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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1449

Senator BOB COLLINS(3.29 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron), to a question without notice asked by Senator Lundy today, relating to the management of Kakadu National Park.

Senator Hill, the Minister for the Environment, recently met with the board of management of Kakadu National Park. At that meeting—he was accompanied by Senator Parer—the future management of the park was raised not surprisingly with Senator Hill by the Aboriginal traditional owners. I have spoken to a number of them who were at that meeting. They told me that they were impressed with how forthright Senator Hill was in his answer to that question.

Senator Hill told the Aboriginal traditional owners, who represent a majority of the board, that the Commonwealth had `no hidden agenda' on this issue. He said that there had been no formal approach to the federal government from the Northern Territory government and, if there were to be such an approach, the traditional owners would be the first to know and their wishes in this matter would be paramount.

I would like to commend to Senator Herron and Senator Hill—and indeed to any other senators—a paper that was prepared, at my request, by the Parliamentary Research Service on this question in 1992. The paper provides a very succinct history and background as to the legal situation concerning the parks. I have always believed in giving credit—and I have given credit—where credit is due. I want to commend Senator Hill—

Senator Hill —That's worrying. That will not do me any good.

Senator BOB COLLINS —I am sorry about that, Robert, but I am quite sincere when I do this. I want to commend Senator Hill for the very direct way in which he answered the paramount concern of those people. I want to pass on to him the fact that they were extremely thankful and commended him for it.

The paper lays out the position very succinctly, as papers from the Parliamentary Library normally do. The parks are leased back to the Commonwealth government for 99 years. The parks are on Aboriginal owned land by virtue of a grant in freehold title to the relevant Aboriginal land trust under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. These 99-year leases specifically include provision for joint management of the parks by the Aboriginal owners and the Commonwealth parks service. Clause 9(b) of the lease agreement with the Commonwealth agrees not to transfer, assign, sublet or part with the possession of the park or any part of the park without the consent in writing of the lessor of the Kakadu Aboriginal Land Trust.

Senator Campbell —Why didn't you ask the question of the responsible minister?

Senator BOB COLLINS —I will answer that in a minute. A number of other clauses are enshrined in the lease to ensure against the enactment of any act or regulations that could substantially be detrimental to the interests of the owners—that is, the Aboriginal people. Any such action could be seen as a breach of a legally binding agreement by the Commonwealth, and would expose the Commonwealth to a substantial claim of damages.

The paper concluded that persuasion and coercion would be the more likely tactics to succeed in any alliance between the Commonwealth and the territory government to transfer management against the wishes of the owners. The reason I raise that is that the paper—it is an excellent paper on the legal position regarding Kakadu—makes it very clear that the most obvious way this would be done would be through a decline in budget funding for the park. I am assured by the statements made by the Minister for the Environment that there is no hidden agenda, and that that will not be the result in the budget.

Senator Campbell, in response to your interjection, we had thought of coming in here today and asking Senator Hill a question on these issues. But, on reconsideration, we decided that we would direct the question instead to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron). At the weekend Senator Hill's assurances to the traditional owners got very prominent coverage in a major national paper, the Weekend Australian, where these assurances were prominently carried.

I was genuinely surprised that the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, on an issue this significant—it got lots of publicity in the Northern Territory, let me tell you—was completely unaware of the assurances that his colleague had given to the Aboriginal traditional owners of the park.

These are important matters. We were interested in hearing a response from Senator Hill, but it was decided to ask the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs if he was aware of these widely publicised matters in order to find out just how much importance the government places on the Aboriginal affairs implications of this major issue. Judging by the performance of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs here in Senate question time today, the answer is: very little.

Question resolved in the affirmative.