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Wednesday, 25 August 2021
Page: 8523

Mr WYATT (HasluckMinister for Indigenous Australians) (09:56): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

When Vincent Lingiari and other Gurindji people walked off Wave Hill station on 23 August 1966, their dignified call for land rights and justice resonated around the nation. They paved the way for land rights in the Northern Territory.

In 1976, the Fraser government passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act with historic bipartisan support. The previous Whitlam government had established the Woodward royal commission in 1973 to inquire into land rights and tabled the first legislation in 1975.

Enactment of the land rights act by the Commonwealth, just 10 years after the Gurindji sat down at Wattie Creek to demand the return of their country, remains a proud day for the nation.

Today, that history is continued through the introduction of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 by the government, the most far-reaching set of reforms to the land rights act since it was enacted in 1976—and almost 55 years to the day after the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966.The Gurindji people had organised the Freedom Day Festival for this coming weekend but unfortunately the event has been cancelled for the second year in a row due to COVID-19. It is hoped the Gurindji people will be able to reschedule this festival for the near future.

Importantly, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have asked for these reforms and they have been extensively co-designed with traditional owners in the Northern Territory and their land councils over the last 3½ years.

The co-design process, and the intent of the reforms themselves, put the government's Closing the Gap commitments into practice, through shared decision-making, working in partnership with Aboriginal people, and supporting strong economic participation and Indigenous peoples' relationship with their land and waters.

The land rights act provides the strongest form of traditional land title in Australia. It enables the grant of land title to Aboriginal landowners in the Northern Territory, and sets up Aboriginal land councils to represent traditional owners and help manage that land.

It also continues the Aboriginals Benefit Account (known as the ABA), which was originally established in 1952 by then Minister for Territories, for whom the electorate of Hasluck is partly named, the Rt Hon. Sir Paul Hasluck, to collect amounts equivalent to royalties from mining on Aboriginal land. It is these amounts that fund the land rights system in the Northern Territory for the benefit of Aboriginal Territorians.

The ABA has accumulated substantial wealth from the abundance of Aboriginal land resources. Recently, the mining boom has seen the ABA almost double from around $634 million in 2016-17 to over $1.3 billion today.

While the fight for land rights is ongoing for some families, for many in the Northern Territory their hopes and dreams for the return of their land have been realised. More than 47 per cent of the Northern Territory is now Aboriginal land and Aboriginal Territorians, along with Indigenous peoples all over Australia, are seeking new ways to activate the potential of their land.

The Morrison government is unlocking the ABA to empower Aboriginal Territorians to do exactly that. As our Prime Minister, the Hon. Scott Morrison MP, said in his 2021 Closing the Gap address, it is economic opportunity and a culture of responsibility and empowerment that provide the foundation for the transformation of local communities.

The centrepiece of these reforms is the establishment of a new, Aboriginal controlled corporate Commonwealth entity—the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation (the new corporation).

Currently, all decisions about ABA funding are made by the Australian government. This includes the beneficial payments, where the Minister for Indigenous Australians makes the final decision on payments, on the advice of the ABA Advisory Committee. Despite the fact that ABA money largely reflects royalties from mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal Territorians are not the decision-makers for how the money is spent. This is about to change.

The new Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation will be funded from the ABA to invest in projects that will grow wealth, create jobs and support sustainable Aboriginal economies in the Northern Territory for the long term—for generations ahead. It will have the ability to invest in a wide range of projects from agriculture and aquaculture, tourism opportunities and community art centres. It will also make decisions about and administer beneficial payments shifting decision-making from Canberra to the Northern Territory.

For the first time, an Aboriginal controlled body will be able to use funds derived from the ABA to strategically and proactively seize and generate economic and social investment opportunities.

The Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation will be led by a board of eight Aboriginal representatives from the Northern Territory, two government appointed directors, and two independent directors, appointed by the board. This board composition captures the representation, cultural and financial expertise and independence required to make these critical investment decisions.

The bill guarantees a substantial amount of ABA funding for the new corporation. It will receive from the ABA an initial $500 million endowment, $60 million per year during the first three years of its operation and subsequent funding each year.

With these assets the new corporation will be a significant new economic vehicle in the Northern Territory. Increased investments will support long-term, large-scale Aboriginal economic development, building the productive capacity of the Northern Territory economy, growing Aboriginal enterprise and jobs and improving the intergenerational transfer of wealth for Aboriginal families and communities. The effects of growing Aboriginal economies will flow across the Northern Territory economy benefiting all Territorians, with an estimated boost to gross regional product in the Northern Territory by $484 million out to 2029-30.

To hold the new corporation accountable at the local level, its investment priorities will be set out in a strategic investment plan based on consultations with Aboriginal people and organisations in the Northern Territory and tabled in the parliament.

As a corporate Commonwealth entity, the new corporation's governance structures will also ensure accountability at the national level. A strong investment committee will provide business advice and support to the board. Investments over $100 million will require the agreement of government, and rules set by the Minister for Indigenous Australians and the finance minister will govern the new corporation's ability to loan, borrow and provide guarantees.

This is a reform which is long overdue, with recommendations for changes to the ABA stretching back to 1984. The Northern Territory land councils have provided their support to the introduction of these historic reforms.

In addition to these momentous changes, this bill also enables other mechanisms for activating the potential of Aboriginal land.

Current processes relating to exploration and mining under the land rights act can be unnecessarily time-consuming and costly for all stakeholders. These problems were identified in an independent review published in 2013. We have worked with peak industry bodies, the land councils, and the Northern Territory government to develop workable solutions to these problems.

The changes to the exploration and mining processes create clarity and build confidence for industry and investors by:

improving the processes for consideration of exploration licence applications;

reducing the length of time for an application to be granted once traditional owner consent has been provided;

saving money and time as a result of more flexible traditional owner consultations; and

updating definitions to align with relevant Northern Territory legislation.

Importantly, the rights of traditional owners are maintained.

The final component of this bill is a package of land administration amendments which strengthen Aboriginal control over decision-making, address operational gaps and remove unused provisions.

Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory recognise the cultural and economic value of township leasing, which provides for decisions about land use to be made locally by traditional owners. Under the leadership of Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu, it was the Gumatj traditional owners in East Arnhem Land who, in partnership with their land council, first proposed and advocated for an intergenerational community lease held directly by a local Aboriginal-owned corporation. The government worked with the Gumatj people to develop the first locally held township lease over the Gunyangara township, executed in 2017.

More recently, this year the Jabiru township lease commenced operations: held and governed by local Mirarr people. Township leases on the Tiwi Islands, in Central Australia and on Groote Eylandt each have designated provisions to allow them to transfer their leases from the Commonwealth Executive Director of Township Leasing to another entity, ensuring other traditional owners will be similarly empowered to have a community-controlled lease over their land.

The amendments will embed the community-controlled leasing model by providing a process for nomination by a land council and approval by the Minister for Indigenous Australians and set out a general budget process from the ABA. All community entities will be required to incorporate under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006, thus codifying existing practice.

The amendments will standardise the community-controlled leasing model in the land rights act and provide for greater local decision-making on Aboriginal land to deliver housing, business and government services outcomes that meet the needs of the local community. This in turn establishes a secure and certain environment for investors, critical to fostering economic development opportunities on the Indigenous estate.

The bill repeals section 28A, which currently allows the delegation of certain land council functions to non-statutory organisations, such as local Aboriginal corporations. Section 28A was introduced into the land rights act in 2006 but has never been used. Removing this redundant provision will simplify land administration on the Indigenous estate and will clarify that community-controlled township leasing is the preferred mechanism for local decision-making.

In a further effort to maximise the opportunities to promote local Indigenous control over decision-making, the bill clarifies that land councils can enter into agreements in respect of land that is the subject of a deed of grant held in escrow. This will provide increased certainty for residents, businesses and government service providers, particularly in towns that are transitioning to local Aboriginal control because mining operations in the area are winding-up.

A further measure in the bill clarifies arrangements for issuing and revoking permits to access Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. This issue became apparent as a key risk during early days of the emergency response to COVID-19 with Northern Territory remote travel restrictions. The amendments repeal section 74AA of the land rights act, which currently prevents land councils from revoking permits for access to Aboriginal land issued by minority groups within a traditional owner community.

The bill demonstrates this government's respect for and commitment to protecting Aboriginal land. It increases the penalty for unauthorised access to Aboriginal land from 10 penalty units to 50 penalty units. This will deter people from unlawfully entering or remaining on Aboriginal land. Commencement of this increase will be delayed to allow the Northern Territory government to amend its Aboriginal Land Act 1978 to enable consistency.

Taken together, the reforms provided in this bill realise the longstanding aspiration of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory for greater control over decision-making and realise the potential of their land.

Aboriginal stakeholders in the Northern Territory have strong voices through their land councils and this government has committed to only amend the land rights act with their support.

At all stages of the process, the land councils have consulted around 220 elected landowners from whose land the ABA moneys are generated, agreeing to principles and providing input to the design of the reforms.

The government would like to take this opportunity to thank the Northern Land Council, the Central Land Council, the Anindilyakwa Land Council and the Tiwi Land Council for the strong partnership that produced this highly significant set of reforms. We acknowledge the outstanding leadership of their chairs, Mr Samuel Bush-Blanasi, Mr Sammy Wilson, Mr Tony Wurramarrba and Mr Gibson Farmer Illortaminni.

The government also acknowledges the members of the ABA Advisory Committee who have contributed to the reforms and provided government much valuable advice on funding needs in the Northern Territory, including the chairs, Ms Leanne Caton and Ms Barbara Shaw, who made important contributions to the reforms.

The global pandemic has prevented these strong Aboriginal leaders and many more from witnessing the introduction of these historic reforms in person, but they are watching from afar.

These reforms are about creating enterprise opportunity. They are about supporting Aboriginal Territorians to manage the land that has been the lifeblood of their lore and culture for at least 60,000 years and still is today.

The reforms are about activating the economic potential of Aboriginal land to grow the prosperity of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory for the long term. Through the new corporation we are supporting our elders and our youth, our Aboriginal business men and women, our artists and our rangers to take the destiny of their communities in their hands.

This is a new era of land rights—one that empowers Aboriginal people to unlock the potential of their land and grow their communities, their businesses and their culture for generations to come.

I commend this bill to the chamber.

Debate adjourned.