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Former President of National Farmers' Federation, who was involved in the detail of the Native Title Bill in 1993, says he was positive that pastoral leases extinguished native title

PETER THOMPSON: The increased pressure on the Government over Wik, from various sectors of the community, has prompted supporters of the Bill to also begin speaking out.

Graham Blight was the President of the National Farmers' Federation back in 1993 when the original Native Title Bill was passed. He was also at the end of the phone when his executive director, Rick Farley, sealed the deal with Paul Keating and Noel Pearson late one night. But Graham Blight remembers that deal a little differently than the others on the line. He agrees with Graham Richardson that they believed the 1993 Bill would extinguish native title on pastoral leases.

Graham Blight is now the President of the International Farmers' Association, and he says it may be time for the farmers of the world to weigh in to the Wik debate and support the Bill, just as the world's churches have felt free to come in and criticise it.

Graham Blight joins us now from his farm in Leeton to talk to Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Graham Blight, you've been out of the country and you're just back. You were involved in the negotiations on the Native Title Bill in 1993. Do you agree with Paul Keating, Kim Beazley, Rick Farley - your executive director at the time - and others, that the Native Title Bill then didn't deal with pastoral leases - for a number of reasons the Bill just didn't deal with existing valid pastoral leases?

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Well, Fran, the sequence of events clearly led us to understand that pastoral leases extinguished native title. And you've got to ask yourself the question: why would I, as President of the National Farmers' Federation, representing all the people that had pastoral leases, agree to anything that did not give them security?

FRAN KELLY: So you thought at the time, you were agreeing to a Bill that said ... the Bill itself said that pastoral leases extinguished native title?

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Absolutely. I mean, on the night that I got the phone call when the negotiations were going on in Canberra, I asked the question: does this extinguish native title on pastoral leases? The answer was clearly 'Yes', because why else would I agree?

FRAN KELLY: Wasn't that talking about the post-'75 leases that were invalid and had to be validated?

GRAHAM BLIGHT: No. No, those leases were to be dealt with in the same spirit that we were negotiating at that time, and they were to be dealt with separately. But hopefully there were some legal problems or some issues on those leases - which I have forgotten the details of - but in the spirit of what we negotiated, they were to be dealt with separately.

FRAN KELLY: Well, Rick Farley remembers it differently. He's gone on this program and said that the Bill just didn't deal with the leases because everyone's legal advice at the time was that pastoral leases did extinguish native title, so there wasn't seen to be a need to include it in the Bill.

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Well, that's not what Rick Farley told the Council. And, I mean, the issue is that ... even Noel Pearson said, at the time, that ... he said, 'What Rick has achieved is absolute preservation of the rights of what they currently have - no question about it.' That's what he said.

The notion that people were going to be able to overturn the rights that pastoralists currently have is really absurd. So he understood clearly that pastoral leases extinguished native title and, certainly, the NFF council and its executive was led to believe that too.

FRAN KELLY: Well, I suppose, as Rick Farley said, people also used to believe the earth was flat. The fact is now the High Court decision on Wik has changed everything. Are you....

GRAHAM BLIGHT: [inaudible]

FRAN KELLY: Yes. So are you convinced now that John Howard's Bill, the response to the High Court's decision, is the right way through?

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Well, Fran, I have not been involved in the absolute detail of the Bill, only to say this: that the NFF obviously has concerns about this Bill. My understanding is that they believe it's better than nothing. But you must remember that the National Farmers' Federation has not changed its position since 1993. We have not moved the goal posts. So this Bill coming up now is certainly better than nothing. And after all, what are we trying to achieve in this country? We're trying to achieve some equity and fairness, and I guess that this Bill - everyone's criticising it. I suppose in the vernacular you'd say that, 'Well, it must be getting close to satisfying everybody,' but we will never arrive at the perfect situation. I mean, the perfect situation, from the Aboriginal side, is that they are able to claim 80 per cent of Australia. Is that what they really want to do? I would say not.

FRAN KELLY: Well, as you say there is a lot of criticism of the Bill at the moment. The churches have weighed in in the last weeks, particularly strongly, and they say the Bill isn't fair. You've been speaking internationally with farmers. Is there any interest in this issue over there?

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Well, there is because many of the people that I associate with, and the members of our world organisation - Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, all these countries have the same issue dealt with in a slightly different way, but all have, as they say, the problem of trying to deal with it. And everyone has to look at this issue on the basis of equity and fairness. And they seem to think - from the responses that I've had from my international colleagues - that in Australia that Aboriginals are dealt with very fairly. I mean, this ... we are not talking about a disfranchised group of people. I mean, they own 15.3 per cent of Australia. Now, just for your viewers' information, that takes up New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT. I mean, they are the largest landholders in Australia.

So we are not saying that these people should not have land or should not have access to land. We have never ever said that. And you must remember that in the context of what we debated at that time, Lois O'Donoghue came to me - when she was Chairman of ATSIC - with four of her board members, and thanked me for the deal, the fairness of the deal.

So when people of the world understand how we've gone about this business, they say that we have been quite fair and equitable about it. Now, the position is: how the devil do we ever conclude this?

FRAN KELLY: Okay, Graham Blight, thank you very much.

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Thanks, Fran.

PETER THOMPSON: Graham Blight's President of the International Farmers' Association.