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Monday, 23 June 2008
Page: 3016

Senator SCULLION (Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (5:41 PM) —Before I rise to speak on the Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2008, I would like to lend some support to my colleagues from the Northern Territory. It is rare that we agree on many things, but I think this piece of legislation pretty much has bipartisan support in this place and I really need to deal only with one aspect of it. Firstly, I would like to make the brief comment that I agree with Senator Crossin’s remarks on the cross-government process of establishing the Dugong Beach Resort. Having visited the resort, I know it is an absolutely fantastic place. To anybody who has an idea that they would like to go fishing and to experience the Northern Territory, I say this is the place for that, and you will have the added benefit of experiencing a great deal of Indigenous culture. A number of the tours that are run from the resort focus very much on people having that Indigenous experience, one that is so difficult for others to have. So I certainly commend a visit to Groote Eylandt.

The issue as to the bill before us that I would like to speak about is the handing over of the 13 parks and reserves to Indigenous ownership. This particular portfolio of parks is currently part of the Northern Territory national parks portfolio. All the parks are in Central Australia. They are a fundamental part of the cultural and recreational activities of many people, particularly those who live in and around Alice Springs. Many Territorians have expressed concern to me, to most Territory parliamentarians and certainly to the Northern Territory government about certain aspects of these parks: how they will be managed in the future, whether the parks’ iconic biodiversity will be maintained as a principal focus of the management of the parks—and there is a whole suite of other questions. Of course, once title to the parks is transferred they will be immediately leased back by the Northern Territory government. The idea is that they will always be protected as national parks. There is concern that as the Northern Territory government—on behalf of Territorians; in fact, on behalf of all Australians—leases these parks back, questions will arise over their management. For instance, will the Northern Territory government be managing these parks as it would manage other parks in the Northern Territory? The parks and reserves are very important, particularly for those people in Central Australia. It is an interesting process. I am not sure why it is the case, but the parks in Central Australia are utilised far more, particularly for walking and such recreational activities, than the parks in the north of Australia are.

Territorians have come to me saying that the Northern Territory Conservation Commission have an excellent record in managing national parks and should continue to perform this role in partnership with Indigenous owners. It is extremely important that a government that is leasing the parks for this purpose be afforded the ability to effectively carry out its duties. Perhaps there has been some confusion, but for some time there have been meetings in Alice Springs of over 200 people. There is a real nervousness because of the constant threat in the media about what the future of the parks will be, particularly in terms of access.

A number of issues continue to crop up: the number of homelands that would potentially be built in these areas and the roads to those homelands would that mean closures in the parks, given that there is pretty much open access to these parks at the moment, which afford the people who live in Alice Springs a wonderful recreational amenity which they wish to continue to enjoy? There are also issues of biodiversity, companion animals and traditional hunting—whether it would be introduced into these parks. There are issues associated with existing commercial operators and whether the transparent process of allocating permits would continue to apply. These are the concerns of the people in Alice Springs.

I have to confess, it is probably me that Senator Crossin and others can blame for holding up the legislation since 2005. She mentioned previous ministers, and I can say that on each of those occasions when the minister came to me and said, ‘Do you think this will be all right?’ I said, ‘Minister, when you put the question to me I asked those people in Alice Springs and they all said definitely no because they need some assurances that entry to the parks and the management of biodiversity for all Australians would in fact be maintained.’

As this legislation is now before the parliament, I wrote to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and I received a letter from him today. I was delighted to find that some of my concerns have at last been put to rest and I have some assurances. I understand there is no specified requirement that any of the parks and reserves have a board of management. I also understand from his letter that the governance arrangements will be determined between the joint managers on a case by case basis. On the issue of boards, the examples of Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Uluru have been used—perhaps that is why the concern arose—because they are all mandated in legislation to be joint managed where the majority of traditional owners are involved in that management process. I understand that the only requirement is that park management contain equitable representation, so it is not mandated as some people have indicated.

I also understand that all joint managements plans are a legislative instrument, must have public consultation and be put to the Legislative Assembly for seven days. So people with concerns in Central Australia should understand clearly that the government of the day will be accountable for any changes that are made, rather than a board that may not have quite the same transparency as one would expect under these circumstances.

The letter confirms that it is up to the Northern Territory government to approve all management arrangements through an instrument, not legislation. Territorians will not see management and control of these parks transferred permanently to traditional owners for the term of the lease. If the Northern Territory government decides to give majority membership on these boards that make these decisions to traditional owners, then that is their decision and they will have to defend that publicly through parliament. The Northern Territory government will be answerable to Territorians on these issues.

Whilst the letter does not provide written assurance that the Northern Territory government will retain and maintain majority management of the parks and reserves, it gives Territorians, through me, an assurance that the legislation does not grant majority management and control to the traditional owners, as is the case, as I indicated, for other parks. Whilst my concerns are not categorically resolved through this letter, the Northern Territory government have assured Territorians that they believe that they retain the necessary controls to be the final decision-making body over park plans of management and other management arrangements. Based upon these assurances, I intend to support the bill on the understanding that the Northern Territory government will maintain overall control of the parks and reserves and will be, as I have indicated, accountable to Territorians through the parliamentary process.

This joint management model could also be used to look at leasing back iconic land that is held as part of a pastoral lease or in private ownership. There are concerns for much of our iconic biodiversity around Australia, often around the inflexibility of the leasing arrangements and whether we can provide specific and focused management plans. Hopefully, this model, which provides me with some comfort that the very best of managers will be ensuring that they make those decisions, can be used not only for the future of parks in the Northern Territory but over other areas of landownership where we wish to protect iconic biodiversity.

The Northern Territory government, after providing me with some assurances, will be heavily scrutinised by the public on their performance and commitment to the preservation of the Northern Territory’s parks and reserves on public display, and they will be judged by the parliament. I am absolutely assured by all those people who currently use the parks that they will be very vocal should the assurances provided by the Northern Territory government dissolve.