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Thursday, 22 August 1985
Page: 144


Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(11.20) —The Senate is debating the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 1985 and the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1985, the purpose of which is to give title to the Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park to an Aboriginal land trust. The transfer of title from the Commonwealth to the Aboriginal land trust is conditional on the national park being leased back to the Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act provide for a management plan for the Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park which also will apply to any other park containing Aboriginal land which in the future is declared a prescribed park for the purposes of the Act.

The area of land containing Ayers Rock and the Mount Olga monoliths was first set aside for the purposes of a national park in 1958 and was controlled and managed by the Northern Territory Reserves Board. Under the 1975 National Parks and Wildlife Act, in May 1977 this area was declared a national park with the name Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park. The administration of the park has continued under the successor of the Northern Territory Reserves Board, the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory. Ayers Rock, of course, is one of Australia's most important-some would say the most important-landmarks and its importance as a tourist attraction has increased dramatically, particularly in recent years. This has been reflected in the investment of some $150m in the Yulara tourist complex which provides accommodation and facilities for over 3,600 visitors to the national park.

There has also been a substantial Commonwealth investment in the national park. Since Uluru National Park was declared in 1977, the Commonwealth has allocated some $7.8m to the capital and operational costs of the park. The significance of Ayers Rock for both Australian and international tourists was summed up in the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service plan of management for Uluru in 1982 as follows:

For many Australians, Ayers Rock continues to be associated in indefinable ways with `the outback experience', and is often used in advertising both within Australia and overseas. Tourists commonly believe that not only is the area worthy of a visit because it is spectacular and different, but also because one somehow becomes more `Australian' having seen Ayers Rock.

The management plan also notes that Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef are major tourist destinations for overseas visitors to Australia. In the period from 1960 to 1975 the number of visitors to Ayers Rock increased by an annual rate of 19.8 per cent. From there being just over 2,000 visitors to the national park in 1958, almost 80,000 tourists went to Ayers Rock during 1980-81.

A land claim for the area of the Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park was first lodged by the Aboriginal Central Land Council in February 1979. This land was added to land claimed by the Land Council in November 1978. Fourteen persons belonging to threeparticular linguistic groups, including the Pitjantjatjara group, were named on the original claim presented to Mr Justice Toohey who, in his report to the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and to the Minister for Home Affairs on the Uluru (Ayers Rock) National Park land claim in 1979, noted:

As the hearing progressed other people were added as claimants until in the end more than 100 persons were said to be traditional owners of land within the claim area.

I understand that the Central Land Council has identified `about 300' traditional owners. According to the March edition of the Aboriginal newsletter published by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs:

Although the Multitjulu people are the most important traditional owners of Uluru, Aboriginal tribes from all the Pitjantjatjara land which extends into South Australia and Western Australia have religious and cultural links with Ayers Rock and Mount Olga.

The original claim was lodged under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which is subject to amendment under the legislation we are now debating. Section 50 of this Act permits land claims to be made by Aboriginals in regard to unalienated crown land. The effect of declaring the Uluru National Park, however, was to vest the park in the Director of National Parks and Wildlife. In his submission to Mr Justice Toohey, Mr Barker, QC, stated:

The land was neither Crown land nor was it unalienated Crown land. It was not Crown land because the vesting in the Director effected an alienation from the Crown of an estate in fee simple and also it was land set apart for a public purpose under the National Parks Act. If it was held to be Crown land, it was not unalienated because a person other than the Crown, viz. the Director, had an estate or interest in it.

Mr Justice Toohey therefore concluded:

The land within Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park is not unalienated Crown land and is not available to be claimed under s.50 of the Land Rights Act.

The purpose of this legislation is to amend the Act to provide that the area of the Uluru National Park held by the Director `shall be taken to be an estate or interest held by the Crown in right of the Commonwealth', thus overcoming the obstacle to the original claim and enabling the Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga) National Park to be granted to an Aboriginal land trust.

As I have said, the grant of this land is conditional upon the trust leasing the park to the Director of National Parks and Wildlife. The Federal Labor Government, thus having given Ayers Rock away, will now be renting it back on a 99-year lease at an annual rental of $75,000 plus 20 per cent of the gross proceeds of park entrance fees. This is expected to amount to $100,000 in 1985-86, with an additional $50,000 needed for the administrative expenses of the management board. This is, of course, additional to the operational and management costs of the park which in the past two years have amounted to something like $1m a year.

The amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act provide for the introduction of a management plan for the Uluru National Park. A management board will be established which is to have a majority of Aboriginal members nominated by the traditional owners of the land. I would have thought that this could give rise to some very practical difficulties, given the comment of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service in its Uluru National Park management plan that:

Aboriginal associations with the Park are complex, variable and widespread. They are still evolving in response to changing circumstances. It is difficult to quantify this in terms of numbers of people with an attachment to the area . . .

The Bill further provides that meetings of the board may not be held or continue unless the majority present at the meeting are Aborigines appointed by the traditional owners. The board, of course, will have a very powerful role in the management and operation of Uluru National Park. In conjunction with the Director of National Parks and Wildlife, it will have the responsibility of constructing and implementing a management plan for the park. Should a disagreement arise between the Director and the board, this is to be referred to the Minister who, if unable to resolve the dispute, may appoint an independent arbitrator. The plan of management will also require the approval of the Australian Federal Parliament. While I do not necessarily question the need for the Aboriginal communities to have a voice in the management of the national park, I question whether they should have a majority on the board.

The administration of the park covers a whole range of issues, from geological aspects and the management of flora to the needs of visitors to the park and administrative matters. Many areas are involved which, of course, do not necessarily impinge upon matters which may be presumed or claimed to affect the Aboriginal community. If the park is to continue to run for the benefit of all Australians perhaps more weight could have quite properly been given to these other factors. The inescapable conclusion, as with all the matters contained in these two Bills, is that decisions have been made primarily with regard to political expediency. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Holding, in a Press release issued by his office in February last year, was reported as having said:

The transfer of title to Uluru was more than just a recognition of the rights of the Pitjantjatjara people to Ayers Rock, it was a clear commitment to the general principle of Aboriginal land rights.

It is clear that giving title to Ayers Rock and Mount Olga National Park to Aborigines, regardless of the feelings and wishes of all other Australians, is a political gesture made in the face of increasing opposition to uniform land rights legislation. Ayers Rock is very much a symbol of Australia, both at home and abroad, and is something that I believe all Australians have a share in as part of their national heritage.

That is not to deny the importance and the significance of the area to many Aborigines. This has been recognised and provision has been made to protect areas of special significance. In 1974, for example, Aborigines requested that certain areas around the base of the rock be off limits for tourists and that other areas be periodically closed for periodic use. Subsequently this was done. To say, however, that Ayers Rock does not belong to all Australians and that it is not part of our national heritage but belongs to a small group of Aborigines who will allow us to rent it from them is to me quite deplorable. I think many Australians will find it hard to understand why Aborigines need to have title to the land on which they are already able to enjoy their traditional and cultural pursuits. This is surely contrary to the concept of a national park which is held by the Government in trust for present and future generations. The very fact that the land has now been granted to the Aboriginals, who have promptly and expeditiously rented it back to the Australian Government at $100,000 a year, to me is a reflection not of the cultural and spiritual association the land has for the Aboriginal community, but of the fact that they claim it of right and seek to exploit that claim in a material and financial way.