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Monday, 23 June 2008
Page: 3016

Senator SIEWERT (5:17 PM) —The Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 makes amendments to the scheme introduced by the previous government for township leases, otherwise known as section 19A leases, as well as some other amendments. The Australian Greens, as people from this chamber will know, strenuously opposed the previous government’s move to introduce the 99-year township leases. We believed these leases marked a significant change in land rights legislation. We had a number of concerns at the time, particularly about lack of consultation with communities introducing these specific changes. If people remember that debate at the time, there was consultation around a section of that legislation but not about these most important changes. We were concerned about the potential for traditional owners to have to relinquish control over land for 99 years; the potential for inappropriate commercial development on subleased land; and, given the length of the leases, the potential for traditional owners to lose the chance to respond to future opportunities for economic development that emerge. We also had concerns about the previous government pressuring communities into entering these leases, particularly over requiring them to enter into leases over what where supposedly considered non-essential services. But, of course, communities were then in the process of having to discuss 99-year leases for things like schools. The Greens very strongly believed that education and schools were an essential service.

We know the ALP shared our concerns at the time—in fact, the Democrats, the Greens and the ALP held a joint media conference to talk about these issues. We remain unconvinced by the argument that private leases are needed for economic development in Indigenous communities. As I said two years ago, the main impediment to economic development in Aboriginal communities is not the issue of land tenure and private leases. Housing access, rather than individual homeownership, is an issue. Constraints to economic development include incredible remoteness; the transaction and transport costs; limited opportunities; small population sizes with no economies of scale; the lack of equity in terms of low incomes and low rates of employment; and, in particular, the lack of education, training and infrastructure. These are all issues that constrain economic development.

We are concerned with the focus on leases rather than on more innovative tenure arrangements such as those that are being considered in response to the housing affordability crisis in the broader community. At the very time that government are continuing to say they need control of the assets in order to be able to fund housing et cetera, the government are also helping and looking at very innovative lease arrangements—and I must congratulate the people who are looking at these types of innovative lease arrangements—that are not about control and ownership of the land. However, having said that, this bill does in fact make some positive amendments and is a step in the right direction.

The new government’s approach, we believe, is an improvement on the previous government’s approach. The bill provides for township leases under section 19A to be for a period of between 40 and 99 years. Of course, we would prefer it to be at the 40-year end, but this is an improvement on requiring 99-year leases alone, which we believe, as I have stated before and just then, are too long. The bill also makes changes to the executive director of township leases. The executive director can now be responsible for section 19 leases and leases over community living areas as well. This provides a level of independence in administrating these leases. The executive director is a statutory office, and that level of independence in administrating the leases is in a measure reassuring, although we would like to see included a specific mechanism for the executive director to access expert advice, including from landholders as well as the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments. We believe this is essential so that they get input from people who are actually experts on these sorts of things as well as from landowners.

The bill, in part, is designed to facilitate the government’s housing program for remote communities. While the investment of $1billion is very welcome and an excellent start, we do have some concerns about the housing program. One concern is that the proposed housing model for remote communities does not yet meet the needs of communities, although the level of funding certainly goes part way to addressing the housing crisis that faces remote communities, which will require an enormous amount of funding.

The Greens are concerned about the monopoly of NT Housing as the only provider. This housing is different to other public housing because it deals with the issue of 60-year leases. Although the 40-year option is on the table, I have been told personally that some communities are still being required to negotiate around 60 years rather than 40 years, and they would prefer to be negotiating around a 40-year lease option.

We want to ensure that appropriate consultation is carried out with communities in designing a housing model for their communities. Again, we are deeply concerned that in fact some of the urban models are being pushed onto communities rather than there being any true consultation with people to find out what will actually work in remote communities.

We are also very keen to ensure that government commitments, which they are supposedly writing into housing contracts with providers, adequately deal with employment and training requirements. We are pleased to see the government committed to including employment and training requirements in contracts with providers and we will be keeping a close eye on that to ensure it happens, and it happens appropriately, in each community. I am still concerned that some of the innovative enterprises that are in fact going into some communities may be sidelined by the alliance approach the government are taking in the Northern Territory. As I said, we will be watching that issue extremely closely.

Maintenance is also a very important issue—not just day-to-day maintenance but ensuring there is a plan and proper funding for long-term maintenance. We are aware of many run-down houses in remote communities, and it is essential that adequate funding be provided for maintenance now, not later down the track. Overall, the Greens believe that portion of the bill is a step in the right direction, although we still have concerns about the government’s requirement to enter into these types of leases in order to get money for housing.

Another section of the bill deals with parklands. We are very happy to see that the 13 areas of land in schedule 3 of the bill are finally being declared Aboriginal land, to be operated as national parks under a joint management model. I understand that in fact the coalition did have some problems with this. I have now heard Senator Bernardi say they are happy with the arrangements. Perhaps those arrangements could be shared with the rest of us to ensure that the rest of us are happy with those arrangements and to see whether they differ from those we have been briefed on. The Greens were briefed on this bill. I am very interested to know whether those arrangements have subsequently been changed since we were briefed, because it may raise some concerns for the Greens if they are different from that which we have been informed of. We support this bill.