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Minister responds to the Coalition's proposed amendments to the Aboriginal land acquisition fund Bill

HAMISH ROBERTSON: The Federal Opposition has moved away from its blanket opposition to the Government's Aboriginal Land Acquisition Fund. The Coalition's front bench yesterday agreed to support the billion dollar fund, but with major amendments which would emphasise health, housing and education. The position will be debated by both the parties this morning, with the land fund legislation due in Parliament today.

But will the Government accept changes to its Bill? Well, joining us now is Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner, and to speak to him, Lyndall Curtis.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Mr Tickner, is the Government willing to accept any amendments to the land fund legislation?

ROBERT TICKNER: Well, the Government has consulted extremely widely in the Australian community to bring forward what we think is a very thought-through and comprehensive proposal for a land acquisition fund and a fund which I also emphasise can be used for land management purposes. The Government doesn't have legislation which is in some way set in concrete. If there were constructive amendments to come forward our Government is about good government and therefore they'd be seriously looked at. But what we're not about is to see the Coalition move by some political trickery to strip away the very essence of what the Government's proposal is about, namely land acquisition. It is not a fund that's intended to be gutted for funds to be used for other purposes, as the Coalition appears to be advocating.

LYNDALL CURTIS: So you don't see any place for an increased emphasis on things like health, housing and education in the land fund Bill?

ROBERT TICKNER: Not in the land fund Bill. You see, those are huge priorities for the Government. I mean, the issues of health and housing and employment are key social justice issues. They are areas where expenditure has already been very substantively increased, and might I say key areas of public policy which are under active review by the Government - in Aboriginal education, in Aboriginal health. And, of course, the third stage of the response to the Mabo decision in the form of a social justice package is also about examining the way that governments do business with Aboriginal people in those key areas as well.

What we're seeing here, I regret to say, from the Coalition is not a shift back to cross-party support for land acquisition, what we're really seeing is some form of political trickery where, on the one hand the Coalition says that they support land acquisition provided that funds are used for other purposes. Now, that defeats the very essence of the Government's intention, to address the position of dispossessed Aboriginal people.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Is it possible, though, to negotiate with the Coalition so they could pass the land fund but could see increases in things like health and housing that they want in the social justice package which is due to go into Parliament I think next year?

ROBERT TICKNER: Well, I'm very curious to understand exactly what the Coalition is proposing. I mean, these are the same people who went to the last Federal election proposing cuts - repeat, cuts - in Aboriginal education and employment programs. Now, the rhetoric sounds pretty good but when you look behind it to see precisely what the Coalition is advocating, they're promoting in fact an erosion of Aboriginal rights to land.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Would you be willing to sit down and negotiate with the Coalition over its amendments?

ROBERT TICKNER: Well I'm certainly, like the rest of the Government, very interested to see exactly what the Coalition is proposing. I mean, if it is an end to using Aboriginal affairs as a party political football, then that's welcome. If it's a move to cross-party support for land acquisition which the conservatives were supporting in the Federal Parliament over 20 years ago, then that's welcome. But if it's political trickery, if it's some pretence to move to support Aboriginal rights but on the other hand a real ripping away of those rights by the detail of the policy, then Aboriginal people will be pretty angry. The Government certainly won't be supporting any moves of that kind, and I think the wider Australian community will be looking very closely at what Mr Downer is proposing.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Finally, the Bill goes into Parliament today. When do you expect to have it passed?

ROBERT TICKNER: That's, of course, always a matter for the Parliament, but the Government is allowing an extensive period of debate for the Bill in the House of Representatives. It will then go to the Senate and I would hope that this is one measure of social justice that would be unanimously supported by the Australian Parliament. And back in 1974, when there was an earlier form of fund created, it was unanimously supported by the Liberal Party, by the then Country Party and by the Government. It should happen again, but I fear, I fear that the real agenda of the Coalition is to put up a smoke screen of pretence of support for Aboriginal rights but to rip those rights away by the detail of their amendments. I hope I'm wrong.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Mr Ticker, thank you for your time.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: That was the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner, speaking to Lyndall Curtis.