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Thursday, 4 March 2004
Page: 20831

Senator O'BRIEN (12:55 PM) —I rise to support the Extension of Sunset of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title Bill 2004—a very clipped title. It is a simple bill, however. It extends the life of the Joint Statutory Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund established under the Native Title Act 1993 for a further two years, that is, from this year until 2006. The extension is necessary to ensure the committee's important work can continue for an interim period. It is also consistent with the committee's recommendations to the government on its future.

I concur with remarks made in the other place by the member for Fraser, Mr McMullan, and the member for Lingiari, Mr Snowdon, that consideration should be given to committee alternatives including the establishment of a joint standing committee by resolution of both houses of the parliament. As noted by Mr McMullan:

That is a matter that will, as a result of this amendment bill, be considered in the next term of the parliament.

It is a matter that I look forward to addressing as the minister for reconciliation and Indigenous affairs in the first Latham Labor government, in concert of course with the member for Gellibrand and next Attorney-General, Ms Roxon.

It is a matter of great concern to me that the government failed to consult the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission on the proposal to extend the life of the native title committee. In fact the first request to ATSIC for advice on the proposal came from Labor. When the office of the Attorney-General was questioned on this matter Labor was told that the Attorney-General consulted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, ATSIS, the prescribed agency created by Mr Ruddock on 1 July last year in some respects against the advice of the Australian Government Solicitor. I would point out that ATSIS is an administrative body not a representative body. I am not sure whether Mr Ruddock expected a pat on the back from Labor for consulting an executive agency of government—an administrative body not a representative body—but, if so, he will be a long time waiting. Mr Ruddock understands more than any other person in the country that ATSIS does not represent Indigenous interests. As I said, it is an administrative body.

As a result of administrative changes introduced by Mr Ruddock as Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, ATSIC cannot issue directions to ATSIS on any matter. As an agency of the government, ATSIS undertakes the work of the government, and not ATSIC. That much is confirmed by the advice Mr Ruddock received from the Australian Government Solicitor in April last year. It is also confirmed by the recent advice to the ATSIC board from Mr David Jackson QC. I will explore this matter further at another time, but in the context of the current bill I want to note the government's failure to consult Australia's peak Indigenous representative body, a body which under the legislation is charged with providing advice to government. This body was not asked for any advice on this matter by the government. But Labor did seek advice from ATSIC. We understand that ATSIC does support the extension of the life of the committee and we are mindful of that in taking our decision to support this legislation.

I want to note another matter raised during the debate on this bill in the other place. The matter concerning the workability of the native title system relates to the role of native title representative bodies. We are all aware that these bodies have a crucial place in the native title system. During the debate in the other place, Mr McMullan said that it was desirable for the committee to have a close look at the support for these bodies. In the short time that I have had the responsibility for reconciliation and Indigenous affairs matters on behalf of the opposition, I have received numerous representations on funding issues associated with the operation of native title representative bodies, and I do hope that the extension of the committee's life will give it an opportunity to address these matters in some detail.

I commenced my remarks by noting comments made by Mr McMullan and Mr Snowdon relating to the future consideration of native title issues. In that regard, I foreshadow that Labor will support the second reading amendment to be moved by the Democrats, calling on the government to give consideration to the future of the committee no less than six months before its expiry. I must say I am looking forward to considering that matter in government. I am pleased to indicate Labor's support for the passage of this bill.