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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1136

Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of ANZAC) (10:40): Firstly, let me acknowledge the passage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 earlier this morning. Whilst I do not want to take up a lot of time talking about it, I do want to make mention of what a privilege it is to be a member of this parliament at times when we actually effectively shake hands across the aisle and join in supporting a single piece of legislation. In this context, as I spoke in support of that legislation in the other chamber earlier this week, I made the observation that there are a few of us in this place who have had the privilege to be a party, in one way or another, either as a participant, as an observer or as a member of this parliament, in some very significant events over the last 25 or 30 years. If we contemplate that for just a moment, we think of the passage of the ATSIC legislation initially in the Hawke government or we can go back further to the passage of the first land rights legislation in 1976. Then, as we moved forward, we saw the passage of the native title legislation, which was very divisive because there was not unanimity across the parliament. There was not a view held by some conservatives in the country, not only in parliament, about the importance of native title, how it should be enacted and why it should exists; nevertheless, it is in place. As a result, it is now part of our national fabric, it is something which is accepted and agreed upon and we deal with.

I can go back to the divisive debates around national land rights in the 1980s. Pat Dodson, who was here earlier this morning, was then the Director of the Central Land Council, and I was his policy adviser. We were involved in rallies in front of the Old Parliament House trying to ensure that any new national land rights legislation reflected the values, at a minimum, of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, which was passed in 1976. Of course, we were opposed in that process by conservatives on both sides of the chamber, by conservative premiers such as Brian Burke in Western Australia and by conservative members of this parliament who were voting for the then coalition. As we move further forward—I want to refer to the comments made by previous speaker around Kakadu, and I will do that later—things which were going to be so disruptive, so divisive and would cause mayhem in the Australian economy have been demonstrated to be absolutely false in those assertions. As a person of privilege, as a person who has now been in this chamber since 1987—except for a small interregnum—it has been a great privilege for me as a person and as a member for Lingiari where about 42 per cent of my constituents are Aboriginal people, most of whom live on their own land, to witness this legislation's passing.

It has also been a great privilege for me to be an observer, and sometime participant, in these debates—not only around ATSIC and those other pieces of legislation I referred to earlier in relation to the native title legislation but to be in this chamber when the national apology was given. It was a momentous and historic day, as is today a momentous and historic day. All those differences and divisions of the past have been put behind us, as they should have been, and we have come to a unanimous view about the need for an act of recognition. That, to me, shows great progress.

I might just pay a compliment to those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been involved in leadership positions over the last 25, 30, 35, 40 years. Their resilience and their dignity have led us to this point. Their commitment and their application, their refusal to accept defeat, have led us to this point. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for their personal sacrifice—many are now gone. I know that those who I know so well, who are no longer with us, will be overlooking this place with great pride today.

My constituent 39-year-old Jeffrey Lee is a member of the Djok clan. He is a senior custodian of Koongarra, an area of land of more than 1,200 hectares adjacent to the stunning Nourlangie Rock, one of Kakadu National Park's most popular destinations. In addition to extraordinary ecological biodiversity around its beautiful billabongs, Koongarra includes ancient rock galleries, some more than 25,000 years old; first settlement paintings, at least one of which may be of scenes associated with Ludwig Leichhardt's 1848 traverse from South-East Queensland to Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula; and, of course, most importantly, sacred burial sites.

Perhaps for some Koongarra also includes something even more significant: more than 14,000 tonnes of uranium oxide, probably worth more than $5 billion at current prices. It was more significant for the Fraser government, for instance, which in 1979 refused to incorporate Koongarra into Kakadu National Park because of its enormous uranium potential. It was more significant also for the giant French energy company Arriva, which for decades has wanted to mine Koongarra but has never been able to gain the traditional owners' permission to explore the site. But it was not more significant for Jeffrey Lee—even though his approval of exploration would have made him one of the richest men in Australia if not in the world. This man works as a ranger on his traditional country for little more than $1,000 a fortnight. This man is not interested in the soaring price of uranium, because the protection of his country is much more important for him. Last year, through the Northern Land Council, he informed the then minister for the environment, Peter Garrett, that he wanted Koongarra incorporated as soon as possible into Kakadu so as to be protected by its World Heritage status and law. As he said then: 'This is my country. Look, it is beautiful. And I fear somebody will disturb it.' He went on to say: 'When you dig a hole in the country, you are killing me. I don't worry about money at all.'

Jeffrey Lee grew up hunting and fishing and fulfilling his traditional cultural obligations to Koongarra. For him, according to his beliefs, Koongarra is where the rainbow serpent entered the ground. He wants it left undisturbed—for his children, grandchildren and indeed for future generations of the broader world community. And we in this government agree with him.

The incorporation of Koongarra into Kakadu National Park is part of the Gillard government's commitment to protect our quality of life and to build a sustainable Australia. For us, the future of Koongarra, and indeed Kakadu, is tourism, not mining. Australia's 18 World Heritage sites generate $12 billion annually and support over 120,000 jobs across the country. Many of the jobs supported by tourism in Kakadu are jobs for Aboriginal Australians, many of whom are local traditional owners who have an attachment to their country that can be counted not in terms of tonnes of uranium oxide but only in terms of quality of life and cultural and ecological sustainability. Traditional owner Jeffrey Lee of the Djok clan, I salute you.

The history of uranium mining in Kakadu, including the Koongarra site, provides us all with some salutary lessons about Indigenous Australians, Australian parliaments and the mining industry and the relationship between them. By the mid-1970s, four sustainable deposits of uranium had been identified in the area that is now referred to as the Koongarra, Nabarlek, Ranger and Jabiluka sites. It was in the 1970s that the Australian government, through the Ranger inquiry, first approved proposals by mining companies to construct mining and milling facilities in the Ranger mine and at Nabarlek in the Kakadu region. These four deposits were all excised from the newly created Kakadu National Park because of their high uranium prospectivity. Under the management of ERA, Energy Resources Australia, and with the approval of the Fraser government, mining commenced at the Ranger mine in 1980.

North of the Ranger mine is the Jabiluka site, to which a secondary company, Pan Continental Ltd, was granted approval to mine by the same government in 1982. Gundjehmi traditional owners bitterly opposed the proposed mine. The following year saw the electionof the Hawke government, and with it the immediate suspension of thatapproval. However, the defeat of Labor in 1996 saw the new Prime Minister, John Howard, announce renewed plans to mine at Jabiluka. ERA had replaced Pan Con as the key stakeholder for managementof the mine. It had completed an environmentalimpact study, whichwas approved by the Howard governmentin 1997. Spirited resistance by Gundjehmi, led by senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula, and a coalition of environmental supporters, forced ERA to suspend mining operations in 1998. ERA have not pursued the reopening of the Jabiluka mine, and today, to their absolute credit, have a policy of respect for traditional owners' wishes regarding their lands. This more enlightened policy benefits Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, wherever they are where this company exists, and the miners as well. With the closing of the chapter on mining at Koongarra by Jeffrey Lee and this government, we see a further example of a Labor government listening to Indigenous interests.

I might just go for a moment, if I may, to the comments made by the previous speaker about the Northern Territory government and the chamber of mines. I full well remember the hideous approach of the former conservative governments in the Northern Territory, under various chief ministers, around the issue of Aboriginal land rights and mining in the Northern Territory. They were supported by the chamber of mines and some of the largest miners in this country. I know too well about the bribes that were offered to the traditional owners of the Koongarra site to accede to the request for mining. But to their credit—to their great and everlasting credit—they resolved amongst themselves not to accede to the bribery, not to accede to the overbearing tactics of government or the mining industry and to resist absolutely to the last any proposal to mine Koongarra.

I also remember visiting the Ranger uranium province as far back as 1976. At that time, there was an exploratory hole in the ground. I was a teacher in the Northern Territory and, as it happened, I felt unwell this particular day. With a colleague of mine—a woman who remains a friend to this day—we visited the site because the father of one of the kids that we taught was the manager. So we inspected the site and talked about uranium mining—to which I was bitterly opposed. In the years that followed, I was involved in resisting and opposing uranium mining in the Northern Territory and the exploitation of Ranger, Koongarra, Jabiluka and Nabarlek. As we know, that resistance proved impossible and ultimately the traditional owners did a deal around the Ranger mine which has been of benefit to them financially over the years but has still raised many perplexing questions about its impact on the cultural and social life and indeed the very existence of Aboriginal people in the region.

But we have moved forward. We are here today doing something which now has the support of the opposition and we now hear that it has the support of the Northern Territory conservative government. I say 'thank you' to them, because it is about bloody time. It is about time that you looked at yourselves the mirror, looked at what happened in the past, defined it in your own mind and declared to yourselves that it would never happen again. We need to move forward together to make sure that we live in a period of reconciliation into the future, acknowledge the importance of Aboriginal land and understand why my constituent Mr Lee took the action he did and why we have passed this legislation today.