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Thursday, 9 December 1976
Page: 3611

Mr VINER (Stirling) (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) - I move:

That the amendments be agreed to.

These amendments, agreed to by the Senate, deal with 3 matters and I will explain them shortly to the House. The first concerns the amendment to clause 3 of the Bill, to include in the definition of 'exploration licence ' a reference to 'authorities to prospect'. The amendment is of a technical nature and will make it clear that any authorisation allowing mineral exploration in the nature of the former authority to prospect and the current exploration licence will be treated in a similar manner.

It was the Government's intention that all exploration rights should be covered in the legislation. The original authorisation to explore, the authority to prospect, was replaced, by an amendment of the Northern Territory Mining Ordinance, by the current exploration licence, which is the term used in the Bill. There was legal doubt whether the exploration licence as referred to in the Bill was a general enough term to cover authorities to prospect. The definition is important, especially in relation to protection of existing interests mainly mineral lease applications which were referred to in clause 40 (3) of the Bill.

The amendment proposed to clause 40 refers in particular to the agreement entered into by the Commonwealth of Australia with the Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd for mining at Groote Eylandt. It has been brought to the Government's attention that the Bill would not have adequately met the Government's legal commitments to protect existing rights in relation to that agreement. Accordingly this amendment and consequential amendments to clause 43 (2) and the Schedules will guarantee that the Commonwealth is able to meet its legal obligations to grant further mineral leases known as the 'Eastern Areas' under the Groote Eylandt Agreement 1969. The amendment means that it will not be necessary to obtain Aboriginal consent for the granting of these mineral leases but the company will be obliged to negotiate fair terms and conditions with the Aboriginals concerned. That agreement provides that, if the company constructs a smelter before 30 June 1977 or an agglomeration plant by 30 June 1980, additional special mineral leases will be granted by the Commonwealth.

The company has already met its obligation to construct smelting facilities and an agglomeration plant is close to completion. The company is therefore in a position to call on the Government to meet its obligation to provide additional leases. It is considered appropriate that the Government should be able to meet those obligations through the provisions of this legislation. An additional schedule, Schedule 3, is necessary in relation to new sub-clause 7 of clause 40 to provide a precise description of the areas referred to as the eastern areas of Groote Eylandt. The amendment to clause 43, subclause 2 is consequential upon the amendment which I have just mentioned so as to ensure that where additional leases are granted at Groote Eylandt, pursuant to the agreement into which the Commonwealth has entered, they will be subject to the negotiation of fair terms and conditions with the Aborigines. An additional amendment to this sub-clause is proposed to make it clear that while additional payments may be negotiated, it is not mandatory that agreements between land councils and applicants for mining interests should include provision for the payment of sums of money. As originally drafted, payments, even if only nominal, would have been essential in order to comply with the provision. In some instances, payments additional to statutory royalties and rentals may not be sought by land councils. For example, Mr Justice Woodward noted in relation to oil and gas:

The financial interests of Aborigines would be well served by the appropriation of the 10 per cent royalty payment for their benefit.

That appears in paragraph 704 of his second report. That explains the purpose and effect of the amendment but I take a moment extra of the time of the House to say something about the work which has gone into the study and preparation of this legislation before it is finally approved by this House and hence by the Parliament. This legislation and the general subject of Aboriginal land rights, as we know, has stirred strong emotions. We have seen this in Parliament and in public. But I think I can say of the debates in this House and in the other place that the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia has shown a consistent dedication to the passage of legislation to fulfil commitments made by all political parties to the granting of land rights to Aborigines in the Northern Territory.

I express some words of thanks and of recognition to some of those who have been involved over many years in all the work needed to bring such major and complex legislation to fruition. I mention, firstly, the permanent head of my Department, Mr Barry Dexter and the Deputy Secretary, Mr Jeremy Long. As well I thank the staff of my Department which has worked with the utmost dedication and competence in this field over many years. Mr Dexter, as the House knows, has been administrative head of Aboriginal Affairs since 1968 when the Commonwealth first took upon itself this responsibility, following the 1967 referendum. I can only judge how much work must have gone into this area over the years before I became Minister from the work which has been put into this task in the 12 months since I have assumed this position. The work has been of a most exhaustive and, some would say, exhausting nature by way of study, analysis, consultation with Aboriginals throughout the Northern Territory. I refer to the analysis of the many representations which came to the Government following my introduction of the Bill on 4 June. Much work has been put into the task by the Parliamentary Counsel. Many hours have been spent in dealing with what I have said is complex legislation which is also technical in many areas as well as operating in one of the most sensitive political areas which have come before this House for many years.

I mention the work of Mr Justice Woodward whose intelligence and understanding is reflected in his report which laid the foundation for elevating public discussion and political policies to the reality of legislation. I freely acknowledge that his inquiry was instituted by the previous Administration of the Australian Labor Party. The result of that inquiry in the reports which His Honour put down was quickly accepted in principle by both the Liberal Party and the National Country Party. I thank my colleagues in this House and in the other place who have worked so closely with me and with a sense of duty to the task before them. I particularly mention Senator Neville Bonner who, as we know from our work with him as a colleague and also from what he has said publicly in the Senate, has been dedicated ever since he came into the Parliament to the fulfilment of Aboriginal land rights in legislation.

I mention the work of my colleague, Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, who had the responsibility for the legislation in the Senate. Anyone who observed the way in which she handled the legislation or listened to the debate could only admire the superb way in which she undertook her task. So the task of the Parliament for the time being is now done. But an even greater task hes ahead for the Government and for all members and that is to put the new law into practice so that it may fulfil the aspirations of the Aborigines of the Northern Territory. It is a task which I, the Government and the officers of my Department willingly undertake. We will have the help and the assistance of the parliamentary committee, consituted by members of the Senate and of this House which the Government has proposed. That proposal has already been approved by this House and I expect it will be approved by the Senate. In the further task of putting the legislation into practice there must be the most complete consultation and participation with the Aborigines. I promise them that and I look forward to the opportunity of putting this legislation into practice for their benefit.

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