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National Director of National Indigenous Working Group is concerned that native title rights will be significantly diminished and native title will exist in name only.

PETER THOMPSON: As crunch time comes for native title this week, members of the National Indigenous Working Group, the peak body representing Aboriginal and land councils and other representative groups on native title, arrive in Canberra to circulate among the Senate members as they assess the huge raft of amendments - 600 of them as we have just been hearing.

The indigenous working group is concerned that there's still much misinformation about the Bill and takes particular issue with government claims that it allows native title to be claimed on 79 per cent of Australia.

Olga Havnen is the Executive Director of the working group and she joins us in our Canberra studio now to talk to Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Olga Havnen, if we can just start with that oft repeated claim from the Government - 'About 79 per cent'. Is 79 per cent of Australia's land mass available for native title claim, on your reckoning?

OLGA HAVNEN: Look, before I answer that particular question I'll have to say that we were somewhat astonished and surprised that the Prime Minister would actually go to such scare tactics in order to convey a message about native title.

You are right when you say, technically, yes, you know, perhaps some area of land will be claimable but the reality will be that our native title rights will have been significantly diminished and the reality for us will be that native title will exist in name only.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, so according to your reckoning what's left for native title to be claimed on then, or how much native title left? Is that the issue?

OLGA HAVNEN: No, it's the way in which our native title rights won't be able to be fully exercised as they currently are under the existing Act. That's our concern.

FRAN KELLY: So what elements of the Act is it that will affect your native title rights in this way?

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, more particularly with the pastoral lease issue, whereby that it's proposed that there be a broader definition for the capacity for pastoralists to be engaged in other activities other than strictly grazing of sheep or cattle. Those sorts of activities would be agriculture, aquaculture, horticulture and all those sorts of things, a much more intensive use of the land, and consequently would severely curtail the rights of Aboriginal people.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, well, everyone's preparing in the Senate now to discuss this Bill, amend this Bill at length, by the looks of it. What about reports in the Australian newspaper today that the Government's planning to amend the Act to notify native title holders where their rights have been extinguished so they can claim compensation. Is that a major olive branch in your view?

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, I would hardly call it a major olive branch. The reality is that the Bill, as it was currently drafted, that didn't make any provision for the payment of compensation, would have been unconstitutional and we would have certainly challenged them on that basis.

I would also say too, though, that extinguishment and compensation is not what we're after, and if perhaps I could make an analogy here, it would be like the Government proposing to go suburb by suburb and compulsorily acquire people's property without any right to negotiate and to pass those property rights on to another party. And the only concession you're going to get is the payment of compensation. And I would hardly think that that's a desirable outcome in anybody's view.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, but given that the Government says, 'Well, these leases have already been issued' and they are planning to validate them, isn't it an improvement from your point of view?

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, it's an improvement, certainly, but one I feel that they have been legally and constitutionally compelled to come up with.

FRAN KELLY: Well, the amendments get unveiled in the next 24 hours or so. The indigenous working group hasn't unveiled theirs yet - that will be later today. How will this Act have to be amended to meet your approval?

OLGA HAVNEN: Look, I think there are a number of core issues or principles, if you like, that the working group has consistently maintained. And one, first and foremost, has been the non-discriminatory treatment of anybody's property rights - ours, pastoralists or anybody else; so that's point number one. The second is that we would prefer to have a negotiated outcome - whether that be the content of the legislation itself or in fact the details of it. So that would be the two key issues.

FRAN KELLY: The Prime Minister says he has negotiated ad nauseam on this, though, with all parties.

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, I mean, it depends on your interpretation of negotiation. We have had in the early days some consultations and some discussions, however, when the working group put their position to the Prime Minister back in April of this year, he very bluntly told us he was not prepared to consider our position at all; the only thing that was open for discussion was the 10-point plan. There has been no negotiation with Aboriginal people at all.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, Noel Pearson said yesterday that Aboriginal people are seeking a compromise - not win or lose, but compromise. Are you prepared to compromise any further on your position and the amendments to this Bill?

OLGA HAVNEN: Look, I think the compromise position, as I say, was put forward to the Prime Minister of this country back in April of this year.

FRAN KELLY: So that's it - no more compromise?

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, I mean, if people had been prepared to look at the detail of what we were offering and what we were suggesting, our position actually took account of all stakeholder interests - pastoralists, miners and the general public.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, well, Noel Pearson also upset the Government again in the same interview yesterday when he described the Native Title Amendment Bill as 'legal apartheid'. Is that a description that the National Indigenous Working Group endorses?

OLGA HAVNEN: I wouldn't say so much it's a description that we would necessarily endorse, but I would have to think it's probably not a bad reflection of what we're going to end up with.

FRAN KELLY: So you would ... I mean, as you see the Bill, does it represent legal apartheid?

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, it's discriminatory. The fact that the Government is willing to even consider discriminatory legislation, one then could sort of draw that conclusion that it would also form the basis of some kind of legal apartheid. That is that our rights are being treated in a much more discriminatory fashion than other rights of other people, and only on the basis of race.

FRAN KELLY: Just finally, there's a lot of emotion around this Bill at the moment. Last week emotion ran high amongst the pastoralists and the native title holders. How would you represent or reflect the feelings of indigenous Australians at this point?

OLGA HAVNEN: Look, our position consistently has been one of trying to recognise and respect the rights of all people. I guess we feel somewhat apprehensive about the way in which this whole debate has gone. Our first preference would have been that the Government's Amendment Bill be taken off the table. There should be a cooling-off period and there should be some sort of framework for a negotiated outcome for all parties. That would be the preferable position. It would avoid then the necessity of even considering things like a double dissolution.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, but how do indigenous people feel at the moment in the wake of the debate they've already had?

OLGA HAVNEN: Well, in some ways I guess we feel reassured. There's been a great deal of community and public support for the indigenous position - so at that level I think, yes, you know, we feel pretty good, but the reality is that this matter will be dealt with as a political issue and I'd have to say, for that reason, you know, we feel nervous about it.

FRAN KELLY: Olga Havnen, thank you.

OLGA HAVNEN: Thank you.

PETER THOMPSON: Olga Havnen who is the Executive Director of the indigenous working group.