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Thursday, 30 September 2010
Page: 482

Senator SCULLION (2:36 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans. The Queensland wild rivers legislation has the effect of locking up whole river catchments without the requirement to obtain the consent of traditional owners. In light of the growing concern from traditional owners, will the Gillard Labor government now support the coalition’s wild rivers bill so that traditional owners must give their consent prior to their land being declared a wild river?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) —I thank Senator Scullion for the question. I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has introduced a private member’s bill into the House of Representatives to override the Queensland government’s wild rivers legislation. The government is very much focused on delivering its commitment to economic development and jobs for Indigenous people. The Australian government sees economic development as one of the keys to closing the gap on Indigenous outcomes, including in the Cape York area. We must also honour our environmental and heritage responsibilities, which also present opportunities for economic and commercial outcomes.

The government respects the views of Aboriginal leaders in the Cape York area and is committed to hearing the full range of views from Indigenous people but, like most communities, they have differing views and differing perspectives on these issues. We are also interested in hearing from the broader community, industry and environmental representatives.

It is obviously a complex and controversial issue, and that is why the government intends to refer these issues for full inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics to ensure that the full story is known before Mr Abbott’s bill is debated. The terms of that inquiry will be broad and extend beyond the terms of the opposition bill to allow an open and inclusive examination of the issues. We are committed to practical ways to ensure that Indigenous people can participate in sustainable economic development. We must keep sight of the crucial place that water and river systems play in the economy and the life of the nation. Working directly with the Queensland government is also essential to resolving these issues.

We will be looking to work through the complex issues involved in this matter and have an inquiry that goes beyond some of the more limited terms of the opposition bill. I think that will allow us to come to grips with—(Time expired)

Senator SCULLION —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Other than appeasing the Greens, the government’s new coalition partners, and inner city environmentalists on whom the Labor Party now so heavily rely for their vote, what possible justification can the government give for imposing land use restrictions upon native title land without the owners’ consent?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) —I am interested to see that Senator Scullion is such a defender of native title legislation and the rights of traditional owners. I welcome that.

Senator Abetz interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Well, there have been occasions when perhaps the Howard government sought to override some of those rights and was not so keen on consultation and traditional owner authorisation. The key point is that there are diverging views, as I understand it, among those Indigenous people in the area, including among those who are the native title holders. As I said, this government’s intention is to work with all groups to try to find ways through what is a complex and controversial issue. Key to that will be listening to and looking to accommodate the concerns and interests of Indigenous people.

Senator SCULLION —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. In your answer to the first question you indicated that the government is very keen to ensure that Aboriginal people can also avail themselves of economic opportunities. If you are going to move towards an economic future without dependence on government handouts, how can the Gillard Labor government possibly now claim in any way to be a friend of the Indigenous people of Queensland?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) —I am not quite clear what point the question goes to, but it is obviously the case, as with all economic development, that one looks to balance the economic development with environmental values at the same time. That is a challenge we confront in all economic development proposals, so it is about getting that balance right. But this government is very much committed to economic development and jobs for Indigenous people. It is part of our key thrust to try to reduce the gap in life expectancy for Indigenous people in this country. We know that jobs and economic development are at the heart of that, and self-reliance and building self-esteem are at the heart of that. So I think we are at one with Senator Scullion on the importance of jobs and economic development and opportunities for Indigenous people to pursue their lives independently. But we will have to balance those objectives with environmental and other concerns as we work our way through this issue. (Time expired)