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Thursday, 2 July 1998
Page: 4720

Senator EGGLESTON —I have a question for the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. I refer the minister to the proposed amendments to the Native Title Act announced last night by the Prime Minister. Will the minister explain to the Senate what these amendments mean for indigenous Australians?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank Senator Eggleston for the question. The proposed amendments preserve the principles of native title established in the Mabo and Wik decisions. They recognise and protect potentially co-existing native title on pastoral leases. One of the most common complaints I have heard from Aboriginal Australians is that Labor's Native Title Act divided the indigenous community. It actually divided families and friends. I even had two sisters speak to me about the legal advice they had received.

The proposed amendments set a higher registration test which will limit overlapping and multiple claims. This will greatly assist unity within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Importantly, the proposed amendments recognise indigenous Australians who were removed from their families and, in the process, lost their connection with their traditional land or were locked out of their land. The amendments allow claims not just by those removed from their families, but also by their children. Under the amendments, native title claimants who had access to pastoral lease land at the time of the Wik decision will have that access confirmed. They will also have the right to be consulted in relation to mining and compulsory acquisitions on pastoral leases and in cities and towns.

It is important to understand that this right to be consulted provides both native title claimants and pastoralists with equal rights. Equal treatment with equal rights is all that indigenous Australians seek. The government recognises that native title issues may be resolved by agreement rather than by long and expensive litigation. The amendments will provide, for the first time, a detailed framework for strong, fair and lasting negotiated agreements with native title holders on all aspects of native title.

One of the great failures of the existing legislation is that it has been caught up in a complicated and divisive legal web. The proposed amendments provide greater certainty to all, including indigenous Australians, and their passage will help to defuse much of the divisiveness that native title has created in this country. This is a major step forward in the reconciliation process.

I acknowledge that some indigenous spokesmen are disappointed because they did not get all that they wanted. I say to Senator Bolkus in particular that it was the Indigenous Working Group's own decision to withdraw from direct discussions with the government in May last year, but even so, technical discussions at the officials level with the group's legal advisers have continued. Senator Bolkus obviously has not been informed of that.

It is a fact that some indigenous spokesmen are disappointed, as I said. I say to them that so are some primary producers and miners. The amendments agreed to are a fair and equitable outcome for all Australians. There can be no question that the current Native Title Act produced by Labor failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The facts speak for themselves. By June this year, there had been 783 native title claims lodged under Labor's legislation and only two had been settled.

Labor's failed Native Title Act allowed multiple claims which led to bitter disputes within the indigenous community. We now have an opportunity to move forward in a constructive and positive way. We have amendments that recognise the importance of land to indigenous Australians, yet still provide the necessary certainty to miners and pastoralists—in fact, to all Australians.