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Queensland: Federal Parliamentary Secretary discusses legislation enabling Century Zinc mine to go ahead, and principles of Racial Discrimination Act and Native Title Act

JOHN HIGHFIELD: As we've heard, the Queensland Government's plans also need Commonwealth legislative backing. This inevitably means there'll be hot debate about the rights of Aboriginal people and the Coalition will have to get its backing Bill through the Senate. The Federal Government's Parliamentary Secretary handling amendments to the Native Title Act is Senator Nick Minchin. Senator Minchin joins P.M. now. Speaking to him, Matt Brown.

MATT BROWN: Nick Minchin, why is there a need for backing legislation from the Commonwealth to allow the Queensland Government to go ahead?

NICK MINCHIN: Good evening, Matt. As I understand it, the Queensland Government is seeking our assistance in relation to the statutory right to negotiate procedures which, under the Act, involve at least, or up to, and possibly more than 12 months' time in relation to negotiation and reaching agreement. The argument is that because the company and the relevant Aboriginal groups have been negotiating for, as your previous speaker just said, nine months already, that if agreement is reached that's satisfactory, then there is no need to go through the statutory right to negotiate procedures, which would just be repeating what has already occurred.

MATT BROWN: But didn't the Prime Minister promise not to roll back the Native Title Act and doesn't this necessarily involve curtailing the negotiation provisions of that Act?

NICK MINCHIN: I think what you mean is we promised not to roll back the Racial Discrimination Act, and that's quite true, and we will not do that. But the legal advice to the Commonwealth is that the statutory right to negotiate under the Native Title Act is a special measure under the Racial Discrimination Act, and any restriction or limiting on the right to negotiate would not be a breach of the principles of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is a special measure that gives to Aboriginals a right not generally held by other title holders, and therefore any restriction on it or limiting of it would not, of itself, be racially discriminatory. Aboriginals would continue to hold all the normal procedural rights held by all other property owners and title holders in this country.

MATT BROWN: But why isn't it racially discriminatory when it's only the ability of native title claimants, that is Aboriginal people, which has been interfered with?

NICK MINCHIN: Because the right to negotiate is a special measure given only to Aboriginal people by means of the Native Title Act, and any rolling back of the right to negotiate would not, of itself, be racially discriminatory because you are not taking away from Aboriginals a right generally held. They would continue to have the normal procedural rights and prerogatives of ordinary title holders, of anyone else who has any ordinary title. And, of course, the Commonwealth is only contemplating doing this if there is agreement between the company and the relevant Aboriginal groups, that the project go ahead anyway.

MATT BROWN: And you'd acknowledge there's some doubt about that right at the moment?

NICK MINCHIN: Well, the company is satisfied with this agreement. Whether the Commonwealth is satisfied of that is a matter for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, not for me.

MATT BROWN: So at the moment, though, it's not clear that the 12:11 vote being referred to all last week has satisfied the Prime Minister's requirement that this project does enjoy the support of the community, the broad support?

NICK MINCHIN: Well, you really would have to ask the Prime Minister that. That's not my prerogative. I'm happy to talk to you about the changes to the Native Title Act that we're proposing and the consequences of what the Queensland Government is asking us to do.

MATT BROWN: And how comfortable would you be with a move for a Senate inquiry into this whole project and its establishment?

NICK MINCHIN: Oh, I think that's completely and utterly unnecessary and ridiculous. I mean, as the Prime Minister has said today, it is vital to the nation that this project go ahead. We would like to see it go ahead with Aboriginal support and agreement. That, as we've said, is a prerequisite for us legislating, but a Senate inquiry is a complete and utter waste of time.

MATT BROWN: And the Prime Minister today seemed to acknowledge that there was some debate, some doubt, about the extent of the support for the project. He said that will all emerge, he thinks, in the next few days. It's hardly a resounding endorsement of the 12:11 vote.

NICK MINCHIN: Well, I think that's .. as I say, the Prime Minister is the one who must, ultimately, determine whether there's the basis on which the Commonwealth is prepared to legislate, and that is a matter for the Prime Minister to determine.

MATT BROWN: Are you confident this will get through the Senate, your legislation?

NICK MINCHIN: If there is the requisite agreement, then one would expect the Senate to support the legislation designed to ensure that the agreement can, in effect, take place and this massive and very significant national project does occur.

MATT BROWN: Nick Minchin, thank you very much for joining P.M.

NICK MINCHIN: Pleasure, Matt.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Federal Government's Parliamentary Secretary handling the Native Title Act, Senator Nick Minchin.