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ATSIC chairperson says the Prime Minister did not make any concessions in his speech regarding the right to negotiate under native title legislation

PETER CAVE: Prime Minister, John Howard, wants to get the Wik debate over and done with quickly. That was the central message of his address to the nation last night. Mr Howard, however, is counting on the address to sway public support behind his 10-point plan, in his push to get it through the Senate relatively unscathed. From Canberra, Gerald Tooth reports.

GERALD TOOTH: Speaking from a book-lined study, flanked by family pictures and a strategically-draped Australian flag, John Howard used his nine minutes of national air time last night to put further pressure on the Senate to pass his native title amendments into law. Any expectations that he might use the occasion to provide a circuit breaker in the increasingly divisive debate were proved unfounded as the Prime Minister restated, in simple terms, his government's position, with no hint of compromise on the raft of other amendments before the Upper House.

Mr Howard made it clear that he sees his leading role as putting the whole Wik issue behind the nation as quickly as possible.

JOHN HOWARD: I think we'd all agree on one thing, and that is the sooner we get this debate over and get the whole issue behind us, the better for all of us.

GERALD TOOTH: Mr Howard described his amendments as fair and providing certainty for everyone. He spoke of the need to address specific problems faced by Aborigines, and he also restated a commitment to reconciliation, an issue that until now he's been at great pains to keep separate from the native title debate.

JOHN HOWARD: We may differ and debate as to the correct form of reconciliation, but there should be no doubt that it is, I believe, in the spirit of all Australians, whatever their beliefs on other issues, that we have full reconciliation with the Aboriginal people.

GERALD TOOTH: The address finished with the Prime Minister asking and answering a series of questions.

JOHN HOWARD: Is it still possible for native title claims to be made over pastoral leaseholds? Yes. And I might add that the total area of the land mass of Australia, which in theory can be subject to a native title claim, is now 79 per cent. Does the Government's plan guarantee that farmers can carry on their activities and what they would regard as normal and proper development of their properties without interference from native title claimants? Yes.

GERALD TOOTH: But it was the questions that weren't answered that many see as the most significant in the debate. Can the Government provide legal advice that it complies with the Racial Discrimination Act? Is he prepared to compromise on the issue of Aborigines' right to negotiate? On these issues, the Prime Minister remains silent, as he did on the prospect of native title claims over backyards, raised by his colleagues last week. There is no doubt that in taking his message directly to the people in this fashion, the Prime Minister has left himself little room to manoeuvre as the debate continues, and it is yet to be seen if his address will engender a sufficient weight of public support to give John Howard the momentum to force his will on the Senate or, more specifically, Brian Harradine, whose casting vote means everything.

JOHN HOWARD: I believe that the time has come for us to fix this issue and to fix it now.

GERALD TOOTH: Meanwhile, Kim Beazley, who will make a formal response on ABC Television later tonight, provided some instant analysis moments after the Prime Minister finished speaking.

KIM BEAZLEY: All we got was a prime ministerial suggestion that we need a quick fix and, as far as this nation is concerned, what a quick fix means is that we'll all be back here again within months.

GERALD TOOTH: John Howard argues that to prolong the debate won't mean one extra job. Kim Beazley doesn't want to talk about the legislation in terms of jobs.

KIM BEAZLEY:It also has to be legal. If there is ... it is quite evident, from the public opinion that we've seen so far, that whatever the Prime Minister's view about it being fair and balanced, as far as that is concerned, very few people out there agree with him who have got a particular concern about the matter.

GERALD TOOTH: But for all his talk about the need to avoid a quick-fix solution, Labor is committed to passing legislation by Christmas when Aborigines are calling for the debate to be put off until next year so there can be a cooling-off period.

KIM BEAZLEY: Now, the Labor Party has said that it will work this legislation through, that we're prepared to see it through this year. We have put forward a set of constructive amendments and those constructive amendments provide the sort of leadership that I was talking about: they produce solutions.

GERALD TOOTH: ATSIC chairman, Gatjil Djerrkura, is also criticising the Prime Minister's address as a missed opportunity.

GATJIL DJERRKURA: It offered me very little security and certainty, and he hadn't made any concessions or comments in regard to the issues that are of major concerns to us.

GERALD TOOTH: Well, what are the issues in particular that you think that he didn't deal with?

GATJIL DJERRKURA: Well, obviously, the essence of the Native Title Act is the right to negotiate and that's the fundamental concern that indigenous people have.

GERALD TOOTH: But Mr Howard said that his legislation offers the fairest possible response to the Wik decision.

GATJIL DJERRKURA: Well, I mean, fairness for sure, for all, but you know, I'm not feeling any security of that fairness in his statement.

GERALD TOOTH: He gave an overwhelming commitment to reconciliation. You must take heart from that.

GATJIL DJERRKURA: Well, reconciliation, but not at our cost. I mean, reconciliation ... when we speak of reconciliation, when people like Mr Patrick Dodson talks about reconciliation, it's reconciliation for the nation, that's not reconciliation just for one section of the community.

PETER CAVE: ATSIC chairman, Gatjil Djerrkura. That report compiled by Gerald Tooth.