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Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia
Development of northern Australia


Committee met at 08:33

CHAIR ( Mr Entsch ): Before we kick off, I invite Mr John Rawnsley to do a welcome to country for us.

Mr Rawnsley : Thank you, chair. I also welcome you and others in this group to Darwin, and our friends and colleagues from the Northern Territory, Ms Natasha Griggs, Warren Snowdon and Senator Nova Peris.

There are around 2,500 Larakia people. Most live in Darwin and come from eight main family groups. There are a number of smaller groups that make up some of those larger groups. Over the years those family groups have mixed with other Aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory, other groups throughout Australia and immigrants who have come to Darwin over many years.

The Larakia people retain strong cultural connections, have always known the stories, have been here since the start, have strong connections to country and practices, traditions and things like that. Larakia people have also been affected by some of the circumstances of being in a place where there has been settlement for some time.

Many years ago I came across the words 'modernism' and 'modernisation' and how they are used to blend two key ideas: one is confidence and the other is radicalism. When those two things blend, they create a modern state—modernisation. Confidence, on the one hand, denotes things like being strong, trustworthy and trusting, genuineness, authenticity. Radicalism, on the other hand, is on the edge, scarce, minority and small. When those things are blended in the right way, we come up with a modern state—or whatever it is. I know questions are raised about welcome to country, because it has only happened in recent years. In a way, it is trying to blend those two things—how we relate to the Aboriginal people of this land who often, in a radical sense, have been on the edge, a minority.

In that sense, I am not here as an elder. We know that when our elders, like many across Australia, speak, we can see, hear and feel a lot of the changes that they have gone through over many, many years and how they have survived. We also know that often there are feelings of welcoming, empathy, openness, friendliness and sharing. I am not here in terms of cultural authority. I am an individual. I do not represent certain groups. I cannot speak on behalf of certain groups.

A few months ago I was at a family meeting—and I would like to share this story—and a person stood up. She was a senior person in the family. She talked about how she was a grandmother and how she grew up in public housing in Darwin. Recently, she got a job. She raised a family and was very family oriented, caring for extended family members and things like that. Getting a job was a big thing for her. She wanted to do the right thing and be a role model for others in her family. She talked about how she was in public housing for a very long time. Because she got a job and had an income, she was now over the threshold for having access to public housing. She also said that she could not really go anywhere else because she could not afford the kinds of house prices that they want in Darwin and she could not get a loan because she would not be able to afford a house in Darwin.

Part of those house prices is the house but it is also the Larakia land that sits underneath it. That Larakia land costs a lot of money for somebody to purchase outright. Now that she was over the threshold and was earning money, she could no longer access public housing. On the other hand, as a Larakia person growing up here, she could not really afford to purchase Larakia land, the small parcel of land that sat underneath. Thinking about that story, a lot of it blends into what we have now in terms of recognition—recognition of Larakia rights to land sits on the periphery. It is radical. It is minority, on the edge. It is scarce.

Native title was not granted. Native title was granted around Perth. The Kenbi claim was lodged in 1979, before I was born. Larakia people are often trying their best to ask for parcels of land to develop themselves and to have a connection, to have protection there, to be involved in this boom in Darwin.

Even though that is a radical part of our story, finding solutions to these things does not necessarily involve making changes to budgets to support Larakia people or other Aboriginal groups. It requires changes to laws, agreements or the relationships to land that involve Larakia people more fully. This is where I come back to the confidence aspect of things. We need to have a genuine relationship based on authenticity, integrity, confidence, trust and strength that recognises Larakia people's rights to land, because if we are to espouse these values of inclusiveness, equality, equity and fairness we have to blend those two things of confidence and radicalism to come up with this modern country and place that we believe in. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed. That was a very insightful welcome to country. We really appreciate that. Before I start, on behalf of the committee I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, both past and present, of the land on which we are today. Thank you very much.

Before I call our first witness, I would like to say a few words. We are all members of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia. The purpose of the committee is to identify opportunities in northern Australia and the means by which we can capture those opportunities for our region. Northern Australia is an area of some 40 per cent of the Australian land mass but has only four per cent of Australia's population. Of course, we all know that there is a significant amount of national wealth generated out of north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

What we are trying to do now is to harness those opportunities to the greater betterment of those of us who are living in this region. We are trying to encourage a mindset of all of northern Australia—this is, tropical Australia—rather than being too parochial. We need to identify opportunities in specific areas, but anything happening in northern tropical Australia can equally apply pretty much right across tropical Australia. The greatest opportunity we have is that we are part of the tropical world. Within that tropical world, there is going to be significant population growth. By 2050 it is projected that over half of the entire world's population will live within that zone and the majority will be either Third World or developing countries.

There is an opportunity for appropriate types of food sources. We talk about resources but we also talk about tropical expertise, because there is going to be a huge need for health and medical expertise, environmental expertise, governance expertise, education and training expertise and a whole range of other tropical expertise. I think it is important that we see this. We have to find ways to be the provider of this expertise, as much as we can. That is where the opportunities are. To do that, we need to find ways of building our own population, increasing it over that four per cent threshold. So the question is: how do we do that?

But we also find the retention issue. How do we keep people here? You need to be here for a few generations before you can be seen to be a local. People will come at some point in their lives and then they want to leave, but if we are going to build a full community we have to be here from conception to burial. So it is important that we find ways of doing that, because a lot of the expertise will come from the minds of the people who live here, who live the tropical life. So that is where we are going.

We have had good cooperation so far. The universities across the north are coming together and development organisations and coming together. There is region specific stuff that is going to be unique to one area, but we are looking at energy security, water security, infrastructure needs. Instead of looking at the development of the north, we are starting to look east-west. Issues have been raised in relation to standardisation across borders to make things easier. How do we make things easier? How do we capture those projects out there where it just gets too hard to do them? There is a lot of money available to do them but it just gets too hard. How do we work together as two states and a territory in a particular zone? That is the sort of thing that we are looking at. We have been up the east coast of Queensland. We have been up to the Torres Strait. We have started on our Darwin journey. We have got that much from Darwin that we are actually coming back a second time to allow people to express a view. We have been into the Pilbara. We have been to the Kimberleys. We are going into the lower gulf area of Queensland after this trip. So we have covered it quite extensively and, interestingly enough, there is a lot of commonality. There are a lot of issues there, which makes it a little bit easier for us to do it.

If you have a look at the members of our committee, you can see that it is a cross-party one, and we are all very committed to try and get a great outcome from this. The committee is looking to hand down recommendations to the task force—and we have a member of the task force here, out of the Prime Minister's office. Those recommendations will be considered in the white paper for northern Australia, which is expected to be released at the end of this year. Once those recommendations are released and accepted, it will be then an expectation that there will be budget allocations for those projects to start kicking off. There is a strong commitment to make it happen. There has been a lot of rhetoric about northern Australia. I was in a northern Australia forum in Katherine, I think, in about 2002. We had the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce in 2006-07. There has been a lot of rhetoric. There has been a lot of information gathered. Now is the time to put that information into a document that then becomes government policy. It is an opportunity for all of us up here to grab, and we certainly expect to get some great positives out of it. With that, I say thank you very much for taking the time to be here. We have media here, and I ask the committee if we could move to accept media.

Mrs GRIGGS: So moved.

CHAIR: Is that seconded? Yes. There being no objection, it is so resolved. The only thing I say with the media is that, while there is no problem with cameras, there should be no capturing photographs of private papers, laptops and so on of witnesses, members or secretariat. Other than that, it is open. Thank you very much.