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Queensland: Premier decides to use Native Title Act to secure Century Zinc mine; Carpentaria Land Council spokesperson says the Government is interfering in delicate negotiations

ELLEN FANNING: The Queensland Premier, Rob Borbidge, has decided to use provisions in the Native Title Act in an attempt to secure the Century Zinc mine. The move coincides with his relentless attack on the very same legislation and his description of the Act as unworkable. Well, at CRA's Annual General Meeting on Wednesday, company chairman, John Uhrig, said the time to get the project approved was running out. CRA needs to be able to confirm it can supply a Dutch smelter in two years' time, and to do that it needs Aborigines to formally approve the billion-dollar project by the end of June. Gerald Tooth reports the Queensland Premier has now issued notices under the Act, in effect meaning he's decided to let the native title process take its course.

GERALD TOOTH: Earlier this year, in his anxiety to get the one-billion-dollar Century Zinc mine up and running, Rob Borbidge called on a newly-elected John Howard, looking for assistance. Later, the Premier confronted Aboriginal leader, Murrandoo Yanner, in front of television cameras when he travelled to the gulf in search of a solution. Now, Rob Borbidge wants to use the Native Title Act, that he has relentlessly criticised in recent weeks, as a lever to get a result. Native title legislation specialist, Peter Gore, a partner with law firm, Clayton Utz, says it's an option he should have considered much sooner.

PETER GORE: Prior to the issue of these notices, the Government had taken the view that there were no native title holders in respect of the mine area itself because of the existence of a pastoral lease. The Government has clearly now taken a pragmatic decision that the continued reliance on the non-existence of native title is fraught with difficulty because of the uncertainty which it gives to the project. So what the Government has done now is to trigger the process under the Native Title Act where there is a compulsory six-month negotiation process between the Government and people who claim to have native title rights in respect of the area. If, at the end of the six-month period, there is no agreement between the Government and the people claiming native title, then the Government can refer the matter to the national Native Title Tribunal, which must then, within a further six-month period, determine whether the project can proceed and, if so, on what terms.

GERALD TOOTH: So the process that's been set in train now by the Borbidge Government could take up to 14 months to be completed?

PETER GORE: Yes, that's a fair enough estimate.

GERALD TOOTH: The implications are quite serious for CRA and also for Century Zinc. They say that they need an answer by 30 September on title. It would be unlikely that this process that has begun now would be completed by then.

PETER GORE: If you follow the course envisaged by the Native Title Act, it's inconceivable that it could be completed by then.

GERALD TOOTH: Is there any way that that process can be speeded up?

PETER GORE: Regrettably not, other, of course, than by mutual agreement by all the parties, which one can only hope is what's going to happen.

GERALD TOOTH: Spokesman for the Carpentaria Land Council, Murrandoo Yanner, is interpreting the Queensland Government's latest move as highly provocative.

MURRANDOO YANNER: Well, it's just another classic example of the State Government interfering in the delicate negotiations, as they are at present, hostile enough. Interference like this is putting the process right back.

GERALD TOOTH: At CRA's Annual General Meeting, they indicated that they wanted a decision by 30 June as regards the pipeline. The next day, the State Government issued these notices. Have you any comment on that, on the timing of that?

MURRANDOO YANNER: Yes, well, it's certainly sneaky. Like I say, they work hand in hand. They're in bed together.

GERALD TOOTH: The issuing of these notices, though, does set negotiations off on a different track in that there's the assumption that perhaps pastoral leases don't extinguish native title. Are you pleased with that?

MURRANDOO YANNER: No, I'm not pleased with it at all. I mean, it's a scummy, very low-down, gutless, non-Australian act, and it's typical of someone who lives in an ivory tower in Brisbane.

ELLEN FANNING: Murrandoo Yanner.