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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2062

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(11.54) —The first question is about timing. It is difficult to be precise at this stage because arrangements are still being negotiated and these consultations with the Northern Territory Government are proceeding. But a rough indication at this stage is that things can be finalised once this legislation is passed and proclaimed. The current expectation is that the leases will be acquired in July. I would hope that the rest of the regime could be put in place simultaneously with that acquisition. As to when applications will actually be called for and received and licences awarded and exploration started, presumably that is going to take some further period of months. But I would expect the whole thing to be well and truly in place and the exploration program started by the end of the year, subject then of course to the vagaries of tropical climate. That is as much as I can say about timing. It is in everyone's interests that we get moving as fast as we can. My understanding is that there has been a great deal of continual activity since the policy decision was made at the end of last year. Nobody has been dragging his feet on this. It is just an inherent complexity in all these issues.

Senator Durack —Obviously much greater than you thought in September last year.

Senator GARETH EVANS —No. On the contrary, I expected it to take some months, and it has taken some months but no more than that. As the honourable senator knows, the revolution always stops over Christmas in Australia; that is one of the difficulties in this country. But things have been moving very rapidly before and since.

As to the complicated question of Aboriginal claims over this land, putting it as simply as possible the situation is as follows: An Aboriginal claim can be made only once the pastoral leases have been acquired, so the whole process of making a claim will not start until at least July. Obviously it will take some considerable time for those Aboriginal claims to be resolved through the present processes. I would not expect, in the normal course of events, those claims to be resolved one way or the other before the batch of exploration licences in relation to the conservation zone is granted. In other words, I would not expect the issue of an Aboriginal interest in land in the conservation zone area to arise at the time of the granting of the five-year exploration licence. Things may turn out otherwise, but I think that is a reasonably practical expectation.

If after the grant of such exploration licences an Aboriginal land claim is accepted and the land becomes Aboriginal land, the existing mineral interests-there have been various of them, as we have described; the existing ones that will go on being protected and the new ones which will have thus been awarded-will not be subject to any Aboriginal veto or requirement of consent on the continuation of that particular exploration activity. If any new mining licence is sought-and I suppose it is a reasonable expectation that that may be the case-whether or not Aboriginal consent is required will depend on what the law is at that stage. At the moment the Northern Territory land rights legislation makes it clear that there has to be a terms and conditions agreement with the relevant land council at the stage of any new mining interest being required, so there is a capacity in effect to refuse consent to that and for de facto veto to be applied. That is one of the issues presently being very closely addressed by the Government as part of its consideration of amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. I hesitate to say anything with confidence in this area because of the complexity of the issues and the sensitivity of them, but it may well be that, by the time this issue becomes a practical one in the Kakadu stage 3 area, there will be a regime in place which will be different from that which applies at the moment. But that is the subject of speculation and the law at the moment is as I have described it.