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Comment by the Chairperson of the Cape York Land Council on the Native Title Bill

ELLEN FANNING: After 18 months of community debate, the question of how Australia will deal with native title now rests with a handful of Senators. Frantic negotiations continued right up until the Senators entered the Chamber late this afternoon. Now, the difference between the success or the failure of this national response to the High Court's decision is a few controversial amendments. Farmers and miners who have been lobbying for last minute changes in their favour and the Greens must also be appeased, yet amendments designed to secure their votes are still being negotiated behind the scenes. And observing it all from above is a group of Aboriginal people who'll stay in the visitors gallery well into the night as the 76 Australian Senators debate more than 200 amendments.

The Director of the Cape York Land Council, Noel Pearson, has spent the last 12 months trying to secure the best outcome for his people. As the final debate begins, he's speaking to Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Noel Pearson, the Native Title Bill will rise or fall within the next 24 hours. What's your gut feeling? Will the Senate vote for the Bill?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think it's all hanging in the balance at the moment. I think the events of the last 48 hours have been a bit supernatural. There's been Saint Cheryl very well handling the debate and the issues on our behalf, and there's been the Democrat and Green Senators getting together a position to put on the floor of the Senate Committee, and it's all hanging in the balance. There's a great deal of uncertainty as to which way the Green Senators will vote tonight, but I have an instinct that at the end of this weekend we may have a native title Act.

FRAN KELLY: In the last 24 hours, we've also seen three National Party Senators saying that they'll vote with the Government; they'll cross the floor to vote with the Government on several amendments. That move puts the Green support for the Bill on the line. Who are the key players in this debate right now?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that the proposal to guarantee renewal of valid titles is a matter of serious concern to the Greens, as it is to the Aboriginal negotiating team. I think that this legislation is going to turn on the outcome of that provision. I have serious reservations as to whether the government proposal - and it's unclear where it stands at the moment - I have serious reservations whether that government proposal is in keeping with the spirit of the agreement reached with the Aboriginal negotiating team.

So, at the end of the weekend, there will have to be an assessment made by all of the Aboriginal groups down here in Canberra as to whether the agreement reached with the Prime Minister is reflected in the legislation that is before the Senate, and I think the Greens will be very much guided by the decision of the Aboriginal groups here tonight.

FRAN KELLY: What did you make of the decision by the three National Party Senators? Two crossed the floor on these key amendments.

NOEL PEARSON: Well, they're absolutely adopting a very cynical stand in relation to the native title legislation. They will have their cow and eat it too. And I think it's absolutely disappointing that those on the conservative side of the House, opposing each and every aspect of the Native Title Bill in principle, but where it suits them, they will cross the floor just to thwart the legitimate aspirations of Aboriginal people.

FRAN KELLY: As you say, the last 24-48 hours has been full of frantic lobbying between the Government, the minor parties and Aboriginal representatives. Paul Keating even met with some again this afternoon. Is that any way for a Bill of such importance to be decided in a last minute flurry of panicky decisions?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that the events of the last week have been events of great and unique democracy. There has never been in the history of this country a process whereby you've had Aboriginal people from all corners of the country leaping around corridors and bumping into conference rooms and bumping into politicians, putting their very heartfelt and very sincere and very desperate pleas for amendments to this legislation. So, for the first time since Federation, I think, and the formation of this Commonwealth, you've had Aboriginal people involved in a very detailed process of trying to work out their own future. So, in that sense, the process has been very good. What is of concern is the lobbying that's been done by various industry groups, and particularly the mining industry - the mining industry has not done anything constructive throughout this entire Mabo debate, but at the end of the day they expect certain Industry Ministers to deliver everything on a platter for them at the final hour. And I think that that kind of lobbying by the mining industry is very damaging to seeking a very sensible solution to the Mabo issue. And it is for that reason that a positive outcome on the native title legislation is something that still remains a question and it's still hanging in the balance.

FRAN KELLY: That balance lies in the hands of the Greens, ultimately. What should the Greens do? Should they vote for a Bill ... if it does end up containing some more rights for farmers and miners and less rights for Aboriginal interests, should they still vote for it?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, each of the Aboriginal delegates, who are down here from different regions of Australia, are going to have to make their own assessment as to where their best interests lie. And I think that obviously from a Western Australian angle, they're people who are desperately concerned about the situation under Richard Court's Bill. But at the end of the day, it remains for each Aboriginal person to tell the Greens exactly how they feel about this legislation. Obviously there's been a lot of hope generated today in the process that Senate Evans has undertaken, the process of consultation and discussion and negotiation with the Aboriginal people, but there's also some areas of concern, and I don't think that concern is going to be allayed until we see a vote at the committee stage.

FRAN KELLY: Some Aboriginal people have argued that if it gets more amendments up, then the Greens have been justified in playing it as they have - remaining uncommitted on the issue right down to the wire. Do you think that their tactics are/were the right tactics?

NOEL PEARSON: I can't comment on the behaviour and the tactics of members of the Senate. All I can say is that the outcome of this legislation will be determined by the extent to which the position is being pursued by the Democrats in this process is accepted on the floor of the Senate. And I think if the thrust of what the Democrats are saying in the Senate is accepted by all members, I think you will have a positive outcome on the native title legislation.

FRAN KELLY: What if this Bill doesn't....

ELLEN FANNING: Fran Kelly, we'll just have to hold it there for a moment. Noel Pearson, I'm sorry to interrupt you. We'll have to come back to you in just a moment.

We'll return now to Noel Pearson who's speaking with Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Noel Pearson, quite a last day in this parliamentary session of the year. You've spent most of this year dressed in a suit, prowling around the corridors, or leaping around as you just described it, of Canberra: have you personally been co-opted by your involvement in this process?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, in this final hour in these final weeks, there've been delegates from all over the country: New South Wales, Kimberley, the Western Desert, the Pilbara, the Western Gold Fields, Central Australia, Cape York, South Australia, and all of these Aboriginal people have been involved in discussions with myself and other land council people, trying to seek a result for their people. And I think that I'm very heartened by the unity that's emerged in this process. There has been a unity that's developed between the so-called 'A' and 'B' team positions on the legislation, and I think that we're now seeing eye to eye on the outcome that we believe would be a just outcome. It's resulted in me kind of being left on the reserve bench in recent days because I think Aboriginal people from all four corners of the country have got on top of the detail of this legislation. They know exactly what they want; they know exactly what these amendments mean; and they know exactly how important they are to get them up.

FRAN KELLY: This debate has prompted a lot of vitriol in the community. If the Bill goes down, or even if it doesn't, has it reinvigorated racist thinking in Australia? Has it had a deleterious effect?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that what it's brought to the surface is a very old racism. I have said time and time again during the course of this debate that a very deep-seated racism is a legacy of all Australians, and it's to kind of shoe-horn that legacy out of the Australian consciousness that is a duty of all young Australians, I believe, and I hope that our land council and my colleagues have contributed to a process of community debate about matters that are very fundamental to this country, namely, it's very deep-seated racism with a view to finally having an Australia that takes Aboriginal people as equal humans on an equal footing with other Australians.

FRAN KELLY: What if this Bill doesn't get up? What effect will that have on Aboriginal Australians?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that Pat Dodson best described the process of anger that occurs in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities when they are continually dealt an unjust deal by the legal and political system of this country. And that process of anger and frustration is most commonly turned inward and it is indicated by the terrible social statistics - the fact that Aboriginal people mutilate themselves; there's a high rate of suicide; there's a high rate of imprisonment and violence; and there's just growing despair. And the statistics get badder and badder, and it's an indication, it's a symptom -these are symptoms of the fact that Aboriginal people feel great powerlessness in this country. And I think the Native Title Bill is going to empower Aboriginal people if it reflects those amendments that our land councils have sought to achieve.

FRAN KELLY: Noel Pearson, thank you.

ELLEN FANNING: And Fran Kelly was speaking there with Noel Pearson.