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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1654

Senator REYNOLDS(3.22) —Government back benchers will be deeply offended by the remarks made by Senator Chaney, who suggested that Government back benchers do not have the expertise or interest to speak on Aboriginal Policy. I assure Senator Chaney--

Senator Chaney —Mr Deputy President, I take a point of order. My point of order is that there is no question of the honourable senator's right to speak as a back bencher. It is a question of her having no authority to commit the Government.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! That is not a point of order, Senator. If you claim to have been misrepresented you may deal with it at the end of the honourable senator's speech.

Senator REYNOLDS —I would have thought that if Senator Chaney was genuine in his concern about Aboriginal policies in this country, if he was as genuine as he would like us to believe, having regard to some of the pious claims that he made during his speech, he, along with the shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, would be prepared to call a truce in regard to Aboriginal policy in this place. However, as usual we had cheap political point scoring at the expense of the most disadvantaged group of Australians. Just as the Opposition tried to seek political milage last year in regard to immigration policy when it knew that an election was coming up, so too we find that it believes that it can divide the Australian community by point scoring in regard to Aboriginal policy.

The Government is neither confused nor uncertain about Aboriginal affairs policy. But it has set its sights high because the achievement of justice for this most disadvantaged group in Australian society is a priority for honourable senators on this side of the House, even if it is not a priority for those on the other side of the House. Of course, when one tries to bring about change and to redress injustices which have occurred over a considerable period-we are looking at 200 years, let alone the period when the Opposition had control of Aboriginal affairs-there will be problems along the way. There will be disagreements and a breakdown in communications. Aboriginal policy and the whole complex range of issues require a great deal of patience, a great deal of time and a great deal of care.

This Government has acknowledged the Aboriginal people's prior ownership of Australia. We have acknowledged that they were dispossessed of their inheritance and we have acknowledged that some measure of compensation is now long overdue. By contrast, the former Government regarded Aboriginal people as being just another problem-another group of underprivileged people. Let there be no uncertainty or confusion about this Government's fundamental commitment to Aboriginal people and about the Opposition's ad hockery and lack of clear direction. Nowhere was that more evident than during the shameful betrayals at Aurukun and Mornington Island. I notice that Senator Chaney has left the chamber. That shows how concerned he is about Aboriginal policy.

Senator Hill —There he is.

Senator REYNOLDS —He is still here, but he is planning to leave the chamber. If he is so concerned about Aboriginal policy, I am not quite sure why he does not have the time to remain in the chamber for the entire period of the debate. In regard to Aboriginal affairs, who will ever forget the muddle, confusion and lack of decision-making during Mr Ian Wilson's term as Minister? Even though there were several land commissioners' reports which recommended grants of land in the Northern Territory, he delayed and delayed any decision. It fell to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Holding, on taking office to get on with that job.

Some mention has been made of the Government's policies in regard to land rights. Unlike the Opposition, we recognise the fundamental importance of the land to Aboriginal people. We do not want any more Noonkanbahs. (Quorum formed) I was referring to the fact that the Government is seeking a consistent national approach to these issues. As is reasonable, the Minister has outlined a preferred model. But it is only a preferred model and discussions on it are proceeding. Those discussions will be held with all interested parties and everyone will have an opportunity to make his views known. There has also been mention and a great deal of criticism in the chamber this afternoon of the National Aboriginal Conference and a disgraceful attack on the NAC in the other place.

Senator Chaney —You are abolishing it.

Senator REYNOLDS —We are restructuring it. It appears that Senator Chaney is prepared to say in this place that the NAC is thoroughly discredited. That is how concerned he is about Aboriginal consultation. He dares to talk about Aboriginal policy, yet he can say that the NAC is a discredited organisation. Of course there have been some problems in regard to the Auditor-General's report. I think it would be most appropriate if Opposition members could keep that criticism in the Auditor-General's report in some sort of perspective. Anyone would think that never before had an Auditor-General's report been critical of the administration of various government departments or statutory authorities. Anyone would think it was the first time there had ever been an Auditor-General's report. Certainly, there were problems.

Senator Lewis —Don't you think you should do something about it?

Senator REYNOLDS —We have done something about it. It was our Minister who actually addressed the problem.

Senator Lewis —Of course, because you are in government. That is what you are supposed to do.

Senator REYNOLDS —Yes, exactly. I find it extraordinary that Senator Chaney, someone who wants consultation with the Aboriginal people, can say in this place that the NAC is thoroughly discredited. I refer to a Press release by Mr Rob Riley on the announcement by the Minister that the NAC would wind down its operations pending restructuring and the formation of a new body for consultation processes. The Press release stated:

National Aboriginal Conference Chairman Rob Riley has welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs that the NAC will cease operations on June 30.

It went on:

Mr Riley said the NAC may not have performed as well as expected . . ..

That statement could be made about any government department or statutory authority in this country at this time by Aborigines or, as expected, by government. The Press release continued:

. . . but it had bequeathed a strong political awareness to Aborigines. 'It has provided us with invaluable political insights, experience and knowledge that will greatly assist our activities in the future'.

He said successive Federal governments--

I emphasise, successive Federal governments-

I had to accept a major share of the blame for the fact that the NAC had not performed well on a national basis.

I remind Senator Chaney that the blame lies not just with this Government but with successive Federal governments. The NAC was created as a window dressing. Who was responsible for its creation? It was Senator Chaney's Government. The Press release continued:

'The NAC was created as window-dressing to placate critics of Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people. Quite deliberately it was never provided with the funding or the recognition needed to ensure it operated effectively and efficiently'.

Mr Riley said the important issue remaining for the NAC was to ensure that the body that replaced it enjoyed the respect and status worthy of any organisation that represented the political interests of the Aboriginal people.

Further, Mr Holding has spent many hours with the NAC in consultations on a wide variety of issues. Only yesterday the Government policy committee met with New South Wales members of the NAC, and we will be meeting with the NAC itself on Friday. I believe that the criticism that this Government has not done its very best to work with the NAC is totally unfounded. The Government is planning now to assist in the restructuring so that there is adequate consultation with Aboriginal people.

I move on to land rights policy, about which Senator Chaney seemed to be very concerned in his speech. The headline to an article in the Australian Financial Review this week highlights the attitude of many people in this community to the current land rights debate. It says: 'Progress in Land Rights Debate: All Sides Display Conciliatory Attitude'. That is all sides, I would argue, except the Opposition, because the Opposition is interested only in gaining cheap political mileage. I wish now to state, as requested by Senator Chaney, precisely what the Government land rights policy is. It has been stated before but, as he seems to be a slow learner, I will state it again. The Government has a fundamental commitment to securing land rights justice for Aboriginal Australians. It has been working towards achieving national Aboriginal land rights since coming to office. On 20 February 1985 the Minister released a paper outlining proposals which the Commonwealth has advanced to form the basis of national Aboriginal land rights legislation. The proposals have been advanced as a preferred basis for the purpose of consultation. They are not a final outline of Commonwealth legislation. We do not believe in not consulting people, which is something in which the Opposition seems to indulge on many occasions.

Since coming to office in 1983 the Government has been consulting widely about land rights legislation. It established a steering committee comprising representatives of Aboriginal organisations to advise the Minister on Aboriginal views and aspirations. Discussions have also taken place with State and Territory governments, and with mining, rural, church and other groups with a special interest. The Commonwealth model has taken full account of the very many differing views and positions put to us over the last two years by a wide range of interested groups, including Aboriginal groups, throughout Australia. I notice that Senator Chaney, who was so keen to hear precisely what the Government's land rights policy is, has now in fact left the chamber.

Senator Chaney — I'm still here.

Senator REYNOLDS —Oh no, he has not; he is still there. The Government is fully aware of the diverse interests and concerns which need to be taken into account. It was with this very much in mind and in recognition of the need to develop legislation which is equitable and balanced that the preferred model was released for consideration and comment. We make no apology for this. The Government is concerned to ensure that groups and individuals with a particular interest or contribution to make should have the opportunity to respond to specific proposals before we move on to develop legislation. That process of consultation is now well advanced. The Minister has met with his counterparts in the Northern Territory and States other than Queensland and Tasmania. The objective in discussions with the States is to identify any inconsistencies in approach with a view to resolving possible areas of conflict amicably. Very useful discussions have been held with church groups. Consultations are taking place with mining and rural industry representatives on a constructive basis. Aboriginal views are being sought and a wide range of views is being received from groups and individuals. A number of major submissions are expected shortly and the Minister will then be moving to develop proposals for legislation which have full regard for the range of views and suggestions. The Minister's objective is the introduction of legislation in the Budget sittings this year.

I shall now detail some other relevant points relating to the Government's land rights policy. In regard to Aboriginal control in relation to mining, the Government has taken the position that no one group within the community should have the right of veto over the development of national resources. The Commonwealth's proposals entail a procedure whereby owners of Aboriginal land may, if they so choose, object to exploration and subsequent mining of their land and whereby they have the right to have those objections heard by an independent tribunal. The tribunal, in its consideration of whether exploration should take place on Aboriginal land, would be specifically required to have regard to the wishes or objections of Aboriginal land holders as well as the likely impact of mining or exploration on the community concerned. The tribunal, in making its recommendations on terms and conditions for mining, would be required to have regard to the need to minimise the impact on the way of life and traditions of the Aboriginal land holders in any Aboriginal community which might be affected by the Mining activity. The tribunal, having objectively considered the various points of view put forward by the parties concerned, will then make recommendations to the relevant government. It will be the government which will decide which terms will apply. Similarly, if the terms and conditions under which exploration and mining are to proceed on Aboriginal land become subject to dispute, the tribunal will make recommendations to the government. The right to object is exercised at the point when the proposals are made and before any intrusion has occurred.

I now turn to the powers of the tribunal. Under the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act, the tribunal has determinative powers, that is, rather than making recommendations to the Government, as the Commonwealth model would provide, the South Australian model binds all parties including the Crown to the decision of the tribunal. We are talking about decisions which relate to the questions of whether or not and under what conditions national resources will be developed and exploited-national resources owned by the Australian community. These are issues of public interest and as such should be decided upon by those who are ultimately accountable to the public, that is, the politicians. Just as with the procedures set down under the Northern Territory land rights legislation by which land claims are heard and assessed by a judical tribunal and then determined by the Commonwealth Government, so too, will questions in relation to mining on Aboriginal land be the subject of examination by an objective and independent tribunal making recommendations to government.