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Tuesday, 20 August 2002
Page: 3345

Senator JOHNSTON (5:01 PM) —I rise to speak for the first time in this place, and in so doing I note that all senators in their first speeches express their sense of pride and honour at reaching this pinnacle of their political and community service. I too express those sentiments, firstly as a Western Australian and then as a member of my state's Liberal Party. Mr President, I commence my remarks by sincerely congratulating you upon your election. I note with great interest that you were, in a past life, the Warden of Clarence in Tasmania at the time of the Tasman Bridge disaster. As a lawyer on the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia, I practised in the Warden's Court. I came to know and understand the broad and quite considerable summary powers of a warden. With this respect and experience, I assure you of my loyalty, obedience and adherence to your rulings.

I also extend my congratulations to all senators elected at the last general election but I particularly congratulate new senators sitting for the first time, as I am. So, to Senator Webber from my home state of Western Australia, to Senators Kirk and Wong from South Australia, to Senators Stephens and Nettle from New South Wales, Senator Marshall from Victoria and Senator Moore from Queensland, I offer my very best wishes for your future service and my respect and admiration on your achievement in joining this parliament.

I feel obliged to acknowledge that a relatively small number of Western Australians voted for David Johnston and so express my deepest thanks and appreciation to my party in Western Australia, particularly my state council, for the faith, trust and high expectation that they vested in me in placing me at No. 2 on our ticket. In the election, 41 per cent of Western Australians chose the Liberal Party, sufficient for us to fill half of the vacancies, and so I thank those electors for their faith in my party to deliver good government, a faith I intend to do my utmost to live up to. In acknowledging the Liberal Party of Australia, I particularly record my gratitude towards and my admiration of my parliamentary leader, the Prime Minister; his deputy, the Treasurer; the party's federal president, Shane Stone QC; and our federal director, Lynton Crosby. Their success in this last campaign was a success for me and has provided me with the privilege that I enjoy today in this place.

I note that a new senator, some many years ago, in making his first speech called the commencement of parliamentary life an `honourable adventure'. I confess that I was most taken with this description, particularly whilst climbing over HMAS Warramunga at Stirling Naval Base last week with Senator Hogg on his defence references committee, of which I am a member. I sincerely congratulate Senator Hogg on his election as Deputy President of the Senate.

I was the president of my party in Western Australia for four years and, without doubt, it was the most expensive yet rewarding hobby I have ever undertaken—rewarding because I had the opportunity to work with hundreds of devoted members of the Liberal Party who work behind the scenes, year in and year out, expecting no reward except the reward of being part of our great party's success. I have enjoyed the love and support of my family in all of my political endeavours—which commenced back in 1974 with the University of Western Australia Liberal Club—through all of the thick and thin, the rough and smooth, which is part and parcel of this vocation as most senators will know and understand too well. I take this opportunity to say that, through it all, I have appreciated very greatly my family's devotion and loyalty to me in my political endeavours.

There are legions of people who, during my time as a senior Liberal in Western Australia, have provided wise counsel and direct assistance to me. I cannot mention them all but must acknowledge just a few. The member for Canning, Don Randall, has been both counsellor and a loyal and trusted friend to me, as have Bob Cronin and Nigel Hallett. My party state president, Kim Keogh, and particularly the state director, Peter Wells, have extended to me the benefit of their skill and guidance over four years whilst I was my party's state president. I also acknowledge with thanks the support and assistance of all Western Australian senators over the years—now dating back almost 20 years.

As a Western Australian Liberal, I cannot talk of my side of politics without mentioning one person who, with a quiet determination and bearing, set a unique standard for a conservative young Western Australian in the 1960s and 1970s and bequeathed to all Western Australians a legacy of good government, employment and economic growth. He was a man who took my state of Western Australia from the mendicant state that it was to the cutting edge engine room and productive powerhouse that it is today. Of course, that person is Sir Charles Court. As a university student I admired him and enjoyed the fruits of his foresight and courage, for he was the father, the great promoter and facilitator of North West Shelf Gas. He was the man who signed the take-or-pay contract that got the ball rolling—and what a magnificent ball that still is, as we witness the latest contract. As our whole nation celebrates our recent export success, I revel in my good fortune to have known him, to have been—and continue to be—influenced by him, to have been a Western Australian during his premiership and to be a member of his Liberal Party in Western Australia.

May I say, Mr President, that the immeasurable benefits to Australia of a strong and viable mining and oil and gas industry in so many related fields are only just beginning to be visible. I point to the amazing capacity of our engineering industry in Western Australia and our shipbuilding industry in Western Australia, and to our capacity to take those industry skills and apply them directly to the national good, particularly in the provision of defence support and equipment manufacture. Nearly all of this corporate and commercial skill has its genesis in the mining or oil and gas industries.

My experience in Western Australia has brought home to me that the decisions and the commitments which we as senators and members make today and tomorrow can have generational impacts. Knowing as I do that the decisions made by a state premier in Western Australia in the 1970s significantly contributed to the commencement of the North West Shelf gas project, I pause to say a special thank you to Sir Charles Court for his work at that time.

In mentioning this project, I have great concern that we may not see the like of such a project or, for that matter, a project like the Ord River scheme again. I say this for any number of reasons relating to our capacity to raise capital and for other reasons, and more recently having read the adjudication of the High Court on native title in Miriuwung Gajerrong. As a former Aboriginal Legal Service solicitor in Kalgoorlie in the early eighties, as a legal consultant to the mining industry for almost 20 years, having had an involvement in the pastoral industry and having practised law in the area of native title, I have some knowledge and understanding of this subject, such that I am alarmed at the direction that this process is currently taking.

No doubt some senators will entertain a degree of scepticism and cynicism on the subject of native title being raised by a Western Australian Liberal, but I will be brief on the subject and commence by saying that not everything you hear from a Western Australian Liberal on the subject of native title is poison or partisan. I believe that the Native Title Act 1993 was enacted for very noble and valid reasons: firstly, to provide an acknowledgment to Aboriginal people that they do have a special and unique relationship with particular land and to grant title thereto; and, secondly, to clarify the law and to provide some certain basis for land administration in Australia—in short, as a response to Mabo.

This chamber was pivotal in the formulation of that response and the legislative framework that followed. I bring this issue not as an advocate for the miners, the pastoralists or local government in Western Australia, although I am close to all of them, and they are certainly very, very unhappy with this present native title regime. I raise the issue solely from the perspective of the claimant groups standing behind 589 active native title applications in Australia. In 10 years we have seen 33 native title determinations, 23 of which were consent determinations and 10 of which were therefore litigated decisions. At this rate, given the number of claims and the cost of the litigation to date, we will be seeking to determine—and I use that word precisely—native title claims into the year 2150 and beyond. That is in about 150 years. The cost is likely to be millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Mr President, we in the west know about the practical working of this law. It is not working to anyone's benefit—certainly not anyone it was intended to benefit. The fact is that `native title' is a statutory definition requiring evidence of rights and interests held in relation to or in connection with land or waters under traditional laws or customs in each application. I pause to say the word again: evidence. In almost every instance, for there to be a determination leading to a grant, evidence must be given. This is a significant problem for Aboriginal people.

Those Indigenous people who might be capable of meeting the evidentiary threshold have a life expectancy well short of the time frame for the determination of their claims. It is a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that adherence to traditional laws and customs is rapidly and obviously diminishing in almost all Aboriginal groups and communities. Some advocates of the present regime say that the solution to this may lie in the resolution of claims by and through agreement under the act. The history of the practical working of the Native Title Act does not, however, support this, and state governments of whatever political persuasion—and we all know that there are no coalition governments left out there—disclose no determination or vigour to resolve or grant native title under the present legislative framework.

This regime is not working and the intended beneficiaries are, in fact, the most obvious of victims. I am not the only one saying this. I talk to the claimants—and there are many of them in Western Australia—and Indigenous commentators such as Noel Pearson, and parliamentarians. As recently as last week the member for Fremantle voiced her concern. Aboriginal people are coming to understand that native title is a false dawn.

The good intent that I want to believe was the driving force behind this legislation runs the very real risk of being viewed by history and the effluxion of time as nothing more than justice delayed, which we all know is justice denied. This would be nothing more or less than another historical tragedy for these people—ever much more so as the witnesses pass away and the traditions and customs fade through the `tide of history', in the words of most learned Federal Court judge Howard Olney, from Western Australia, when he ruled on the Yorta Yorta case. And all relating to a people and culture that are fragile in so many ways, who desperately want to believe they can trust their governments and who are the most susceptible and sensitive to betrayal by those governments no matter how well intentioned.

As it now stands, this regime and framework have great potential to leave all stakeholders dissatisfied, frustrated, to be a betrayal of Indigenous Australians and to lead effectively to nowhere. I have some views on the solutions, but this is neither the time nor the place. The first step is about senators in particular having the will to rebuild this regime. I wish to encourage that will at every opportunity and respectfully seek to make some contribution in that area during my time here.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge and applaud my diligent and conscientious staff who, in the very busy first month of work, have performed above and beyond the call of duty. I must also mention the hard work, the long hours and the years of toil by my parents, which provided to me a most privileged upbringing and life, a work ethic and a strong sense of compassion and concern for those less privileged than myself. My parents and my sister have travelled from Perth to hear me deliver my first speech in this place, and I have very much enjoyed their company on the commencement of my parliamentary adventure.

Finally, to my family, my wife and three children, may I say that their love and care have been my strength and inspiration in my political pursuits over the years, and I record my gratitude to them. I thank honourable senators and I thank you, Mr President.