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Monday, 23 June 2008
Page: 3016

Senator BARTLETT (5:51 PM) —The Democrats support the Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. It is interesting and, to some extent, refreshing that we can have legislation dealing with issues affecting Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and not have a lot of heated controversy and finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage being slung backwards and forwards and we can look in a reasonably measured way at the specifics of the issues. That does not mean that everybody has to agree on every component, but at least we can look at it in a fairly measured and balanced way. It contrasts with the approach taken with regard to the specific area of legislation and law that this bill before us amends.

It is a matter of continuing disappointment to me that the approach taken by the previous government and the previous minister in particular was one that was so aggressive towards any attempt to try and just get scrutiny and consideration of some of the concerns that were raised. I am not in any way suggesting that any minister or any government should always agree with me or with anybody else on every issue. But let us not forget the approach that was taken when the amendments were made to the legislation affecting land rights in the Northern Territory by the previous government where, once again, we saw—and let us not forget how frequently this occurred—the previous government insist on an extremely rushed Senate committee inquiry. Again, we were begrudgingly and very lucky, in one sense of the word, to be given even that opportunity.

We held a one-day hearing in Darwin as I recall. I think the relevant officials from the department here in Canberra did not even bother to come up, so we had to deal with most of them over the telephone. We again had this continuing insistence that this was super urgent, there was no time and we could not cope with any amendments as they would have just ruined any prospect of the absolute great gains that would allegedly be achieved by introducing a 99-year lease. There were all these proposed developments that were going to lead to economic opportunity for a range of communities in the Northern Territory that we would purportedly be holding back if we did not pass the legislation straightaway. That was the context of the debate that was held, such as it was.

It was clear that there was a lot of concern at a local level and there was some clear opposition. Again, that does not mean the government should not have proceeded but, as I said a number of times—indeed when the idea was first floated about long-term leases by the previous minister, Minister Vanstone—it is not just a matter of whether or not it is a good idea but, as with many areas of public policy, particularly one like this where you are dealing with such a crucial issue for traditional owners and Aboriginal people in the Territory, the way you do it has a big impact on the chances of success. The way it was done almost guaranteed an increase in suspicion about what was going on. So it is welcome that we are seeing a relaxation of the very tight and prescriptive approach that was put in place in the north with the government using its Senate majority couple of years ago. There will be flexibility in regard to the length of leases so that there is more scope for the length of leases to be in accord with both the views and the differing needs of different groups of traditional owners and different communities in different parts of the Territory. Also, as Senator Siewert indicated in her contribution, the legislation allows for some greater degree of independence with regard to the administering of these leases, so there is less apprehension about them being used or driven by the government agenda of the day, which happens when you get an overtly politicised or an overtly ideological crusade being followed to justify amendments to legislation.

As we all know, in the last week or so it has been the first anniversary of the announcement of the previous government’s Northern Territory intervention. That is a difficult issue and it is understandable that people have strong and differing views. But it is one, as I have said a number of times, where the former minister, Mr Brough, deserves continuing credit for having put the issues of major disadvantage and the major dangers being faced daily with regard to abuse and family violence front and centre on the political agenda in a far stronger and more continuing way than had occurred in the past. He does deserve continuing credit for that but he also, I believe, deserves continuing criticism for doing it in a way that unnecessarily alienated people, many of whom agreed with the stated goal of what the minister was trying to achieve.

It was ironic to see the former minister, Minister Brough, talking over the weekend in some of the pieces looking at this anniversary about how it takes time to get results. Of course it does; that is what everybody said. It also takes time to work through how to set these things up properly—time that was not permitted. He was talking about how a part of it is about building trust—building the trust of police officers on the ground, of the health workers and other workers on the ground. One thing that makes it harder to build trust is when dramatic changes are forced through without proper consultation in a highly politically charged and ideologically driven way, and with very aggressive approaches, basically smearing anybody that disagrees or raises concerns.

Certainly, from the Democrats approach at the time, I made it quite clear a number of times that we did not categorically oppose what the government was trying to do. We wanted to ensure that there was sufficient consultation with the people who are directly affected; that is, that the people who actually own the land and the people whose rights were being modified by laws passed here, so far away, were consulted with and that there was better engagement with them about how these new systems would work. We did not take a position initially on what was being proposed beyond saying: ‘Well, let’s explore this and let’s explore it with the people who are going to be directly affected. Let’s not just push it all through.’ The problems that happened were totally predictable and, to some extent at least, avoidable. It is pleasing to see a different approach being put forward now. That does not mean that I agree with everything that the government is doing, just as I did not agree with everything that the previous government did, but a lot matters with regard to how you do things.

It was ironic to read a piece in the Australian today by David Burchell raising concerns about the approach of some people in the political debate and the descriptions he used about political debate, that they:

... are greased with the oil of personal vitriol—

an approach that seeks to—

ritually degrade those who are seen as renegades from the cause.

That quite strongly—almost perfectly, it seems to me—describes the attitude and approach of some and certainly the attitude and approach of the previous minister towards those who did not just back him 100 per cent. It was certainly the attitude and approach of a huge number of pieces that I saw in the Australian newspaper about these issues over a long period of time.

It is ironic that the piece written by Mr Burchell was not intending to criticise the mainstream media; he was actually criticising what he calls ‘the political blogosphere’. In my experience, whilst there is plenty of vitriol out there as well, some of the most worthwhile contributions about what was happening on the ground—some of it reinforcing and justifying what the government was doing, I might say; it was not all one-sided at all—came through what is loosely called ‘the blogosphere’. That is a very unglamorous title, but that is the description that is applied. From my point of view, the material that is valuable, whether it is published in the blogosphere, elsewhere online or in the mainstream media, examines what is happening on the ground and what the evidence is—as opposed to the ideology, the rhetoric and the vitriol—particularly when it hears from people in those areas affected. It was the failure of the Senate, due to the use of the coalition’s soon-to-disappear majority in this chamber, that we did not do that adequately—that we were not able to engage with people on the ground.

I am mostly focusing my criticism on the former government because that was the position through which I engaged with the legislation in my role in the Senate, but there is no doubt that the Northern Territory government must merit some criticism for the way they engaged with this approach as well. I am not specifically talking about the intervention; I am talking about the changes in the debate around the 99-year leases and the adoption of that, the mixed messages there and the guarantee that they would set up an entity to manage these leases, which then did not happen. I would have to say that that really did not help overall in what is being achieved here.

I do not oppose the option of being able to set up leases of up to 99 years if it is clearly with the full, informed and free consent of the community. As I have stated a number of times about my own state of Queensland, I think there is no doubt that in some of what are known as DOGIT communities, where the land is held jointly in trust by an Aboriginal land trust, some form of leasing arrangement should be further explored. Some of those potentials already exist in legislation in Queensland and could be expanded further. So I am not opposed in principle to that whole idea or the approach that the former minister put forward. I was critical and remain critical not because I just want to keep reliving old disputes but because I think it is important that we do not go back to that very ideological, very aggressive and very vitriolic approach. We need to recognise that process is also important.

These are very challenging issues. When I say that vitriol does not help, I do not mean at all that people should not be strongly committed or forceful in their views. I think we should be very forceful in our views and very determined across party lines to give continuing priority to the major hurdles, major disadvantages and major traumas still being experienced by many Aboriginal people in communities in the Territory and around the country. Of course we should be very determined to do more about that and very strong in our views, but we need to do all we can to reduce the amount of ideological mud-slinging, vitriol and ‘ritual degrading of those who are seen as renegades’—from whatever cause we might think we are the standard bearers for, on whatever side of the spectrum—and to focus particularly on the people who we are talking about. It is legally their land we are talking about, just as much as for any other Australians. You would not legislate about the rights of other people to their lands on such a large scale without consulting and, ideally, engaging with them.

That brings me to another aspect of the legislation: that part to do with parks. I do not dispute the concerns or the issues that Senator Scullion raised. I would certainly never dare to suggest that I know more about the Territory than he does, because he is very immersed and very experienced in the operation of the Territory, the history of the Territory and the views of Territorians. Nonetheless, I perceived an apprehension in the views that Senator Scullion put forward that suggested a concern about excessive Indigenous involvement in the management of parks. Joint management is not necessarily suitable in every single park, and I do not have a problem with the principle of the Territory government having ultimate responsibility for what is decided and then being held accountable through the electorate, but I do think, from my experience—and from my past experience in the Senate environment committee in the inquiries we have done into the management of parks in general—that, as a general rule, there is a growing recognition that we need to maximise Indigenous engagement in the management of parks of all types, anywhere in the country, wherever they are. We are not doing well enough there.

I put on the record my strong hope that the Territory government, current and future, whoever they may be, do seek to maintain maximum effective involvement of Aboriginal people and traditional owners in the management of the various parks that are touched on in this legislation. I am still frustrated by the decision of the previous government to unilaterally remove the Indigenous representative from the board of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority purely on the basis of a totally separate ideological agenda about government instrumentalities that took no account of the specifics of the management of protected areas and the value that comes from tapping into the knowledge and the rights of traditional owners, whether for a marine park or a national park. I think that point does need to be emphasised.

I do not have a view about what is best for each individual park. That is not my role. It is not my expertise. It is more appropriate for the Northern Territory government to do that. But I do think it is important to emphasise that it is not just some nice feelgood thing: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had lots of Indigenous people on the boards of management and those sorts of things?’ The facts show that, the more you can engage traditional owners in the management of the parks on their land, not only do you get a better environmental outcome but the chances of getting better social and economic outcomes also increase. It is not guaranteed by any means, and I am certainly not suggesting that joint management of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, for example, has been a massive boon for traditional owners. In all sorts of ways it has not, but the joint management arrangement is not the reason why it has panned out that way. I think that point is important to emphasise.

So whilst the bill itself is noncontroversial—in the sense that I think everybody in this chamber supports it—the topic is and should be controversial. It is a matter that I hope will, and I am sure will, continue to be focused on by people from all parties in this chamber. It is important that the priority—the greater focus on Indigenous issues, not just in the Territory but elsewhere—that is a legacy of the former minister, Minister Brough, does continue with the new parliament. I am sure that many people, not just those in this chamber but many outside in the community, will do all they can to make sure that that happens.