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Thursday, 4 March 2004
Page: 20832

Senator RIDGEWAY (1:00 PM) —I also rise today to speak on the Extension of Sunset of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title Bill 2004, the purpose of which is to extend the operation of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund until 23 March 2006. The Democrats support this bill. The committee has played a vital role in the parliament's oversight of the developments of native title, and its continued existence as a monitoring body, in my mind at least, is vital.

When the Mabo decision was handed down, many Indigenous people were heartened by the prospect that native title legislation would enable them to get a result that would deliver better legal protection of our cultures, especially in relation to significant sites and objects. We did not see that aspect of Mabo, certainly in how the legislation was formed, eventuate. Whilst we ended up with the Native Title Act, its amendments following the 1996 Wik decision have rendered it nonbeneficial in its effects on Indigenous people by licensing governments to racially discriminate against Indigenous peoples. So, in many ways, I regard it as a spectacular failure in delivering on its promise. When the Australian parliament enshrined the 10-point plan in law, it compromised the basic legal principle of equality before the law and undermined the goodwill and the potential for Indigenous advancement that had been embodied in the Mabo and Wik decisions. I think it reminded us of just how vulnerable Indigenous rights are and how erroneous the assumption of a level playing field is.

The system is clearly flawed—which is no news to anyone in this chamber—but, having said that, it is important to state that there have been some important runs on the board in terms of native title outcomes over the last 10 years. This is particularly so for ordinary Australians, both black and white, who have had to grapple with native title issues at the local level. While good working relationships have been developed between Indigenous communities, local governments and other interest holders in some areas, there are many more stories of ongoing frustration and despair at the persistence of discrimination, historical denial and disrespect. It is therefore extremely important to make sure that the monitoring mechanisms remain in place to oversee the implementation of this act, the effectiveness of the various bodies that exist under the act and the progress of the agreements that are made under the act.

We have been assured by the government that native title is becoming settled and more bedded down. They say that recent decisions in the cases of Ward and Yorta Yorta have clarified many of the principles underpinning the act. They say that as the understanding of these issues strengthens so does the agreement making process. This is the rationale used for saying that there is no need for a parliamentary committee to continue its monitoring process for any more than the next two years and that a decision on any further extension of the committee's life would be up to the next parliament. I cannot agree with the government's assessment that everything is now settled down in native title. Sure, there are the success stories, but taken as a whole the anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Native title and its associated processes will be settling in for some time to come. I attended the national native title conference in Alice Springs last year, as did Senator Johnston—and I believe that he is still the chair of the joint parliamentary committee—and I think it was fairly clear from all of the stakeholders involved at that conference that there are still many issues that need to be resolved.

It is important that a committee such as the Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund remains in existence as an ongoing review and monitoring body. I think this is especially important given the government's desire in another bill to assimilate the specialist position of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into a generalist commissioner position. I personally consider this to be a retrograde step not only because of the social justice commissioner's important role in promoting respect and understanding of the human rights of Indigenous people—and, indeed, of all of us—but also because of their responsibility to examine legislation, or proposed legislation, and other enactments for their impact on the human rights of Indigenous Australians.

It is in this context that the social justice commissioner reports yearly on native title and, along with the existence of the joint committee, the role provides a vital monitoring mechanism for the operations of the act. If the government is also proposing to do away with the social justice commissioner, who looks at this question, then I think it highlights the need for someone else to look at it—and the joint parliamentary committee has that role. If the bill is not passed in this sitting, the committee will cease to exist on 23 March and this important monitoring mechanism will no longer exist. I personally regard the extension of the committee by another two years as arbitrary. Why not extend it by five years or six years, as has previously been done? It is a time frame that has been plucked out of thin air. Neither the former minister, Mr Ruddock, nor the government have provided any rationale for this decision. Hence, the Democrats are putting forward a second reading amendment. We will support the bill. I thank the opposition for indicating they will support the proposed amendment. I presume the government will also support the second reading amendment. I move:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate:

(a) notes the importance of ongoing review of the operation of native title legislation in Australia; and

(b) calls on the Government to:

(i) review the need to extend the committee for a further period, and

(ii) commence this review not less than six months before the term of the committee expires”.