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Monday, 8 October 1984
Page: 1371


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Youth Affairs)(3.31) —Senator Chaney, on behalf of the Opposition, has brought before the Senate today a matter of urgency concerning what the Opposition sees as a need for our Government to clarify its intentions with respect to uniform land rights legislation. Given the failure of the Opposition to contribute anything positive towards resolution of this most complex problem, one must ask what the motive of the Opposition is in bringing this matter forward today. I have noted, as my colleague the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding, has noted in the other place, a distinct lack of interest during the last few months by the Federal Opposition in matters Aboriginal, including Aboriginal land rights. Why is it that suddenly we have from Senator Chaney a matter of urgency on land rights, in particular concerning our government's intentions which, I might say, have been stated clearly and will continue to be stated clearly by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and by the Minister.

I must put on the record my view of why Senator Chaney has raised this matter today; indeed, it is already in the public domain. I refer, for example, to an article in today's Australian headed 'Libs drop crime for other issues'. The article purports to give a report of a meeting of the Federal Opposition on its electoral campaign strategy. It points out:

The Opposition's most recent opinion polls show that organised crime, while still retaining the electorate's interest, was not among the major issues.

It says that the consultants who conducted the surveys briefed the Opposition Leader, Mr Peacock, and discussed the results. It continued:

It is believed the polls show that the assets test, Medicare, taxation, unemployment, Aboriginal land rights and immigration are the leading issues.

These will form the main thrust of the weeks' parliamentary tactics.

Unfortunately it is not any desire by members of the Opposition to contribute to a resolution of the land rights problem that has caused them to bring this matter here today: It is simply a totally cynical change of tactics. Given that they are at the nadir of their public popularity and given that their leader's ratings are, I think, as low as has ever been recorded since popularity ratings for political leaders have been recorded, they have chosen simply to scrabble up a few votes from those with racist predilections or those who are able to be scared by the kinds of campaigns that Senator Chaney's colleagues in the Western Australian Liberal Party have run with some effect in that State, to utilise the sensitivity and controversy which surrounds this most serious issue. I must say that I regard it as a most cynical and regrettable exercise that they have entered upon.

In support of what I say I draw the attention of honourable senators to the fact that the Liberal Party, much less the National Party, has offered no answers to the question of how land rights can be implemented. We know that from its own defective experience when in Government. We know that Senator Chaney was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs when the disgraceful Noonkanbah episode occurred . We know that, whatever Senator Chaney's private views or even his personal views publicly stated about land rights might be, his Party does not support him ; and we know that the coalition partner, the National Party, is totally opposed to land rights in any shape or form. So, there are no answers coming from the Opposition side of the chamber in this respect.

I must comment too on the various claims that Senator Chaney made in his remarks. He accused us of dilatoriness or procrastination in not commenting on the legislation of the Western Australian Government. That legislation does not even exist. There is no way we can make comment on legislation that does not exist. What we have done, and what the Prime Minister and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs have done on our behalf, is to have discussions with the Western Australian Government and jointly to plan for the drafting of that legislation so that it will incorporate our principles regarding land rights legislation. Senator Chaney drew attention to the public statement made after the Prime Minister and Mr Burke met last week. That Press statement points to the fact that there will be an officer of the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs working with the drafting committee in Western Australia so that the principles can be properly expressed.

Of course, Senator Chaney's motion uses the term 'overriding legislation' in a particularly provocative way which we consider most inappropriate. Senator Chaney is trying to set us up in confrontation with our State colleagues in Western Australia and with other State governments throughout this country. I can assure you, Mr Deputy President, that it is not the intention of our Government to get into gratuitous confrontation when the possibility of consultation and working together to a common end remains. We believe that possibility remains, and we have very good reason for believing it. The term ' overriding' simply reflects the desperation of the Opposition to try to whip up a bit of a brawl on this issue. We will not be provoked because our concern is not the gaining of a few votes in this matter. It is quite clear from the polls published in various organs of the media this week and last week that we are not in desperate search for votes. We do not have to treat every issue as if the fate of our Government depended on it. Clearly it does not. So we are determined to approach this issue in a proper, careful and sensitive fashion. To do that we have to approach it carefully and in consultation with all the relevant parties. There is no need for us to jump the gun and say that the legislation shall be so and so or else we will override it. Consultations are already taking place. The consultations have been fruitful and there are further opportunities for consultation to take place.

The term 'overriding' fails to recognise that legislative action by the States could well be seen as complementary to the Government's legislation. In any area in which the Commonwealth has constitutional responsibility there is a potential for conflict with actions of individual States. The resolution of such complex issues takes time and our Government has set in train a process of consultation with the Aboriginal people and with representatives of the mining industry, the pastoral industry and State governments to ensure a satisfactory ultimate resolution of these matters.

Senator Chaney devoted a great deal of his time to the principles announced by our Government. He referred to them briefly at the outset and I will refer to them again. He seems to think there is some resiling from those principles by our Government. There is not. Let me make that quite clear. The five principles referred to mention as No. (iii):

Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land;

It should be noted that the word 'veto', which has a general meaning of refusal to consent, does not appear in those principles. Nor does it appear, I point out , in the Federal platform of the Party. Both the principles and the Federal platform point out the opportunity for Aboriginal land owners to oppose mining, but that opportunity is to be qualified by other matters. For example, our Federal platform provides:

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;

It is clear in our Federal platform and has been clear in all our statements that there are cases where the national interest or possibly State interests must prevail. We have never advocated an unqualified veto and our negotiations with Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal landowners have been completely honest in that respect. It is my view that Aboriginal people themselves accept the existence of the national interest and accept that in some circumstances it may have to prevail. What we are seeking to find is a proper and effective way in which Aboriginal control over the entry of mining into their land can be properly expressed with due justice being accorded all parties.

Our Government is concerned with developing our uniform principles to meet the grave concerns of Aboriginal people about control of the impact of mining on their land. The major, but not singular, concern of Aboriginal people has been to ensure protection of their sacred sites of significance from the desecration which may be caused by uncontrolled mining activities and to ensure that their communities have certain safeguards in respect of the impact of those activities on their lives and society. These are reasonable and justifiable concerns and ones, no doubt, with which Senator Chaney would agree. The question of whether or not a veto is the most appropriate way to deal with this problem is currently being considered by the Government and, importantly, by the Aboriginal steering committee set up by the Government to advise on an Aboriginal perspective on these matters. In this context a number of points of view have been put in relation to the nature and degree of Aboriginal control over mining and these are still being considered with a view to achieving a balance of interests which protects Aboriginal interests but does not raise the spectre of the chief political stance which can be taken to argue that Aboriginal people are against national development. It should be borne in mind when discussing these issues that control does not necessarily mean veto nor, as I have indicated, does veto necessarily present the best way of protecting Aboriginal interests.

At present the whole parameter of models available is being considered. The Commonwealth has made it clear that it expects the States to adopt certain standards in relation to these principles and if the States are able to accommodate these principles the degree or effect of any Commonwealth legislation would have to be seen as proportional. However, the Government does have a clear constitutional responsibility in this area and maintains its commitment to that responsibility. Senator Chaney seems to have lost interest in the debate so I repeat for his benefit that the Commonwealth acknowledges its clear constitutional responsibility in the area and maintains its responsibility to that commitment.

There has been a great deal of argument which centres on the proposition that the needs of Aboriginal people vary throughout Australia. As a proposition this is incontrovertible. However, the Commonwealth wishes to ensure that the rights of Aboriginal people are uniform throughout Australia. The way in which the rights are expressed or protected may be different but the rights fundamentally ought to be the same. Of course this will not be an easy position to achieve but ultimately it will be in the best interests of not only the Aboriginal people but also of all the interests with which they have to deal. In a referendum the Australian people gave this power to the Commonwealth and no government of any political persuasion can divorce itself from its ultimate responsibilities.

Senator Chaney, in drawing this matter to the attention of the Senate today, seemed to suggest that there was something incomplete or shifting in our position on this matter. There is not. We have stated the principles. The principles have been referred to in debate. Those principles stand and what we will be seeking to do, in consultation with State governments, is achieve complementary State legislation which will reflect and manifest those principles in a workable and effective way. However, it would not do to let the moment pass as if the coalition parties in opposition had any clear or effective position on this most important issue. A quick survey of the situation in the various States and the Northern Territory identifies the reality when it comes down to land rights. New South Wales has its own legislation providing grants of Aboriginal land. What happened in New South Wales? The New South Wales Opposition opposes land rights. In Victoria legislation is currently being examined which provides the granting of Aboriginal land in that State. The Liberal Opposition in Victoria totally opposes Aboriginal land rights. In South Australia legislation has been enacted providing for the granting of Aboriginal land, most recently at Maralinga, and that happened in the face of stiff opposition on behalf of the Liberal Opposition.

In Western Australia-Senator Chaney's State-the Burke Government has committed itself to legislation for the granting of Aboriginal land rights. The Liberal Opposition parties in Western Australia totally oppose the concept of land rights. Not only do they oppose the concept of land rights but they have engaged in a most dishonest, fearmongering and racist campaign against the concept of land rights. The last time this matter was debated in this chamber I tabled for inclusion in the debate some of the material put out by the Liberal Party in Western Australia which was calculated to cause tremendous damage to the Aboriginal cause and undermine the Burke Government's capacity to deliver on land rights. However, we believe that that capacity has not ultimately been undermined and that land rights will be delivered.

The position adopted by the Burke Government may well be seen by Aboriginal people as being less than they would have hoped but it is equally true that there were other sections of the Western Australian community who held very strong views as to what should be done in relation to the granting of Aboriginal land rights. In that environment, and in the knowledge that the Opposition parties were totally opposed to Aboriginal land rights, it has been difficult for the Burke Government to come to terms with the best way of carrying out its responsibilities to Aboriginal people. However, it should be understood that any comment regarding the proposed principles announced by Mr Burke should await the development of legislation which will give effect to the principles. It should also be understood that such legislation will be developed in consultation with those groups in the community which consider themselves to be most directly affected. That is a position which stands in stark contrast to the negative and totally destructive behaviour of the Western Australian Opposition.

As I have said our Government-the Federal Government-will continue to be closely involved with the development of the Western Australian legislation and will continue to encourage that Government, along with all other State governments, to meet the valid and legitimate needs of Aboriginal people. That undertaking, as does our performance, stands in stark contrast to the actions of the Federal Opposition. I must ask: Where was Mr Porter, the Federal shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, when Mr Hassell, his Liberal Party colleague in Western Australia, recently announced total Liberal opposition to Aboriginal land rights? Did Mr Porter indicate what action the Federal Government would take in relation to that stand if Mr Hassell were to assume office in Western Australia after the next election? The same applies in relation to New South Wales and Victoria. Does Mr Porter announce to the world that the position the Federal Liberal Party has adopted stands in stark contrast to the announced position of his counterparts and colleagues in New South Wales and Victoria? If anything Mr Porter should make clear to the electorate in Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales precisely what action he would take if he were in office-a most unlikely event, I must admit-to implement the stated policies of his Party.

Time is short so I think I should be completely clear about where our Party stands. Australian Labor Party policy has always been to ensure that Aboriginals are able to exercise general control in relation to mining operations conducted on Aboriginal land. The Government remains firmly committed to that policy. What needs to be settled is the most effective and equitable way to give effect to that policy. 'No veto' does not mean no control, nor does it mean no capacity to oppose. We need to find an equitable way whereby opposition to mining, if that is the belief of the Aboriginal owners, or terms and conditions placed on mining , can be carried out effectively and in a way that is equitable to all concerned .

The real impact of mining on Aboriginal people is twofold: There is the effect of mining on Aboriginal sites; there is the establishment of a non-Aboriginal community in proximity to Aboriginal communities. The Labor Government is firmly committed to the protection of Aboriginal sites. We have enacted national legislation to that effect. None of the dire predictions of the Liberal Opposition in relation to that legislation has come to pass. It was purported that all kinds of obstructionist or mischievous claims would be made and that our Federal Minister would meekly acquiesce in them. As it happened, two of the early claims-one concerning the Harding River dam and one concerning the Daintree Rainforest area-were not able to be accepted by the Federal Government because they did not clearly fit within the scope of the legislation. Those two examples should have established quite clearly that our Government is responsible when it comes to national legislation operating sensibly in conjunction with the States and that a national approach can work.

We continue to be committed to a national approach and to uniform principles. It is absolutely outrageous of Senator Chaney to claim that there is some mystery or some concealment as to what those principles are. They are on record They appear in a publication which has been circulating in the community for some months, put out by my colleague the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Those principles remain. What also remains to be done is a proper development of legislation which will incorporate those principles in a fair and equitable way.

We have made many undertakings. Most recently, in the last few days, we have undertaken to work with the Burke Government so that those principles can be incorporated. We shall adopt the same complementary supportive approach to all State governments in this matter insofar as that is possible. It is our wish to have uniform principles implemented in the ways that meet the diverse needs of Aboriginal people throughout this land.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sibraa) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.