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Wednesday, 9 October 1996
Page: 3788


Senator ELLISON(3.07 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Parer), to a question without notice asked by Senator Eggleston today, relating to proposed amendments to the Native Title Act.

The question of native title has been one of the most important matters which has been brought before this Senate since federation. In fact, it was in this chamber that there was, I think, the longest debate in this country's history on that bill. At the time, coalition senators said that this bill was unworkable and history has proved it to be so. In fact, we have in excess of 380 claims across Australia. Forty per cent of the continent is under claim, yet no native title has been found. Satisfaction has not been found by indigenous people, developers, pastoralists, miners or people in industry. In fact, to date I would put to the Senate that the bill has been a disaster.

With these amendments, the government is intending to make the bill workable. I say to fellow senators, the Australian community and, in particular, members of the press: beware of anyone who criticises these amendments as being racist, beware of anyone who uses labels in this argument, beware of people who seek to attack the person in this argument because that would signify that they have lost the argument themselves. Too many people in this debate would try to argue it on emotive terms.

We have to look at this bill in an analytical fashion. We have to make the bill work. We have to amend the process whereby justice is meted out to all and, most importantly, where results will be achieved. To date, there have been a lot of complaints from industry and Aboriginal communities that there has been too much delay, that this whole process has become bogged down. Time and time again, senators from both the opposition and the government have said that lawyers have been the only ones to benefit from this native title process. I would put it to the Senate that these amendments go a long way to streamlining the process to make it workable and to cut out the role of lawyers who have enjoyed the proceeds from this process thus far.

When one looks at the right to negotiate one will see that it is possible on one project to have several rights to negotiate. That is in no-one's interests. Therefore, the amendment which proposes that you have one right to negotiate in relation to a project as a whole is a thoroughly sensible one. The amendment which says that you can deal with native title processes as well as state approval processes for a development is a thoroughly sensible one. The situation at present is that you have to go through state processes and only after that embark on native title processes. That gives you a cumulative effect which can take years before any decision is made.

As has been said by members of the opposition and the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron), there is a lot to be said for economic development in remote areas for Aboriginal Australia. In areas where there have been developments not only in the tourist industry but also in the mining industry, we have seen that Aboriginal Australia has benefited. It is by this process of facilitating development and taking native title rights into account at the same time and on an even balance that you can see how this framework can possibly work.

There is one other aspect I would commend—that is, the question of voluntary agreements, which Senator Parer referred to. The question of voluntary agreements has been a vexed one. People have wanted to come to an agreement, but they have been unable to because the system will not let them have an agreement which can work with any efficacy or certainty. This proposal by the government will allow a voluntary agreement to be registered. I think that is a step in the right direction. Of course, it is a complicated area.

The amendments will have to deal with a rather complex proposal where people who want to form an agreement in relation to native title will come together. Nonetheless, this government has not shied away from addressing this most complex area, something which the former government shied away from completely. The only amendments we had were in relation to the High Court decision of Brandy, which was foist upon the former government.

This government is addressing this complex problem head-on. That is a courageous effort on behalf of the government. I compliment Senator Minchin on his excellent work and consultation, which I might say has been extensive. That is a lot more than we can say for the Native Title Bill. Senator Cooney would remember the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs had seven days and an air force jet to go around this vast continent and consult with the whole of the country as to the whole of the Native Title Bill. We have had, I would submit, consultation which would be at least tenfold higher than that, and that is just in relation to some amendments to the bill.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Before I call Senator Bob Collins, I advise the chamber that Senator Herron has an answer to a question. I will ask Senator Herron to give that answer and the time for taking note of answers to questions will be adjusted accordingly.