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Aboriginal studies report on social impact of uranium on Northern Territory Aboriginals

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A o c - SI





I inform the Senate that I have received a report from

the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies on the social impact of

uranium mining on Northern Territory Aboriginals for the six month

period ending 31 March 1981. I now present that report and seek leave

to make a statement concerning some of the issues raised in it.

. The present report comes in seven parts, and it is about

twice as long as the previous report. It deals with a great range

. of topics, on some of which I wish to comment.

First, I note that the Institute project team is continuing

its wide ranging studies of the social environment in the Alligator

Rivers Region. 'When the material relating to this environment has been

collected and properly processed, it will provide a comprehensive

picture of the social situation of Aboriginal society in the region.

.This picture will enable the responsible bodies to gauge the rate and

nature of the changes that are taking place in the social environment

and to take appropriate steps to confine as much aspossible any adverse

changes, and to enhance as much as possible any positive ones.

In pursuing this objective the project team is gathering base .

line data on a number of topics including the history of the Alligator

Rivers Region and its people, the range of laws affecting people in the

region from 1863 to the present, Aboriginal diet, Aboriginal languages

used in the region, the ecology of the region, and the changing social


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cultural patterns in the region. The project team has also conducted

population censuses in the region, and compiled community profiles for

Oenpelli and a number of neighbouring communities.

In accordance uiith its commission for operating in the region,

the project team has also brought to notice a number of contemporary

developments in the region that are affecting the social environment

of Aboriginals there. Honourable Senators should be aware-that, in

considering and in acting upon these comments by the project team, I

also have the benefit of advice from officers of my own Department in

the region, as well as reports from other Commonwealth and Territory

departments; and I also have the benefit of some first hand observation

of the situation and of my consultations with Aboriginal representatives

from the region.

) One issue that the project team raises relates to the low level I '

of Aboriginal employment in mining and allied operations in the region.

I certainly have no intention of inveigling Aboriginals into employment

that they do not want. But I am interested in ensuring that employment

opportunities are opened for Aboriginals to the extent that they do want

jobs, and that training opportunities are available to enable them to

take up the opportunities in employment.

There are, in fact, moves in hand to expand both training and

employment facilities for Aboriginals. The Department of Employment and

Youth Affairs is already conducting training programs for Aboriginals, and

that Department is to engage in a full appraisal of employment opportunities

in the region. Other moves include work oriented adult education programs

for Aboriginals, and a training and employment program by the Australian

National Parks and Wildlife Service for Aboriginal rangers. But I am not

satisfied that government and industry alike are unable to do more in this

direction, and I hope that, by the time I present the next Institute report,

I will be able to detail to Honourable Senators further substantive progress

in the fields of employment and training.


In its last report, the project team highlighted uihat it saw

as a serious deficiency in the levels of Aboriginal involvement in the

management of the Kakadu National Park. In the present report, the

project team recognizes that the Gagudju Association serves as a point

of consultation and notes that two Aboriginal women are among the most

recent intake of trainee rangers. Apart from having Aboriginals on

the Park staff, the ANPUJS engages in consultation with interested

Aboriginal bodies on management matters. Honourable Senators should

also note that the Northern Land Council is represented on the Park

advisory committee, and that the Prime Minister has sought the advice

of the same Council - an all Aboriginal body - to assist him in the

selection of the Prime Ministerial nominee to the committee.

I now wish to turn to the subject of alcohol-related problems

mentioned by the project team, as well as by other bodies whose reports

I have received. It is important to give this problem adequate

attention, but at the same time not to exaggerate its prevalence or

effect. The project team notes, and I quote: "It is quite clear that

the mining operation at Nabarlek has not created this situation."

The project team also notes that the company operating at Nabarlek,

Queensland Mines Limited, polices beer sales with great vigour. These

views are supported by other bodies operating in the region. The

Northern Territory police, for example, note that drink related

offences were occuring prior to uranium mining commencing and that they

have not increased significantly since then. Nevertheless, I am

concerned at the fact, reported by the Institute, that the past six

months have seen a number of traffic deaths in the region attributable

to alcohol


The problem associated with alcohol consumption is being dealt

with at several levels. The Standing Committee on the Social Impact -

on which both Government and Aboriginal bodies are represented - is looking

at ways of dealing with the matter; and the Aboriginal organisations in

the region are themselves taking steps to control the problem by acquiring

existing outlets, with Commonwealth financial assistance, and by imposing

sale and consumption restrictions at these outlets. .

The Institute report refers to administrative problems that are

still being faced by local Aboriginals. In part, these problems are

related to the lack of administrative structures for the handling of

income from the Ranger and Nabarlek projects. When I tabled the last

report by the Institute, I referred to progress that had been made in this

matter through the establishment of a new Aboriginal organisation, the

Gagudju Association, for the express purpose of receiving, administering,

and disbursing cash income from the Ranger project. This association

has proved to be of great assistance in overcoming some of the

administrative problems associated with the Ranger payments. In the half

year period covered by the Institute report, my Department has seconded

an officer to the Gagudju Association at its request, to assist it in

its administrative and financial dealings. At the same time, work has

progressed in the establishment of another organisation, tentatively

called the West Arnhem Organisation, which will serve the same functions

as the Gagudu Association, but in relation to income from the Nabarlek


The administrative problems previously experienced

by Aboriginals in the region have also been mitigated, in the period

covered by the Institute report, through the upgrading of banking

facilities at Oenpelli.


Honourable Senators mill note references in the Institute

report to uihat the Institute sees as an inadequate level of consultation

with, and information flow to, local Aboriginals on the developments that

are taking place in the region. It is my view that there can always be

room for improvement in this particular aspect. I believe, however -

and the project team notes - that there has already been a significant

and general improvement in this field of endeavour in the period under

review. Efforts are being made to consult with Aboriginals in the

region and·to keep them fully informed of new and forthcoming

developments by a number of bodies operating in the region. Officers

of my Department, who are stationed in the region, provide Aboriginals

with video film and sound cassette material on these developments. My

Department has also prepared and distributed to the NLC, and to other

interested parties, a simplified version of the legislation affecting

Aboriginals in the region. The Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs

and Environment has prepared and distributed its own simplified

material relating to the environmental impacts of the Koongarra Project

and of the Dabiluka Project. Similarly, explanatory material prepared

especially for Aboriginals in the region has been prepared by Noranda

Australia Limited and by Pancontinental Mining Limited.

But it is not only by publications and audio and visual

facilities that we are approaching the task of consultation and

information for Aboriginals. On an initiative by my Department, there

have been monthly meetings of the Ranger Liaison Committee which has

representation from the Northern Land Council and from Energy Resources

of Australia Limited. At the same time, the Department of the Chief

Minister of the Northern Territory has established a new Cross-cultural


Communications Section with a view to improving communications between

the Northern Territory Government and the local Aboriginal community.

Most importantly, the Northern Land Council and local Aboriginal

communities are well represented on the Standing Committee on the

Social Impact, which is the main executive and co-ordinating body

involving Territory and Commonwealth Governments and Aboriginals in

the region. .

These are the main, though not all of, the problems referred

to by the Institute. I am heartened by the overall assessment of the

project team when it states, and I quote: ■

"In terms of Western perceptions, the physical impact

' of the two existing mining projects has been less

calamitous than many people had feared. The monitoring

activities of the Supervising Scientist offer assurances

that there have been no contamination or other gross

disturbances of the environment. And, to date, no

significant disturbance to land or sites outside of

mining areas has occurred."

At the same time, I note that the project team is not satisfied

that enough has been done to fulfil the aim enunciated in the Ranger

Enquiry Second Report (1977), which recommended that:

"There should be a deliberate and comprehensive

programme" to "minimise -adverse social effects" and

"to assist them in coping with ... stresses ...

and in taking advantage of any benefits accruing to


The report ends with the recommendation:


"That all future mining and exploration be subject to

appropriate Aboriginal concurrence, and that before any

such approval is given, the Aborigines concerned be

briefed fully as to all the implications that could

possibly be foreseen."

As to the briefing, I am confident that a better than

adequate amount of information on developments and their implications

is already reaching the Aboriginal community concerned. And as to

the concurrence, this is already embodied in legislation that governs

mining activities in the Alligator Rivers Region.