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Monday, 23 June 2008
Page: 3016

Senator CROSSIN (5:25 PM) —The Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 makes minor amendments to the Northern Territory emergency measures through amendments to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. It means the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 allows for greater flexibility in granting of township leases and expands the function of the position of the Executive Director of Township Leasing.

This bill, finally, provides for the grant of further Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory to become national parks. Let me go through those three important aspects of the legislation we are dealing with. Schedule 1 amends the Aboriginal land rights act 1976 to make provision for township leases of between 40 years and 99 years. This gives Aboriginal people far more flexibility, while at the same time it gives a lease of a minimum length, which will not be a deterrent to any development. Any leases agreed will be renewable but any extension cannot take the total lease period beyond 99 years. This is a great improvement for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. What the previous government were proposing were 99-year leases, which had no other options. Traditional owners would lose control of their land for at least 99 years—in other words, over several generations, when considering the life span of Indigenous people.

Under these changes, though, a land trust considering a township lease can better tailor the lease terms and conditions to the needs of a community. The people themselves will have an increased range of options in considering leasing and subleasing. The Executive Director of Township Leasing will also be appointed, either on a full- or part-time basis, and will have additional functions enabling them to enter into a variety of leases for the benefit of Aboriginal people. If employed full time, the executive director is not allowed to engage in any paid outside employment without ministerial approval and, if employed part time, they are not allowed to engage in outside employment which may conflict with the performance of their duties. The executive director will be able to enter into and administer section 19 leases and other leases, such as for community living areas, where the minister approves such involvement and, similarly, for some leases, such as for town camps, where the minister approves such involvement.

Schedule 2 of this legislation makes improvements to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. Amendments have been made to allow the Commonwealth and others to agree on amounts to be paid in respect of the five-year leases currently held by the Commonwealth over all of the prescribed land in the 73 communities that are operating under the Northern Territory intervention.

Under these amendments, in paragraph 23, a land council can be given the function of negotiating agreed payments in respect of the granting of a lease. Furthermore, proposed section 33B allows such a land council to charge the Commonwealth a fee for reasonable expenses incurred in carrying out functions under section 23. However, under section 35, the land council must spend any such fees as income for those directly related to administrative costs. So there is no carte blanche for land councils to raise revenue for general purposes.

The question of compensation for assets taken over the five-year leases has been a long, ongoing issue of concern for communities in the Northern Territory since day one of the intervention. This amendment now clarifies the matter, and compensation will clearly be negotiated, rather than following the previous government’s line of ‘just compensation which will be assessed’, which was rather vague and uncertain. Now the matter can be negotiated with the land councils representing communities if they so desire.

Finally, I think the most significant aspect of this bill is schedule 3, which provides for the grant of 13 further areas of land to be operated as national parks. The land presently under land claims will become Aboriginal land, which will immediately be leased back to the Northern Territory government for 99 years and then become national parks. The background to this is that in 2004 the Northern Territory government introduced the Parks and Reserves (Frameworks for the Future) Act to resolve outstanding land rights and native title claims on parks and reserves across the Northern Territory. Twenty-seven parks were assigned to one of three schedules, based on the strength of Indigenous attachment, tenure of the park and adjacent land and the existence of native title or Aboriginal land rights claims. Parks and reserves were to be placed on schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and then leased back to the Northern Territory as jointly managed national parks. The process of scheduling required an amendment to the Commonwealth legislation, which passed through both houses of federal parliament—the legislation we are now dealing with.

It is important to note that what we now have in a Rudd Labor government and in Minister Macklin are a federal government and minister that are prepared to work cooperatively and consultatively with Indigenous people and form a very important working relationship with the Northern Territory government and its new Chief Minister, Paul Henderson. There was no action from the previous federal government, despite correspondence from the former Northern Territory Chief Minister, the Hon. Clare Martin, to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Senator Amanda Vanstone, in March 2005. There was a further letter to the Hon. Mal Brough in June 2007 requesting that the affected parks be inserted into schedule 1 of the land rights act. What we now see with the election of a Rudd Labor government is a federal government prepared to work cooperatively with the Northern Territory government, get things done and move this agenda along. This has been on the table since 2005, and we did not have any action or response from the previous two ministers under the previous federal government. In a letter from Chief Minister Paul Henderson that I received back in March, he said:

I am also aware of the considerable frustration and concern from traditional owners of the Schedule 1 parks and reserves that the continuing delay by the former Government in introducing the Bill to Parliament was motivated more by political rather than administrative considerations. Many of these people are old and have battled for many years for recognition of ownership of these areas. It seems fitting that the Territory Government’s wishes in recognising this ownership and lease-back arrangements for parks and reserves be supported by the Australian Government.

That is exactly what we have done and what we are doing today.

This bill makes amendments to legislation relating to several aspects of the Northern Territory emergency response. These changes will allow greater flexibility in land dealings for Indigenous people and will ultimately facilitate provision of improved housing and infrastructure through better security of tenure. Lease times will be more flexible and allow traditional owners to better tailor agreements to community needs. The government will work with traditional owners through land councils to progress leases where communities are interested. Any question of compensation for any assets taken over will be negotiated and communities are assured that they may be represented by their land council if desired.

The amendments being made by this bill will enable the finalisation of the Regional Partnerships agreement signed on 20 May this year with the Groote Eylandt people. It is a partnership between the Indigenous people on Groote Eylandt, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory government. Groote Eylandt, as some may know, is a large island out in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is surrounded by clear waters full of fish and prawns, as Senator Scullion would know, and manganese is found on it, which is mined. This Regional Partnerships agreement allows for a lease period of 40 years, plus a possible renewal of 40 years. Without this legislation enabling flexibility, such an option would have been far less likely. In fact, it would have been rejected by the people on Groote Eylandt. This flexibility enabled the people to feel comfortable in signing the agreement. Under this agreement, land will be leased for 40 years and those leases will be renewable. The communities of Angurugu and Umbakumba will get more housing and infrastructure works. They have also established a top-standard resort in Alyangula for business tourism.

This is a group of Indigenous people who have literally got their act together. I want to pay tribute to the Anindilyakwa Land Council and the people on Groote Eylandt. Not so long ago, they suffered most of the problems we hear about: petrol sniffing, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Now they have an alcohol management scheme worked out by themselves and have very little trouble anymore. Petrol sniffing is all but finished; domestic violence is rare. The local mining company, GEMCO, have always offered employment, and a good number have taken up that opportunity.

Minister Macklin has now visited Groote Eylandt twice, the last time being to actually sign this lease and to witness the opening of the fantastic new Dugong Beach Resort hotel. Importantly, the Anindilyakwa Land Council put royalties from the mining together with a bank loan from the National Australia Bank to build the Dugong Beach Resort and to start up a tourism business. Prior to this, they planned ahead and sent a number of local young people over to Cairns to work and train in hospitality. These people now work at their own resort. An agreement with GEMCO means that visitors will stay there and only there, as well as tourists. There is also a fishing lodge next door owned by Andrew Ettingshausen, which they work in partnership with. Fisherfolk stay at the resort and use the ET fishing trips. So this is a real win, this is a very good news story for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory and it is a winning situation for all concerned.

This is a great example of what can be achieved where a community has been supported and it has turned things around. It is also a great example of a private partnership involved with Indigenous people to the benefit of all parties, and backing them of course is a Commonwealth government that is prepared to enter into negotiation and consultation with Indigenous people so they can get a land-leasing agreement that supports the enterprise that they want to develop. I was very saddened that I was not able to attend the opening of the Dugong Beach Resort hotel, due to family reasons, but I have heard that it was a fantastic day. I know, from a number of people who have travelled to Groote Eylandt since, that it is simply an outstanding resort to stay at. It is similar to the Darwin Airport Resort, which was built in the Northern Territory by Foxy, who has gone into partnership with the Anindilyakwa Land Council in the Dugong Beach Resort, and this is a terrific, fantastic good news story for Indigenous people in the Territory. All this has been achieved by the people, largely represented by their land council really negotiating deals and agreements. The knowledge that this legislation would give them lease flexibility was the final assurance they needed before leasing their land and opening the way for better housing and infrastructure.

Resolving Indigenous issues by agreement, rather than by imposition or through the courts, is the way this government prefers, and so do the Indigenous people of the Northern Territory. Once again we can say that a bill coming from the Rudd Labor government is one of a raft of bills aimed at improving outcomes for Indigenous people through consultation and agreement. This bill enables Indigenous landowners to negotiate much more flexible lease arrangements if they choose to lease their land. They have more say in the lease terms and length or in the subleasing arrangements. There is a better, fairer balance between lessees and lessors. They know that they are not signing away their land for generations. It will give more certainty in negotiating any payments under the five-year leases in the prescribed communities.

These changes are all part of what will be an ongoing series of practical measures under the Closing the Gap program, which one could really say started in full on 13 February with the apology. Other measures include funding Indigenous education, such as the additional 200 teachers and additional classrooms in the Northern Territory; improvements to literacy and numeracy programs; and additional boarding colleges to improve access to secondary education for remote students. They are all part of this package. No-one believes that this gap can be closed overnight, but this bill should be supported as part of that ongoing package. It is another step on the road to bridging the gap and improving the economic and financial outcomes of people in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

In closing, this bill allows flexibility in relation to township leases under the Northern Territory land rights act, from a minimum of 40 years to a maximum of 99 years. It allows the finalisation of the Regional Partnerships agreement on Groote Eylandt with the Anindilyakwa people, it looks at increased functions for the Executive Director of Township Leasing and, more importantly, it allows for a further grant of Aboriginal land which will mean the creation of 13 national parks in the Northern Territory. This legislation is long overdue. I know that for quite a number of years the Northern Territory government and Indigenous people in the Territory have been waiting for this legislation in order to create those 13 national parks. This will mean that this land will become Aboriginal land and will then be leased to the Northern Territory government for 99 years. This is another chapter in improving Indigenous lifestyles in the Northern Territory. It is also another chapter of the good news story of what Indigenous people can do when they get solid backing and commitment from a federal government that then goes on to actually implement its promises, its words and its negotiated outcomes.