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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 1711

Senator CROSSIN (10:11 AM) —The government, as people will know, will not be supporting the opposition’s attempts to override the Queensland government’s Wild Rivers Act. We respect the views of Aboriginal leaders in the Cape York area. Our view is that engaging directly with the Queensland government and Aboriginal leaders on these issues is the best policy response. We have been talking to both Indigenous stakeholders and the Queensland government to work towards a solution on these issues. An effective and lasting resolution of the wild rivers issue will ultimately be reached, of course, between the Queensland government and the Indigenous people of Cape York. In that sense, we will not seek to overturn the Queensland government’s legislation.

This piece of legislation, the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011, has already been before my committee, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, so I am pretty familiar with the players in this legislation and the issues, as well as the political attempt by those opposite to overturn what has been a process between people in Cape York and the Queensland government.

We are committed to delivering economic development and jobs for Indigenous people but not in this way, not in undermining the role of the people in Cape York and the role of the Queensland government. We will honour our environmental and heritage responsibilities. We are undertaking a range of measures to support Indigenous economic development, creating jobs through the sustainable management of natural resources, such as through the Working on Country program, and working with Indigenous peoples to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. I take this opportunity to remind people in this chamber that today is in fact that day—National Close the Gap Day. It is interesting that we are talking about legislation that overturns the rights of Indigenous people in the Cape York area, rights that have been negotiated with the Queensland government through this legislation.

There is still more to be done, of course, at both the federal and state level. With respect, the private member’s bill currently before the Senate poses more questions and complexity than solutions for Indigenous people in either Cape York or Queensland. We do not support this bill and we have been strongly advocating that because there are a range of technical problems. This bill would benefit from further consideration. I notice that it is due to come back to my legal and constitutional committee and I will have a bit more to say about that in a minute.

We do support a reference to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, and today’s debate is in fact premature. The opposition claims that this bill will enable the Indigenous people of Cape York, in Queensland’s gulf region, and other regions of Queensland to use or develop their land as any other stakeholder may. We believe that this bill will not fulfil that claim and that it 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 problems.

I will now make a few comments about the bill. In his second reading speech, Senator Scullion stated that this bill, the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011, is the reintroduction of a bill of the same name that was passed by the Senate on 22 June 2010 and went on to say that ‘we as senators should again support this bill’. This bill is fundamentally different to the bill that was previously passed by the Senate in several important ways and in a range of different aspects. There are matters that should be given serious consideration before this bill goes to a vote. In terms of substantive effect, the changes that are in this new bill before the Senate actually extend its coverage from native title land to various kinds of Aboriginal land; prescribe a method by which the agreement of native title holders—for a wild rivers declaration—can be obtained; and require 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.

I also note that Senator Ludwig has, in fact, referred this bill to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and that there is a proposed amendment from Senator Scullion that we only look at aspects of this bill that we have not looked at previously. From my comparison of the two bills, that means we will be looking at this bill before us in its entirety because there are some very fundamental differences between the two pieces of legislation. The three areas that I outlined are not minor changes at all. I think it is clear that Senator Scullion is relying on senators to take him at his word and rush the bill through, thinking that it is unchanged. But 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 the ‘owner’ of the land concerned or how disagreements between different groups of owners are to be resolved. It is clear that this bill does require careful scrutiny and it is important that the Senate fulfil its obligations, as we always do, and look particularly at this piece of legislation.

As I said, it has been impressed upon people that this is, in fact, a reintroduction of the bill of the same name. My reading of it is that there is actually a whole range of differences between this bill and the bill of 2010. In fact, nearly every clause is different. So my understanding is that, while you might seek to limit our inquiry to just those matters we have not inquired into before, as every single clause is nearly different then we will be inquiring into the bill in its totality. Only the commencement clause in this bill is the same. It is important to note that if we had the time perhaps we could go through the 2011 bill and the changes clause by clause. Time will not permit us to do that now, but we will be scrutinising every word, every clause and every difference between this bill and the last bill just to make sure that we are inquiring into everything that is different from what was there last time. My reading of it is we will not be looking at the commencement clause but we will be looking at everything else. This will make it clear that Senator Scullion’s claim that this is the same bill is false and suggest, as I said, that the opposition were relying on senators, including the people in this chamber, to take them at their word in order to rush this bill through. Yet again we see that the opposition cannot be taken on their word. It cannot be taken at face value. In fact, they are not genuine about helping Indigenous people at all.

The wording of the long title of the new Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011 has changed from the previous version, to begin with. The new bill is described as an act to protect the interests of Aboriginal ‘people’, in place of ‘traditional owners’ in the old bill. The term ‘Aboriginal people’ is not defined in the bill. For starters, there are already three differences and I have not even got past clause 2. As another example, I turn to clause 3, Definitions. Three new terms are defined in clause 3 which were not included in the previous bill. Some of these are either unclearly defined or have a definition whose implications are unclear. The first new term is the concept of ‘Aboriginal land’. The previous bill only referred to native title land. Aboriginal land includes land in which native title exists as well as land subject to certain other interests. This other land includes land granted to, leased to, granted or leased for the benefit of, or held on trust for, an Aboriginal person—or Torres Strait Islander in some circumstances—or Aboriginal corporation. It also includes land reserved for a community purpose that is, or includes, Aboriginal purposes. The implications of this definition are unclear due to the way the term is used in other parts of the bill. The second new term is the concept of ‘owner’ of land, which is closely linked to the first new concept of ‘Aboriginal land’. The concept of ‘owner’ replaces the previously undefined term of ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’. The term ‘owner’ refers to native title holders as well as persons with an interest in Aboriginal land, such that each category corresponds to each of the categories in the definition of ‘Aboriginal land’. Some areas of land fall in more than one category of ‘Aboriginal land’ and therefore will have multiple categories of ‘owner’ for that part of land.

What I want to highlight in my very brief analysis of the differences between the two bills is that this bill before us is, in fact, a very different piece of legislation, a vastly different piece of legislation, from what we saw in 2010. I am very pleased it is coming to my legal and constitutional committee, where we will sort this out. (Time expired)