Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Queensland: CRA decides not to pursue special legislation over Century Zinc mine project; uses right to negotiate process outlined in Native Title Act to reach agreement with Aboriginal communities.

ELLEN FANNING: I'm joined now by the Managing Director of CRA, Leigh Clifford.

Mr Clifford, good morning to you. Up until now, your company had been asking for this special legislation to ensure that the mine went ahead. Why have you changed your mind?

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, over the past few months, and especially over the past few months, we've been negotiating with the Aboriginal people in the Gulf in an attempt to fast track the whole development, and as that's unfolded, as we've explained the necessity for some enabling legislation, it's been seen by some to be an attack on the Native Title Act. That wasn't the intention; it certainly wasn't the intention in my belief of the Premier or the Prime Minister, but it's certainly become divisive and we've decided that we've had to revert to the right to negotiate process - a much slower process, but that's the course of action we've decided upon.

ELLEN FANNING: It's been observed that if your company had decided that in the first place, had decided to negotiate under the Native Title Act, this project would be going ahead by now.

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, I know some have said that, but the right to negotiate process hasn't been available to us until recently, and this was due to the uncertainty of the title in those regions of north Queensland. And as you recall earlier this year, the High Court really brought into question, finally, the issue of extinguishment of native title by pastoral lease, and that's yet to be fully resolved, I might add. And so that really wasn't available to us. We've been attempting to negotiate under the right to negotiate process, but earlier decisions by the Native Title Tribunal prevented us from doing that.

ELLEN FANNING: To what extent has the Queensland Government prevented you from negotiating under the provisions of the Native Title Act?

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, they haven't prevented; there's been uncertainty. And I'd have to say that all through this the Queensland Government has basically been supporting the development of the project, and you can understand that when we're talking about a project of a billion dollars which would create 3,500 jobs in Australia, and Queensland in particular. So, they've been very supportive of the development of the project.

ELLEN FANNING: At the same time, though, in a letter to the Prime Minister's office, somebody from your company writes that as you're aware the right to negotiate procedures of the Act are triggered by the State Government and that the Queensland Government refused to trigger that. So, to what extent did they block you from taking the course of action you're now taking?

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, this was earlier this year following the High Court's decision when there was still uncertainty about the whole question of the right to negotiate provisions and the question of native title extinguishment. But that probably resulted in three months delay. We're talking about a negotiation which has gone on now for a number of years and in detail .. we've actually been negotiating in detail with the Aboriginal communities over the last 18 months. And in fact, the package .. the $60 million package that we offered to the Aboriginal groups in the Gulf, we offered March last year when native title was not thought to apply in this region.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, your case - the case of Century Zinc - has been used to illustrate an apparent need to amend the Native Title Act. Does that Act need amending in your view?

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, certainly I think the process needs streamlining, and the last 18 months, et cetera, has show that there needs to be some clarity about the processes which we move on, and I don't think we can have a situation where major developments take so long to go through those processes.

ELLEN FANNING: But do you concede that you've only begun going through this process, presumably today?

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, you know, the people we can negotiate with are the same people we were talking to yesterday. So the process is no different, really, in terms of coming to grips with the issues and the particular concerns of the parties. What happens when the right to negotiate process is after a period .. if agreement is not reached, it goes into the determination by the Native Title Tribunal. So, it doesn't alter the parties who are negotiating.

ELLEN FANNING: What will happen with the mine, now, given that there's been such acrimony in dealing with people like Murandoo Yanner? - one of the people you'll have to negotiate with over this mine.

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, what's happened .. firstly, we haven't got a mine; what we've got is a project and we're attempting to create a mine and to invest the billion dollars involved as I said. And what's going to happen now, as we've been doing before, we'll negotiate with the communities in the Gulf. Murandoo Yanner is one of those individuals and represents a group of people. I might add that there are a large number of people there who are very much in favour of the project.

ELLEN FANNING: So, you're confident it will go ahead?

LEIGH CLIFFORD: Well, I'm not confident it'd go ahead because the pace with which we move under the right to negotiate process is very slow, and as we've said, we can't continue spending at the rate we've been spending, which is approximately $2 million a month, and we've now scaled back our engineering team, and unfortunately that means 90 to 100 people, a very capable team, will have to be dispersed throughout our group to the best of our ability.

ELLEN FANNING: Mr Clifford, thank you for your time this morning.