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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7591


Senator BIRMINGHAM (11:11 AM) —I present the report of the Environment, Communications and the Arts References Committee on forestry and mining operations on the Tiwi Islands, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.


Senator BIRMINGHAM —by leave—I move:

That the Senate to take note of the report.

This is an important inquiry, particularly important for the Tiwi people, for whom it has very direct relevance and impact on their lives. It was referred to the Senate back in December 2008, and it has been a challenging inquiry to undertake, not least because one of the major factors in this, forestry on the Tiwi Islands, has been impacted by the demise of the Great Southern group. This group went into receivership during the course of the inquiry, dramatically changing the outlook for the islands and dramatically changing its impact on the future for forestry operations and how they will be conducted on the islands.

Notwithstanding the difficulties that that presented and the fact that, with that situation, the administrators, regrettably, refused to provide approval for Great Southern or its officials to appear before the committee, I thank all of those who did cooperate during the undertaking of this inquiry, particularly those on the Tiwi Islands, some of the employees of Great Southern who did assist the committee in its visit to the Tiwi Islands, as well as the many people in the communities of the Tiwi who helped us throughout the course of the inquiry. I also acknowledge the great work of the secretariat and of my fellow committee members in the undertaking of this inquiry.

It is important to think about forestry and mining on the Tiwi Islands in the context of economic activity in Indigenous areas. I thought we had outstanding evidence given to us by some members of the Tiwi Land Council in highlighting the importance of such economic activity. I want to take a quote that has been printed in the report and highlight it to the Senate. Mr Marius Puruntatameri, of the Tiwi Land Council, stated:

… the fundamental thing of having developments on our land is to do away with handouts from the government, to create employment for our people. That is the key issue of creating business on our land, which is important to us because we cannot rely on the government to give us handout money all the time.

Those sentiments are indeed welcome and they highlight the importance of such work, such development, on Indigenous lands and of giving every opportunity to such developments to succeed into the future.

The committee looked at the range of opportunities that exist for Tiwi people not only in the areas of forestry and mining but also in their businesses in tourism, sport and aquaculture—and hopefully they can succeed and further grow in all of those other areas of activity. The committee certainly encourages all of those involved with the Tiwi to look to continue to grow economic activity on the island and to ensure that it advances the wealth and opportunities of the Tiwi people.

Obviously, as I flagged, the demise of Great Southern was particularly significant during the course of this inquiry. Forestry has a long history on the Tiwi Islands. It has gone through several guises of ownership and progress, with Great Southern being the latest private sector partner to be working with the Tiwi Land Council and the people of the Tiwi Islands in the forestry operations. The committee is, of course, upset at the fact that the demise poses challenges for the Tiwi people. We also noted throughout the inquiry concerns that existed from many people who were either opposed to forestry outright—Tiwi people who were opposed to forestry—or confused or concerned about the benefits flowing from it. Jobs have flowed from it and revenue has flowed from it, but certainly not to the extent that many Tiwi people had hoped or expected. Those expectations have certainly been struck down as a result of some of the management and perhaps some of the building up of false expectations in the first place about these issues.

The committee heard evidence about the structures of the business entities that operate on the Tiwi Islands and work with companies like Great Southern in these projects. It seems that there is a level of confusion about how those entities operate in terms of the types of commercial arrangements they enter into and how those commercial arrangements will or will not directly impact on Tiwi people. We have made very clear recommendations and have said that we believe new communications strategies need to be put in place to ensure that Tiwi people are fully informed and understand what is happening in terms of development on their land and what benefits will flow from such development. Equally, we encourage all of those business entities to operate in the most efficient and transparent manner possible.

Looking forward, we face the situation where nearly 30,000 hectares of land have been cleared and trees have been planted. Forestry is happening on the island. This is a reality that the committee acknowledged. There is no point going back and arguing over decisions that have been made. Those trees are there and they are growing. What is important is to make this work for the Tiwi people. It may be that in the future there will be opportunities to rehabilitate that land. That is an option for the longer term. But, in the short term, the truth is that somehow the Tiwi people are going to need to be given support or engage support to manage these forestry operations and to at least see the responsible harvesting of the current crop of trees, if not the replanting of future crops of trees, on that land.

We recognised that McGrathNichol, the administrators of Great Southern Limited, have indicated that they have withdrawn funding and resources for the plantation. In withdrawing that funding it seems as if that land now essentially reverts back to Tiwi Island ownership—to the Tiwi Land Council. There is an opportunity inherent in that, and that is of course that they now have inherited—in essence, at no cost to them—a plantation industry that has been cleared and planted. But the challenge for them will be finding the markets for those plantations and caring for those trees in the remaining years before harvesting can begin—and, of course, ensuring they have the skills base there to do so. Caring for the trees involves making sure that the trees do not spread into the native forest areas of the island and making sure that threats from fires and cyclones are minimised. A massive challenge that exists for them is in relation to infrastructure following the collapse of the wharf facilities at Tiwi Island in the last few years, which will make exporting of woodchips from the island particularly difficult.

The committee has recommended that the federal and Northern Territory governments work closely with the Tiwi Land Council and Tiwi islanders and the relevant business entities to undertake an urgent assessment of the ongoing economic viability of the forests—to make sure that we know whether or not those forests are going to be viable into the future and whether those trees should be replanted when they are ultimately harvested; to assist in the preparation of a business model for whatever situation proves to be economically viable and put in place that model that will help the Tiwi people achieve success; and, if need be, to ensure that these are successful ventures for the Tiwi people that deliver jobs and income for them, to consider providing infrastructure support for them.

Personally, I hope that the Tiwi people can overcome the many difficulties that they face in dealing with this forestry situation that they now inherit and make it work for them into the future. Those who seek to develop jobs, opportunities and industry on Indigenous lands often do so against a backdrop of difficulties and, indeed, in some case, prejudices that do not make it easy to do so. I suspect that sometimes the collective ownership structures in these cases equally make it hard to develop unifying projects when, like any community, Indigenous communities will have quite divided areas. I acknowledge that there were some issues raised with us about the management of the Tiwi Land Council—and I am sure that Senator Crossin will address a number of those in her comments. The committee has highlighted some of those concerns, particularly in relation to the representation of women on the land council.

I hope that the federal government and the Northern Territory government will look at this report and will heed our advice that they need to work with the Tiwi people and provide them with the support and the opportunity to make sure that these income-earning opportunities are maximised for the Tiwi people into the years ahead. I commend the report to the Senate.