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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7593

Senator CROSSIN (11:21 AM) —People will have the opportunity to read the report of the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts References Committee on forestry and mining operations on the Tiwi Islands, as it is tabled today, and I would urge people to have a look at the commentary throughout this report and not necessarily the recommendations. I will begin by saying that economic development activity in remote Aboriginal communities is difficult at the best of times. There is always, I suppose, a measure of judgment about whether you are in it for a long-term gain or a short-term gain, whether it is going to have wings—whether it is going to fly—and what can best be set up and developed to maximise beneficial returns to the Indigenous people on whose land this activity occurs.

People, particularly in the Northern Territory, will know of the very chequered history of the development of this forestry on the Tiwi Islands. It goes back many, many years. Some would believe that it originated with the previous CLP government, but forestry on the islands commenced many decades before that and was picked up again under Paul Everingham with the establishment of Sylvatech. Nevertheless, what we find in this report is an attempt by the Senate to lay out quite succinctly the history, the problems, the negatives and the positives of the forestry program and also some facts and figures about what has been realised in the development of this industry on the islands.

There are many interwoven layers of this report that go to whether or not people acted in the best interests and whether or not people were actually not aware of what this forestry project would mean at the end of the day. Of course, halfway through the inquiry we saw the collapse of Great Southern, which went into liquidation. That put the whole situation of forestry on the islands completely up in the air and made it very difficult for this committee to come to any firm conclusions about the future of this project, because at the time of deliberating on this report no-one quite knew what the future of Great Southern was going to be.

It has been a difficult inquiry to conduct because there was always this moving feast from week to week. You will read in the report that, although Great Southern provided us with a submission before they went into liquidation, we were never able to question Great Southern or the liquidators or any people connected with that company once it went into liquidation. So we have a written submission which is incredibly out of date now and essentially irrelevant because it illustrates the views of a company that believed it was not going to be in the situation that it is now. Of course, things have totally changed.

By and large, I do not think, for my part, that the Tiwi Islanders ever realised that what they were doing was simply leasing their land for use. I think they always believed that they were going to get substantial benefits from the forestry operations. At the end of the day, those benefits really have not been realised for these people. We know there has been a $600,000 loss in a number of original shipments of the red gum eucalypt that was cut down. There has been some controversy about why you would cut down good eucalypt trees and replace them with woodchipping trees. You will see in the report that there is controversy about whether there is a future market for chipping or whether the market in South-East Asia is actually saturated. It will be very difficult to sell off this product now.

At the end of the day we have 28 people on the Tiwi Islands employed on this project. That is not a very significant number. Most of those people are in the marine and horticulture ranger area, which I think that the Commonwealth department of environment should now pick up. During the course of Great Southern’s operations, they breached the environmental conditions. As a result of that, they had to make a $1 million payment, which was taken by the federal department of the environment. The federal department of the environment now has that $1 million. One of the ways in which the area that has been destroyed by forestry could be rehabilitated is by handing that money over to employ those 28 people to continue as rangers and to undertake the job of rehabilitating the forests, and I would urge them to do that. That is one way forward on that one particular aspect. Essentially, the landholders get about $20 per hectare per year. All-up in 2007-08 the total payment to the Tiwi Islanders was only $467,000—less than half a million dollars. Now with the collapse of Great Southern we are very uncertain about the future of the forestry project there.

Another issue raised in our inquiry was concerns with the Tiwi Land Council. To be honest about it, we need to now actually say there are problems in terms of transparency and decision making. We had an in camera meeting with a couple of dozen women. From memory, there were about 50 women in the room. They wanted the whole session to be in camera. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Why were they not confident enough to put the evidence they gave us on the public record? Why is it that they needed to speak to us in camera? Land council minutes are available, but you have to ask particular people to see them. You can only see them; you cannot copy them or take them away. The report outlines a way in which we believe the land council can be more transparent about its decision-making process and in its availability of documents so that people on the islands clearly know how decisions are made, why decisions are made and what benefits or disadvantages there are in particular economic decisions that are taken.

Finally, there is a section in the report about female representation on the land council. The committee have stopped short of making a recommendation about this; however, if you look at the very last paragraph you will see that we urge the federal minister to have a look at the concerns. The concerns are that the constitution of the Tiwi Land Council at this point in time does not proactively suggest that women should be on the land council. In fact, we heard arguments that a very patriarchal, unfriendly system is being promoted. It was suggested that that was the Aboriginal way. I have to say, that is not my experience in the Northern Territory. It is not the way the other three land councils operate. I am at a loss to think why the Tiwi Land Council believe that that is the way they can operate. My personal view is that it is an excuse to exclude women from the decision-making process. Nevertheless, it is an issue that has been raised right through the ages. John Reeves raised it in the review of the Northern Territory land rights act. The lack of women on the Tiwi Land Council has been raised in a number of inquiries and commentary in the past. As I said, the committee stopped short of making a recommendation about this, but I do have to say that I think it is time that the constitution of the Tiwi Land Council was reviewed. I think it is time that the federal minister for Indigenous affairs undertook consultations about the best way forward to ensure that women are represented on the land council.

So what is the future of the Tiwi forestry project? I think it is a very difficult issue. I do not believe there are the skills on the island to maintain the forestry project. Senator Birmingham is right: acres and acres of acacia mangium have been planted and it is likely that the Northern Territory government will declare it to be a weed. A run-off of this weed will happen around the island. There is concern that when these trees are cut down the price that would be obtained for the chips they emulate would be difficult. Some are suggesting there is an $80 million profit there; others are suggesting the market is saturated and that it would be hard to sustain over the long term. There are trees there; they do have to be cut down one way or the other. Whether you replace them with the same will be a decision for the Tiwi islanders. Whether you replace them with eucalypts or whether you spend the money to rehabilitate the natural growth and move on to something else is a matter for the Tiwi islanders. But, having said that, I would be very concerned if the federal government and the Northern Territory government were not heavily involved in doing a risk assessment, a business plan and a future analysis with them. I do not believe that this is up to the land council. The Tiwi islanders are on their own in determining the future of this forestry project. We have now seen it go from good to bad to worse. I seriously have doubts about its economic viability. I have doubts about its long-term employment prospects. If they are going to move forward it needs to be done with both governments. (Time expired)