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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15011

Mr MELHAM (2:31 PM) —My question is directed to the Attorney-General. Is it a fact that on 3 February 1997 the government received advice from a Queen's Counsel, consistent with previous advice from both the Solicitor-General and your department, that proposed amendments to the Native Title Act were contrary to the Racial Discrimination Act? Isn't it also a fact that in July 1997 Chief General Counsel Henry Burmester advised the government that its proposed amendments involved inconsistency with both the Racial Discrimination Act and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination? Given that the government's decision to ignore this advice and proceed with discriminatory amendments has exposed Australia to criticism, why is the government blaming the messenger for telling all Australians something the government has known all along?

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) —I was asked a somewhat similar question about two years ago. If you think back to the time that the opinions that you are referring to relate to, they were several months prior to the legislation being finalised in the Senate. As I explained about two years ago, we got advice on a continuous basis. We were quite satisfied at the time the Senate settled the legislation that our obligations were complied with and we were not in breach of any international obligations. The legislation was a fair compromise of contentious political interests. We are not in the business of providing legal advice at the drop of a hat or at the request of individuals even in this parliament. It is the ongoing practice of successive governments not to provide legal advice or even at times to mention that they have sought it.

The member for Banks suggests that the amendments to the Native Title Act are, in the view of some, in breach of international obligations. If you are referring to the CERD committee, which has recently reported, you would be well aware that in March and August last year we rejected the report of the CERD committee. It reiterated last week those same opinions, and again we reject the conclusion. There are no reasons offered. It is just simply adopting a political point of view in a report.