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Tuesday, 20 June 2006
Page: 64


Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (5:13 PM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

ABORIGINAL LAND RIGHTS (NORTHERN TERRITORY) AMENDMENT BILL 2006

The purpose of the bill is to make changes to the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which will provide more choices in life for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

It is 30 years since a Coalition Government introduced the bill that became the Land Rights Act. The Second Reading Speech delivered on 4 June 1976 talked about giving full expression to Aboriginal affinity with the land.

The Land Rights Act has been successful in returning land to Aboriginal people. Almost half of the Northern Territory is now Aboriginal land. However, hopes that the simple granting of land would lead to an improvement in the lives of local people have not been realised. The Act has not been successful in facilitating productive use of that land.

The reforms to the Land Rights Act are the result of almost ten years of consultation and three major reviews that have enabled a narrowing of differences among stakeholders. There is widespread recognition that the Act needs to be amended to deliver better economic outcomes.

Many of the proposed amendments come from a joint submission by the Northern Territory Government and Land Councils.

The reforms in this bill are designed to do three things: provide for individual property rights in Aboriginal townships, streamline processes for development of Aboriginal land and improve efficiency and enhance accountability of organisations under the Act.

At the time of the development of the Land Rights Act, the future of townships was a point of debate. Most of the residents are not traditional owners. They have no choice but to live as tenants in these townships. If they want to own a house or start a business, they have to move. They are mostly marooned in unsafe settlements devoid of economic opportunity and hope for the future.

The appalling levels of violence and abuse in many of these communities are a stark reminder of the failed policies of the past. The Government has called for restoration of basic law and order in these townships. The right of safety for women and children is a threshold issue that will be the subject of a Commonwealth, State and Territory Summit in the near future.

But of course law and order is not the only issue. Much more needs to be done to normalise life for these Australian citizens. The reforms to the Land Rights Act will help to create a new environment offering better prospects and hope for the future.

The bill provides for a new tenure system for townships on Aboriginal land that will allow individuals to have property rights. It is individual property rights that drive economic development. The days of the failed collective are over.

Our approach will preserve the fundamentals of the Act such as inalienable Aboriginal land title and will respect the role of traditional owners. Ninety-nine year headleases over townships with individual subleases under the headlease will make it significantly easier for individuals to own their own homes and establish businesses. The bill enables the Northern Territory Government to establish its own legislation to administer the scheme and also enables the Australian Government to administer the scheme if necessary.

To make home ownership a reality, the Government has established the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land Programme to provide low interest loans and other incentives and assistance to prospective home owners. The States are also expected to move to amend their Indigenous land legislation to enable unencumbered long term leasing of Indigenous land. The Australian Government is leading the way.

The Government recently signed a Heads of Agreement, committing the traditional owners of Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands and the Australian Government to settle an agreement by the end of this year for a township headlease. The people in Nguiu know where they are going and we expect other communities to follow their lead.

The proposed amendments to the cumbersome and open ended mining provisions of the Act are based on a package agreed between all parties: Governments, Land Councils and the mining industry. There will be quicker processes for exploration and mining on Aboriginal land and current Ministerial powers will be delegated to the Northern Territory Government.

The changes include a sensible core negotiating period in which the Government expects most exploration applications to be considered. We intend to provide the Northern Territory Mining Minister with a new power to set a deadline to bring negotiations to a conclusion. Importantly, the power of traditional Aboriginal owners to withhold consent to (or veto) exploration is retained.

The bill includes further measures to cut red tape and facilitate economic development on Aboriginal land. The requirement for Ministerial approval of leases and contracts entered into by Land Councils will be significantly relaxed. The Minister will only need to approve leases that are over 40 years’ duration, rather than the current 10 years, and contracts of over $1 million, rather than $100,000 at present. The bill facilitates the mortgaging of leases by confirming that a lease can include agreement to future transfers.

The bill provides for the delegation of decision-making powers from Land Councils to regional groups, including for exploration and mining.

The bill also includes amendments to the provisions for the establishment of new Land Councils. The current provisions are effectively unworkable. The bill specifies that, to establish a new Land Council, a 55 per cent majority vote of Aboriginal people is required.

The performance of Land Councils will be enhanced by the legislation. No longer will Land Council funding from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA) be based on an artificial statutory formula. We are removing the guaranteed 40 per cent of annual ABA revenues for Land Councils. In future, Land Councils will be funded on the basis of workloads and results.

The Government wants to ensure that royalty payments are made in a transparent and accountable way. Payments without a purpose will be prohibited. Oversight of royalty associations will be improved so that all community members benefit, not just a select few.

Through careful management, this Government has built up the ABA reserve to over $100 million, which will enable a more strategic and targeted approach to investment. The ABA Advisory Committee will be strengthened by a provision to include additional members selected by the Minister according to their professional expertise.

Outstanding land claim matters are dealt with by the bill. The legislation disposes of land claims that cannot legally proceed or would be inappropriate to grant. Claims over stock routes that have been unresolved for over 20 years and cannot be heard or finalised will be disposed of. Claims to the intertidal zone and the beds and banks of rivers not contiguous with Aboriginal land or claimed land will be disposed of.

A separate Bill will schedule substantial areas of land, including a series of claims to national parks and reserves settled between the Northern Territory Government and Land Councils.

The Northern Territory Government, the Land Councils and peak industry bodies including the Northern Territory Minerals Council are to be congratulated for their constructive contributions to the reform process. The Land Councils, by proposing, for example, the delegation of powers to regional groups, have demonstrated that they recognise the need for change.

The Government has proposed these amendments for the next 30 years of land rights. The measures contained in this bill are vital to improving the well being of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. The measures are long overdue and usher the potential for a new era of opportunity for Aboriginal Territorians.

Debate (on motion by Senator Coonan) adjourned.