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Tuesday, 5 November 1985
Page: 1522


Senator ZAKHAROV —I address my question to the Minister for Resources and Energy. What is the Government's reaction to the campaign on Aboriginal land rights launched today by the Australian Mining Industry Council? Does the Government accept the claims made in today's advertisement and the supplementary material being distributed by the AMIC?


Senator GARETH EVANS —As the Minister responsible for the development of Australia's mining and petroleum resources, I am acutely conscious of the importance of those resources to the nation's future. To that extent, neither I nor the Government could object to the industry making a public case for continued reasonable access to land. But the Government and the community as a whole have a clear responsibility to take fully into account competing interests where they arise, to recognise the worth of competing claims for land use, and to provide some appropriate mechanism for enabling a workable resolution of conflicts where they occur. The land rights debate, as it has been conducted by this Government, has really been all about trying to find balanced and equitable solutions to very sensitive and difficult questions. It is a matter for real doubt whether the current Australian Mining Industry Council campaign, launched today, will contribute usefully to that process. I am not at all sure that it is appropriate to describe the campaign-which involves newspaper advertisements plus a mass of supplementary material which is made available to the media and others on request-as balanced and reasonable, as it has been by the Executive Director of AMIC, Mr James Strong. Certainly it is an improvement on the crude racism of the campaign waged a few months ago by the Western Australian Chamber of Mines, but a number of aspects of the AMIC campaign are, to say the least, unfortunate.

The first unfortunate element is the very graphic series of maps which have already started to appear-inevitably-in the media, showing the land that would be claimable by Aborigines if the Government's preferred model were to be adopted throughout Australia. The point that is not made nearly as graphically in the accompanying text is that the mere fact that land is made available for claim, in the sense that it is presently unalienated Crown land, does not mean that the claim will be granted. That depends, in turn, on a very elaborate claim process, and the clear satisfaction of one or other of a number of very firm criteria, including things like traditional entitlement or long term occupation.

The second major concern of the Government with the AMIC campaign is that the campaign's major theme, around which just about everything else revolves, is the claim that there should be a presumption in favour of exploration and mining, with Aboriginal interests having to overcome that initial presumption against their acceptance. The Government's position here is, very importantly, that there should be equal consideration of both interests: There should be no presumption in favour of exploration and mining in a situation in which the general interests of Aboriginal Australians are adversely affected; nor should there be any presumptive right to veto by Aboriginal interests which then has to be reversed. The Government's preferred model, with its tribunal and independent assessment procedures, provides for that equal consideration and will allow governments to make informed and considered decisions in these circumstances.

The third and remaining area of difficulty to which I advert is that the campaign material utterly refuses to acknowledge that the Government has already gone out of its way to meet mining industry concerns in relation to what are described in the material as the three unacceptable principles in the Federal model on the subjects, respectively, of access to Aboriginal land, compensation and protection of existing interests.

Discussions were held in June this year involving the Prime Minister, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, myself and AMIC which clarified-apparently to everyone's satisfaction at the time-the intended operation of the preferred model in those three areas in question. I subsequently sent a letter to the President of AMIC on 12 June confirming the substance of those discussions. Whilst there has been no formal reply to that letter to date, the Government has received no further representations on these matters, and I have been led to understand, as it certainly appeared at the time, that the Government's response satisfactorily met the industry's concerns. I am surprised that AMIC should see the need for its present campaign in view of the apparently large measure of agreement and understanding that has been reached, even acknowledging that nobody's position in this complex area should be regarded as absolutely final at this stage. For the record I table my letter of 12 June and seek leave to have it incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows-

Senator the Hon. Gareth Evans Q.C.

Minister for Resources and Energy

Parliament House

Canberra A.C.T. 2600

12 June 1985

Mr B. D. Watson,

President,

Australian Mining Industry Council,

P.O. Box 363,

Dickson, A.C.T. 2602

Dear Mr Watson,

Preferred National Land Rights Model

I refer to your letter to the Prime Minister dated 4 June on the above subject and to the Prime Minister's and my discussions with you on the same day, at which a representative of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was present.

In the light of those discussions, and having regard to comments made in your letter, it may be helpful to clarify the Government's position in respect of the three particular issues which you identified in your letter, namely access to Aboriginal land, compensation and existing interests.

I should mention that I am writing to you myself in the absence of the Prime Minister on leave, and that Mr Holding has seen and endorsed the text of this letter.

Access to Aboriginal Land

The Prime Minister has consistently made it clear not only to AMIC representatives but to Aboriginal groups, and by way of public statement, that no one group within the community should have the right to veto the development of national resources. He did so again at our meeting on 4 June.

The Government does support, however, the right of Aboriginal traditional owners to object to proposed exploration or mining on Aboriginal land. To the extent that there are objections, which cannot be resolved between the parties by negotiation, they will be heard and assessed by an independent tribunal, which will in turn make recommendations to the Government for final determination.

While this process does acknowledge the special interests of the Aboriginal people concerned, and the need for the Government to be fully and objectively informed of the issues involved before making a determination, it cannot in any way be interpreted to amount to an Aboriginal veto.

Given the expressed intention to ensure that both the preliminary negotiation stage and any subsequent tribunal process will be constrained by specified time limits, the Government cannot accept, either, that such a procedure would amount to a ``de facto'' Aboriginal veto, or would amount to such an impediment or disadvantage to the mining industry as to dissuade potential investment in exploration and development of resources in this country.

In the course of our discussions, you pointed to the wording in paragraphs 9.1 and 9.7 of the preferred model and indicated that your Council had drawn the conclusions that Aboriginal traditional owners of land would be given the right to refuse consent in a way similar to that which is provided to Land Councils under section 40 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

I hope that what I have said above makes it clear that what we have in mind is simply an objection procedure-to be resolved by the machinery I have described-and not what you call a ``presumptive right to veto which has then to be reversed''.

As was indicated during our meeting, I and Mr Holding will be willing to meet further with AMIC representatives, either personally or through our officials, with a view to looking further at the wording in the model so that any doubts you may have as to the Government's intentions on this issue are removed.

Compensation

As to compensation, the Government seeks to do no more than ensure that compensation is based on actual damage or disturbance to the land in question. What must be recognised, however, is that the relationship with that land of the Aboriginal people involved may well-given the very basis of the principle of Aboriginal land rights-be of a specially sensitive character, and that cannot be ignored in the assessment of that compensation any more than any other specially sensitive land use can be ignored in assessing compensation in a non-Aboriginal context.

What is involved in the preferred model in this respect is not any generalised extension of the ``sacred sites'' concept, but rather simply a spelling out of the consequences, in this context, of an ordinary damage-based compensation regime.

Again it would appear that further discussion between your representatives and me and Mr Holding, or our officials, would be productive in resolving any misunderstandings which may flow from the language in which the preferred model is presently expressed.

Existing Interests

While the Government is not inclined to accept-given the very much greater impact upon the land that may be involved in actual mining operations-that the mere existence of a prior exploration title should in itself guarantee follow-on development title without further opportunity for negotiations and tribunal consideration, we do acknowledge the force of your point that regard should be given to the position of an existing title-holder who has spent considerable funds in exploration and proving-up.

As indicated in our discussion, we would be prepared to specifically acknowledge, and give legislative recognition to, arguments based on substantial prior expenditure, perhaps by requiring that the tribunal should have specific regard to this in formulating its recommendation in the event of a dispute. Again this is a matter which might usefully be pursued in further discussions between your representatives and Mr Holding and me, or our officials.

It is worth restating that the preferred model does not represent a final Government view. Rather it provides the basis for continuing discussions and consultation which are being undertaken by this Government. The comments which we have received from the Australian Mining Industry Council will continue to play an important part in our consideration of our policy objectives in relation to Aboriginal land rights.

Yours sincerely,

GARETH EVANS


Senator GARETH EVANS —I conclude by saying that the Government has endorsed the principles embodied in the preferred model as a proper, reasonable and balanced basis for the implementation of Aboriginal land rights throughout Australia. The Government has stated, through Mr Holding's announcement on 13 August, that the Commonwealth Government's clearly preferred position is that land rights be implemented by State legislation, by State action, broadly consistent with the Commonwealth's principles rather than by overriding Commonwealth legislation. It has been made clear that the Government will not be taking any final decision or action on this matter until ongoing discussions with Aborginal groups, State governments and other interested parties are complete. It will be unfortunate if it proves to be the case that the AMIC campaign raises the temperature of those ongoing discussions and makes more difficult still the achievement of a balanced and just solution which is in the interests of all Australians.