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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 1695

Senator McLUCAS (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers) (9:32 AM) —I am pleased, as a North Queenslander, to be part of this debate on the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011. At the outset, it is important to note that our government is committed to delivering economic development and jobs for Indigenous people and to honouring our environmental and heritage responsibilities in that respect. We are talking about Cape York Peninsula and the declaration of wild rivers in that area by the Queensland government. This private senator’s bill attempts to undermine the state legislation that has been put in place. I remind the Senate that the Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005 was carried in the Queensland parliament with cross-party support. As I have stated in this chamber before, I am of the view that this private senator’s bill is a political stunt and has nothing at all to do with economic development and the achievement of the aspirations of the people of Cape York. Yet again we have the Liberal and National parties playing politics with the future of the people of Cape York.

Our government is undertaking a range of measures to support Indigenous economic development and to create jobs through the sustainable management of natural resources, such as the Working on Country program, and we are working with Indigenous people to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. We are out there talking the talk and walking the walk. We are out there trying to turn around the lives of people in Cape York, and those on the other side are once again playing politics with the aspirations of the people they purport to represent.

We know there is still more that we need to do, at both the federal and state level, but, with respect, the private senator’s bill currently before the Senate poses more questions and complexity than solutions for Indigenous people in either the Cape York region or Queensland as a whole. But it is form for the people on that side to play politics rather than to actually work with people to achieve an economic outcome. The government does not support this bill and has been strongly advocating that, because there are a range of technical problems, the bill would benefit from further consideration. That is why we support a reference to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee and consider today’s debate premature.

The opposition claim that this bill:

… will enable the Indigenous people of Cape York, the Queensland gulf region and other regions of Queensland, to use or develop their land as any other land holder may.

The government believe that this bill will not fulfil that claim and in fact may have a range of negative consequences for Indigenous people. With respect, the government will not be supporting such simplistic attempts to override the Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005. Instead, we are committed to pursuing considered and inclusive solutions to properly address complex issues.

In his second reading speech, Senator Scullion stated:

This bill, the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011, is the reintroduction of a bill of the same name that passed the Senate on the 22 June 2010.

                …            …            …

We as senators should again support this bill …

However, this bill is different to the bill previously passed by the Senate in several important respects. There are matters that should be given serious consideration before this bill goes to a vote.

In terms of substantive effect, the key changes are that the 2011 bill—that is, the new bill before the Senate—extends its coverage from native title land to various kinds of Aboriginal land. Another difference is that it prescribes a method by which the agreement of native title holders for a wild river declaration can be obtained and it requires the Commonwealth to provide employment to people assisting in the management of a wild rivers area who lose their jobs as a result of the legislation. It is substantially different to the bill that was passed in this Senate last year and in that respect warrants a full inquiry.

These are not minor changes, yet it is clear that Senator Scullion was relying on senators to take him at his word and rush the bill through thinking that it was unchanged. In its current form the bill raises a number of issues about its potential scope and application. It is not clear whether agreement is required of all persons defined as an owner of the land concerned or how disagreements between different groups of owners are to be resolved. It is clear that this bill requires careful scrutiny and it is important that the Senate fulfil its obligations as a house of review and agree to refer the legislation to the inquiry, as has been moved.

The government respects the views of Aboriginal leaders in the Cape York area. In his second reading speech Senator Scullion stated that this bill:

… will restore the economic potential of land subject to declarations and assessment under the Queensland wild rivers legislation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As senators should be aware, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics is currently conducting an inquiry into Indigenous economic development in Queensland and a review of the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010.

A number of stakeholders, including traditional owners, have been actively engaged in that review. It is important that the views of Indigenous leaders and stakeholders are heard and that this bill is not rushed through while the House inquiry is underway because this would be dismissive of the genuine engagement that many Indigenous people have made with that process. As part of that inquiry the committee has received a submission from the Wild Rivers Interdepartmental Committee representing some 12 different government agencies. The submission contains a detailed analysis of the opportunities for and challenges to Indigenous economic development in Far North Queensland and, as the submission notes, there is a tremendous amount of government activity occurring in Far North Queensland. Indeed, the government is the largest employer in the region.

The submission also canvasses the wide range of private sector industries such as mining, agriculture and tourism and their potential to improve Indigenous economic development. These are the areas that should be investigated and debated if we really are serious about improving life for people on Cape York Peninsula and in the gulf. Overriding the Wild Rivers Act will not achieve lasting outcomes for Indigenous people. It will deliver more complexity and less security into the future. These are the areas that should be investigated and debated. Overriding the act will just not provide the solution.

The bill is not necessary to protect native title interests in the areas affected by wild river declarations because in our view the Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005 does not affect native title rights and interests. The bill that passed through the Queensland parliament—and I again remind those sitting opposite that it passed with coalition support—explicitly says that native title interests are not affected. That is explicit in the bill and the legal advice to that effect supports that position.

Finally, if the opposition are serious about Indigenous economic development, surely it must be considered extraordinary that Senator Scullion has attempted to gloss over that this bill effectively acknowledges the potentially negative employment outcomes of the bill. It is in the bill. The bill recognises that there will be negative economic outcomes. I find it extraordinary that a senator from that side would acknowledge that a piece of legislation he is proposing will have negative economic outcomes for people of Cape York Peninsula and the gulf. That is why our government considers that the bill needs to be properly scrutinised. In that respect, I move by way of an amendment:

At the end of the motion, add: “the bill be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 10 May 2011”.