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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1147

Mr MELHAM (Banks) (11:24): The Completion of Kakadu National Park (Koongarra Project Area Repeal) Bill 2013 repeals the Koongarra Project Area Act 1981 so as to exclude the prospect of future mining activity in the Koongarra area. The bill is in line with the express views of the traditional owner, Jeffrey Lee. The explanatory memorandum, in a short outline, says is as follows:

The Koongarra area is surrounded by the Kakadu National Park and was excluded from the boundaries of the Kakadu National Park when it was proclaimed in 1979. This exclusion was made to accommodate the prospect of future mining activity. Since that time, a number of parties have pursued the development of mining at Koongarra but no mining tenements have been granted.

The Australian government committed at the 2010 federal election to protect Koongarra as part of Kakadu in line with the express views of the traditional owner. The Completion ofKakadu National Park (Koongarra Project Area Repeal) Bill 2013 is part of a process which will see Koongarra incorporated into Kakadu National Park.

This has been a long struggle that is nearing completion. Today we heard some speeches from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relation to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, and I can place on record that I thought both of those speeches were fine speeches. The sentiments were fine sentiments. What we need to do in this place is more than fine speeches. We need to progress on issues like this, especially issues that have been outstanding a long time, into the reality of respecting the views of traditional owners, by delivering on projects that, like this, should have been incorporated into Kakadu National Park a long time ago. That is what we will be judged on—not on our words, but on our deeds. As has been said in the debate to date, the TO, Jeffrey Lee, has to be congratulated, because he was not tempted by the money—he was more interested in preserving the land the way it had been handed to him by his father and grandfather for future generations. History shows that he made the right choice. That is not to deny other traditional owners in other parts of Australia will seek to deal with mining companies and pastoralists and others. That is their right to do so—their fully-informed consent to do so—and they should not be dictated to by green groups or anyone else, as occasionally happens in the process.

I have been in this place a very long time and I have been through the various number of issues to do with Indigenous Australians, through the Hawke government, the Keating government, the period of the Howard government, the apology to the stolen generations and now what is being worked through by the current government. In relation to this instance, it took the courage of the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, in relation to Coronation Hill, to stand up his cabinet—and there is no doubt he stood them up. There is no doubt that he did not have the numbers in his cabinet, and we had that replayed on television where a number of cabinet ministers spoke out. But who looks good with hindsight? Prime Minister Bob Hawke has been vindicated. That is what leadership is about, and in relation to the Indigenous area, the reality is it requires a prime minister to stand side by side with Indigenous Australians for progress to be made. That is not to say that there are not others who contribute to the process, but that was a classic example.

When Prime Minister Keating made his speech at Redfern, that was a pretty historic occasion. He stood his cabinet up over native title and he has been vindicated in relation to that, because the truth is that there was a lot of concern at that time in relation to the politics, as there always is with Aboriginal people. We are now entering a phase with John Howard gone from the public stage, and he is the one I blame. From the day he came into public life till the day he left, in relation to this area he had a blind spot. He is the one who is diminished.

Mr Baldwin interjecting

Mr MELHAM: That is why the words of the current Leader of the Opposition today, in virtually acknowledging the strength of the apology made by Prime Minister Rudd, sheets that home. I think he had a blind spot. On other areas in relation to the former Prime Minister it is well known that we have a good relationship, but let us call a spade a spade.

The good thing about the current climate is that the current Prime Minister, the current government and, generally, the current Leader of the Opposition are not playing politics on Indigenous affairs, nor should they. In other areas, we are having a fight. They will deal with themselves. We now have different climate.

The member opposite, Mr Baldwin, interjected a moment ago. The reason I get riled up is I remember the 7.30 Reportoccasion where the former Prime Minister lifted up a brown stained map and told 78 per cent of Australians that their backyards were under threat from native title. Well, they were not. Now we are getting land use agreements from conservative governments, such as the government of Western Australia, by consent. We are all better for it and mining companies are able to work with Indigenous people. Areas such as this that is before us today, from day one, have been a no-go zone for mining. It is interesting that the 1977 Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry report recommended that certain areas of land be declared as Kakadu National Park, under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975. The boundaries of this land included the Koongarra uranium deposit. The inquiry opposed mining the deposit. In announcing its August 1977 decision on uranium mining in the region, the Fraser government decided that the Koongarra special mining lease application area would be excluded from Kakadu National Park.

I will say one thing about Malcolm Fraser. He introduced a watered-down Land Rights Act in 1976 compared to what Gough Whitlam introduced, but it retained the right of veto. He is credited with introducing the toughest land rights protection in the country, under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. It has made a lot of the protection possible in the Northern Territory and it should not be touched by any government—this government or future governments—in terms of the right of veto. The way to proceed is by respecting our traditional owners. Many of the traditional owners are quite happy to do business, as the minister at the table, Minister Crean, knows. In remote and regional areas of Australia, they are happy to have their land developed in return for jobs for their communities, for health and other benefits. So it is not just a blanket 'no' that you get from the traditional owners or Indigenous people around Australia. They are entitled to a place at the table.

That is why one has to respect the current traditional owner Jeffrey Lee and the way he took his position. From day one, it has not changed, and he has been vindicated. It was good to see him here with Bob Hawke, when Minister Burke gave the second reading speech. It was symbolic to have those two people on the floor of the chamber during the second reading speech, and they were properly acknowledged by the minister. It was more than symbolic. It sent a message to the rest of the community about respecting Aboriginal people, acknowledging that their history is important, their stories are important and their land is important to them. We are seeing—and the environment minister at the table knows this—that at the moment there is debate going on about mining tenements in urban areas. Those people's attachment to the land does not go back 40,000 years, but they feel pretty strong about it and want to be consulted in the process.

Today is a very happy day, because it is not something that comes before the House with division and politicising. We can feel good about this, because you can become enlightened as you gain experience and interact. I know that when I was shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs for 4½ years, from 1996 to 2000, I was on a very steep learning curve on Indigenous history and a whole series of things that I did not have a clue about. Where I grew up, we knew no Aboriginal people—in Panania, in Bankstown. There was a person here and there of a dark-skinned nature but we never really sat down and talked to them. That is why I became passionate in this area. When I came into parliament, and certainly when I became the shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, I gave people in my own party a lot of grief, and a lot were glad to see the back of me in relation to my portfolio.

I feel vindicated. I seconded an apology that Kim Beazley moved and it was rejected by the parliament because the time was not right. Some of the most happy times I have had in this place have had to do with Aboriginal people. I was the only federal or state member of parliament in the High Court when Justice Gummow delivered his decision on Wik. That was supposed to bring about the end of the world as we know it. Now we know it did not. It was just a statement of fact: pastoralists have lived side by side with Aboriginal people for years.

The minister at the table, Minister Crean, has been in the cabinet and heard the debates. People are well intentioned. The problem is that there was—and still is—a lot of ignorance out there, and it is our job to educate people, to have an informed debate and discussion on these things. I have a few problems with the Leader of the Opposition on a whole range of things, but not in relation to this area. I think he is genuine, because he has a level of experience. He sat in the sand with Aboriginal people in remote Australia, and I believe, in this instance, he is genuine. I am happy to say that—no holds barred, no qualification. I thought he gave a great speech today, as did the Prime Minister.

This is an area where we are moving forward, but we cannot rest on our laurels. That is why this bill is a great one. It is delivering on something that predates the time I came into parliament and predates the time that Minister Crean came into parliament. There is only one member of parliament I know of, the former minister for immigration Philip Ruddock, who was in the parliament way back in 1979. He came into parliament in 1973, in the Fraser years. That is how long it has taken.

I am hoping that in a lot of other areas we can accelerate things. The problem has been recognition and respect.

There has been a lack of respect in relation to Indigenous people through ignorance. I actually think that Aboriginal people are being quite respectful towards the non-Indigenous community and to us—more than we really appreciate. If I had had done to me what has been done to Indigenous people over the times, there would be a lot more anger in me than there is now. It would be exponentially higher.

Acts like this that are able to be done by the minister at the table, Minister Burke—and he rightly acknowledges that Minister Garrett in the previous parliament commenced the process—are very important, not just symbolically but in showing substantial progress. I know that for many years Indigenous people were of the view that all they got was words. Another whitefella would come along, a series of words would be given, they would move on and they would never see them again. This bill is owned by a number of people at every level. It has been a partnership, it has been a resistance—and it is no longer a resistance movement, it is mainstream. Most people would be shocked and horrified to think that you would engage now in uranium mining in this area, in such a beautiful, pristine wilderness.

I am delighted to be able to speak to this bill and I hope that we can go forward in a number of other areas where we need to go forward. Aboriginal people deserve this, they deserve this respect, because we are enriched by them as a nation, and the rest of the world are watching. They have been watching for a long while, and the apology went a long way to overcoming a lot of the damage that had been done in the previous decade. This will go a long way, within the United Nations and other bodies, to show that we are fair dinkum and that we are progressing.