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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5787

Senator CROSSIN (7:11 PM) —I realise that time is short this evening, so I may have to leave for an adjournment debate in the weeks before Christmas a number of comments that I would like to make about recent statements in regard to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2002, but let me provide the Senate with some of the background to this bill. The bill will add five new parcels of land to part 4 of schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. These additions are the result of two separate agreements that have been reached between the Northern Territory government and the relevant traditional owners and land councils.

The effect of the scheduling will firstly be to enable the grant of four parcels of land in the Northern Territory that were the subject of the Upper Daly repeat land claim. This land will be given to an Aboriginal trust established under the land rights act for the purpose of being able to manage the land. This land will be granted to the land trust to hold on behalf of the Aboriginal traditional owners. The land we are talking about is situated some 250 kilometres south-west of Darwin.

The scheduling will also enable the grant of a smaller portion of land, about 450 hectares in size, located some 40 kilometres north of Alice Springs. This will be for the benefit of the members of the Harry Creek East community. This scheduling has come about through the need to relocate land previously owned by the community—a relocation to which the community has agreed. This transfer of land is to accommodate the Darwin to Alice Springs railway corridor. The existing land has been rendered unfit for human occupation because it will be too close to that railway corridor. The new parcel of land is situated only a few kilometres south-east of the community's previous location.

The passage of this bill and the scheduling of these new parcels of land will bring to 69 the number of parcels of land scheduled under the land rights act since 1977. I want to quickly make a number of comments about the land rights act. There have been many comments in recent weeks, if not months, about the need for this act to be reformed. It was started many years back by the Northern Territory CLP government when John Reeves was commissioned to do a review of the act. Since then there has been a response to that by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

Following on from that, we saw an options paper produced by Minister Ruddock earlier this year. However, in his speech in relation to this bill, Minister Ruddock said that the land rights act is in need of urgent reform. He is probably right about that— there are recognised areas of that act that need to be improved. But he went on to say that only one new mine had been created on Aboriginal land in 25 years. It was a claim that he also made in an article in the Sunday Territorian on 8 September. Those claims are wrong, as are the claims by Mr David Tollner, the member for Solomon, that the current Chief Minister has refused to take control of 55 per cent of the land—not that it is land for her to take control of. So what we see is a government that on one hand wants to reform the land rights act but on the other hand is starting to promulgate untruths and misconceptions about the way in which this act operates. In fact, as my colleague in the House of Representatives said in his contribution to this bill:

It is not in fact the act that is at fault. It is the actions of the previous CLP government in holding up and sitting on exploration licensing applications that have been the problems.

It is actually the inaction of a previous conservative government that has created the problem—the perception that the act is not working—rather than the act itself.

As I said, there is a need for this act to be reformed but with two things in mind. We will always point to the recommendations in the House of Representatives report that said, firstly, that no changes to this act should occur unless there is the consent of the traditional owners and, secondly, that no changes to this act should occur that would be to the detriment of Aboriginal people and traditional owners in the Northern Territory. I realise time is short and I will conclude my comments there, perhaps taking up at some other time a speech that dispels the myth that certainly this current federal government would want to promulgate about the land rights act.

This bill is another example of where this land rights legislation is working. It is another example of where Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory get the title to their land and get to reclaim the land, to their benefit, in the legal way in which we perceive land ought to be held.