-shoving in this matter. The fact is that the Government has not got the courage to declare its position. Right through last week we had stories about the differences between Mr Holding and Mr Hawke on this issue of land rights. We had Mr Hawke saying that the Government would make the position quite clear before the election. We had Mr Holding denying that that would be the case because of the continuing discussion with the various interest groups. Mr Hawke and Mr Holding, subsequent to their differences of opinion, issued a joint statement denying that Mr Hawke's comments meant that there would be a major pre-election announcement about land rights. If that is true, I can only say that it is a matter of great regret because if that means that the Commonwealth is not going to make its position clear, it is simply being dishonest with the electors of Australia.

Why should we be concerned about all this ducking and weaving? I put it to the Senate that this is not just a matter of electoral importance, although it is certainly that. It was very interesting to see Premier Burke going out and being interviewed by the television stations on Friday and making comments about the fact that this was an issue which could cost five or six seats for the Labor Party in Western Australia. I think it is a pity that this should be an issue because I think it is an issue which needs to be put to bed before we have an election. That is the way I advocate it should be dealt with.

I make the quite separate point to the Government: Quite apart from the electoral difficulties in which it finds itself on this issue, the whole question of uncertainty is a key problem in the continuing operation of Aboriginal affairs and in the continual development of working policies in this area. As I have said in other debates in this place there is a worsening public reaction because of the uncertainties which are abroad. There is a worsening public reaction which is tied up with the fact that the commitments which the Government has made are so open-ended as to make it uncertain as to what the end result will be. I believe that the worst aspect of all this is that the uncertainty is causing anti-Aboriginal reaction in the community. I do not believe that that is a good thing. I think it is an extremely unhealthy thing. It is something that I believe can only be avoided if this Government adopts certain policies. Indeed, I would go further: I believe that the Government will have to be prepared to admit to the Aboriginal people that it has made a series of promises to them which it cannot keep and, not only that, should not keep. It has gone further than it should have and I believe that the sooner it tidies this issue up and gets it back on to a more realistic basis, the sooner we will resume some reasonable progress in the whole field of Aboriginal affairs.

There is, in fact, a whole series of people or groups who are entitled to be considered by the Government in this matter. I should, I suppose, refer first to the broad mass of Australians, many of whom are concerned at the apparent open- endedness of commitments being given by the Government. I am sure they are concerned in part because the legislation which we, the now Opposition, passed in 1976 proved to be more open-ended than we would have thought. It certainly included a greater volume of land or area of land than had been predicted. The open-endedness as to the time of claims and the fact that there are continuing land use conflicts, particularly in the areas of mining, have all combined to cause concern in the community. I do not believe that that concern will be allayed until this Government makes its overall position far clearer than it has at present. If, on the other hand, the Government simply says 'We intend to impose the five principles and we intend to impose them whatever the States decide and whatever the form of legislation that has already been adopted by the States' at least we know where we stand and at least the people of Australia know where they stand.

The second group of people that I think are entitled to consideration are those many Aboriginals who have had certain promises made to them and whose votes have been bought with those promises. Over the last seven or eight years I have spent a fair bit of time in areas where there are large Aboriginal populations. I have seen the active campaigning of the Australian Labor Party which has very effectively purchased the votes of Aboriginal people who have wanted as much as the Government is now prepared to offer and more, as indeed all of us would want as much as we can obtain. The fact of the matter is that the Government finds itself now, I am sure, in something of a moral dilemma. It finds itself in a situation where it cannot deliver on its promises, or it finds difficulty in doing so and has to do so over the objections of many of its own supporters here and certainly in the States. Yet it has made those promises. The proper course for the government to take is to remove those elements of its promises which are unrealistic, which go beyond what is acceptable to Australian people. I believe that it has to face up to the very real difficulties which have been identified not just by the Opposition or the mining industry but also by people in its own ranks, such as the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell), very many other Labor observers and even the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Walsh, in debate in this chamber.

I think the Government has to be concerned about the situation of the resource industries. I do not need to stress just how deeply concerned the mining companies and the explorers are at the problems which are faced in the Northern Territory. It is hard to have a debate on this issue without a good deal of vituperation. I hope that we manage to have this debate today without accusations of being our racist and other sorts of things which tend to fly round in the Australian community when debates of this sort are being brought on . I remind the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan), who is seated at the table, that her colleague Senator Walsh, in a debate in the Senate in May this year, made clear his concerns about the mining situation. When he was asked by a Labor senator to attack Mr Morgan for his comment on Aboriginal land rights and sacred sites Senator Walsh said in part:

I denounce the terms in which he puts his case, but the terms in which a case is put or exaggerated do not in my view necessarily invalidate the case itself. I and other members of the Government are concerned that, since 1981, 165 exploration licences have been offered to 42 companies on Aboriginal land and none has successfully negotiated a consent agreement. So 165 exploration prospects, not necessarily mining prospects, have been held up for almost three years because consent cannot be negotiated.

A little later Senator Walsh said:

I think there is some reason to be concerned. There is a prima facie case, at least in my view, that in some instances difficulties are being incited by non- aboriginal people . . .

And so his statement goes on. I remind the Senate of that because I think the difficulties the Government faces are not just political difficulties. They are real difficulties and they have to be addressed as such. I am concerned also about the situation of State governments and I draw the attention of the Senate to the fact that there is an extraordinary range of approaches which have been devised by the State governments around Australia to meet what are often very diverse circumstances for Aboriginal people and their requirements for land. Again, it is a matter where governments of different colours have arrived at quite different approaches. But I believe that the differences are as much related to the factual differences they face as they are to doctrinal differences. It is a fact that the Labor Government in New South Wales, in its rather limited land rights legislation, has provided very limited control over all but the minor minerals. That Government would have to be overridden, the Bjelke-Petersen Government would have to be overridden, the Cain Labor Government would have to be overridden and the Labor Government in South Australia would have to be overridden if these principles are to be applied. I ask the Minister and the Government to consider this not as a partisan issue but as an issue of great practical difficulty and one that needs to be sorted out quickly.

I speak also on behalf of the Opposition which, in this area, has defined its own position with a great deal of care and has indicated that, while it would support the continuance of the land rights legislation in the Northern Territory , it believes that we must learn from the eight years of its operation and that significant changes should be made in that Territory. We also believe that it is important that the diverse solutions, which are possible in a federation, be pursued on a federal basis and that we should avoid the sort of overriding legislation which is threatened by this Government and which is certainly advocated by at least some of its members. I remind the Senate that I am supported in the sorts of views I have expressed by the views expressed by Senator Walsh as recently as yesterday, when he talked to the National Drilling Conference about the need to ensure access to land, and by the much older approach of Mr Campbell in Kalgoorlie who attacked the issue of land rights as it had been handled in Western Australia.

The truth is that the Government is doing great damage in this area to Aboriginal people, to Australia and indeed now I think to itself. I ask the Government to make its stance quite clear. I ask it to answer this simple question: Will it or will it not override the States on these basic points? Will it impose its five principles? I ask it to come clean to the Aboriginals, whose votes it has sought and bought with its promises, to the miners it now soothes and to the State governments and Premiers it now soothes. I ask it to tell the people of Australia: Does it intend to impose, through Canberra legislation, the five principles, whatever the States of Australia may choose to do to find their own diverse solutions to this question?