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Leader of the Democrats says that the Opposition's position on the Native Title Act disqualifies them from the right to sit on the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council

MONICA ATTARD: Democrats' Leader, Cheryl Kernot, says the Opposition's position on native title has now disqualified it from the right to sit on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Noel Pearson, from the Cape York Land Council, told A.M. this morning that the Opposition might as well bail out of the reconciliation process because Aboriginal people won't want to reconcile with them.

Well, today Democrat Leader, Cheryl Kernot, seconded that position. Senator Kernot is a member of the council, and she told Fran Kelly that the presence of the Opposition in that process has been made very difficult by Mr Downer's comment.

FRAN KELLY: Cheryl Kernot, as a member of the Reconciliation Council, is Noel Pearson right when he says this threat to repeal the Native Title Act means there is no place for the Liberal Party in the reconciliation process?

CHERYL KERNOT: I think it makes their position very difficult. The whole Reconciliation Council is founded on cross-party support. Everybody except the Coalition representative on that council more or less accepts and shares the view that an economic base for Aboriginal people is essential. And it seems to me that Alexander Downer, in repudiating native title, is denying Aboriginal people the right to an economic base. So I think it makes their position on the Reconciliation Council extremely difficult.

You see, there are two ways you can go. One is simply to continue to put money into certain targeted areas, but I think deep down most members of the council understand, and certainly have said, that the best way to go towards self-determination, to provide the jobs, the health, the housing that Alexander Downer's talking about, is to give Aboriginal people a share in the economic base of this country. And that's what native title, that's what the social justice package and the land fund's all about ... the impetus to reconciliation. And to deny that I think makes the process of reconciliation extremely difficult.

FRAN KELLY: Should they bail out of that process then?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, I think it would be a real pity at this stage, three and a half years down the track, for the Coalition to go backwards, but the presence of them on the council is going to make things extremely difficult, in my view.

FRAN KELLY: Has Alexander Downer got a point, though, when he says that the money and effort being spent currently on legal challenges and anticipated High Court challenges of the native title legislation, and also the money being wasted in terms of the confusion still surrounding native title, could be better spent on health, housing and education?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, if you could be certain that State Governments would actually deliver the services and use the money in that way, he might have a point. But if you look at the role of State Governments in obstructing the implementation of the deaths in custody report recommendations for a start, I don't think he could say with any certainty that that money would be better spent in that way at all.

FRAN KELLY: Well, former Liberal Senator, Chris Puplick, has made the point this morning that it's a ridiculous threat from Alexander Downer because he won't have the numbers in the Senate to repeal the law anyway. Is it as simple as that?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, I think Alexander Downer's just playing politics here, and unfortunately he's playing with the aspirations of indigenous people. He knows that no matter how radical he sounds that people like the Democrats will moderate that view in the Senate. I mean, he knows that he's got some sort of extended licence to play to that red-neck element in his party. He's probably secretly relieved that somebody else holds the balance of power in the Senate and can moderate the sort of things that he's talking about.

Now, the Democrats are happy to play that role, as long as the outcome is just. And I just think he knows he can have two bob each way as usual on this issue - curry favour with the people in Western Australia to whom he obviously owes his leadership backing, and at the same time know that somebody else in the Senate will deal with the issue more moderately and justly.

FRAN KELLY: So you're convinced this is empty rhetoric from the Opposition Leader?

CHERYL KERNOT: I think it's empty rhetoric. I mean, the latest Senate poll shows that the Coalition would lose three seats, the Government would win three seats, the rest of us would stay the same. The major parties won't control the Senate. He knows that, so what's he talking about repealing when he can't have a Senate that he can control.

MONICA ATTARD: The Democrat Leader, Cheryl Kernot, speaking there to Fran Kelly.