Shayne Neumann MP
Federal Member for Blair

Australian Labor
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Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2015

24/11/2015

I speak in relation to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2015. In the last week the Labor opposition released some significant policy with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. In the last week we have delivered our commitments in relation to justice and the Constitution and the meaningful and substantive change that we seek. We have announced our recommitment to the development of justice targets in closing the gap and our commitment to justice reinvestment for the first time in the history of this country. Upon the election of a federal Labor government there would be a commitment to a national approach to justice reinvestment, the proper evaluation of the Bourke site and three new launch sites in relation to justice reinvestment. We also announced our commitment to justice in gender equity, addressing the shocking rates of Indigenous incarceration amongst Aboriginal women, and also in relation to making sure that vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, particularly young women, at school can ensure that they finish their schooling.

There is much that we disagree with the government on in relation to Indigenous affairs policy. We have been highly critical of the Abbott-Turnbull government's commitment to and almost obsession with, it would seem, cutting their way to closing the gap. We have been very critical of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. But we support the legislation before the chamber. We will support good policy when we see fit, and we support this legislation.

Not enough Australians actually know about the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. It was conceived during the Whitlam Labor years but was passed with bipartisan support under the Fraser coalition government. For the benefit of those who may be listening, the legislation allows for title to land to be granted to a land trust on behalf of the traditional owners. That title is owned by the traditional owners in a communal body in the nature of Aboriginal land ownership. The act provides that land councils who represent traditional owners can negotiate with developers and mining companies on their behalf. It also provides that royalty equivalent funds from mining and development on Aboriginal land are to be paid to an Aboriginal land account and dispersed on an annual basis for the benefit of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory after an advisory committee has advised the minister about where that money should go. That is an important piece of legislation, and it has received bipartisan support since its inception back in 1976.

This legislation was born out of a long history of strength and struggle by Aboriginal people across the country, culminating in the historic Yolngu bark petitions, the Wave Hill walk-off and the moment, which is etched in our national history, when Gough Whitlam poured sand through the fingers of Vincent Lingiari. Recently we celebrated yet another historic moment of justice and healing—the 30th anniversary of the handback of Uluru to its traditional owners, the Anangu people. The Anangu people have been connected to Uluru and the surrounding land for thousands of years. It was a special relationship that was not always respected. Gough Whitlam's decision was controversial at the time, but it has now been accepted by the Australian community. It has been a tremendous asset to the Australian community and it is an important part of our history. The handback did not always enjoy understanding and bipartisanship, but I am very pleased that this has grown over the last 30 years.

The special connection of the traditional owners to their land was officially recognised by the government of the day and recently celebrated in the Northern Territory. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act remains a critically important piece of legislation, which safeguards hard-fought Indigenous land rights in the Northern Territory. It is worth bearing that in mind every time this House considers changes, no matter how big or small, to this important piece of legislation. It is important that changes to this legislation have the full, free and informed consent of traditional owners, and this has been done here, to the credit of the government. I note that all four land councils in the Northern Territory, representing traditional owners in the Northern Territory, have been consulted and have given their support for this legislative amendment. As such, respecting the land councils' support—and we have contacted them ourselves—we support the amendments.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act has been an important vehicle for Aboriginal economic development in the Northern Territory, and these amendments will empower Aboriginal people to further progress economic and social development opportunities in the Northern Territory. The community of Mutitjulu is located on Aboriginal land at the base of Uluru and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, two World Heritage listed sites. Since my appointment as the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, I once again visited Mutitjulu community and discussed issues in relation to the challenges they face. There are exciting economic opportunities for the Mutitjulu community in close proximity to these sites. As we honour the historic handback of Uluru, we must also recognise that the land that was handed back to its traditional owners was immediately leased to the Commonwealth government to be jointly managed by the government and the traditional owners for 99 years. The current lease expires in 2084.

The bill expands the function of the executive director of township leasing by allowing it, on behalf of the Commonwealth, to hold a sublease of Aboriginal land. Importantly, the bill provides that the executive director of township leasing may transfer a sublease of Aboriginal land to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporation. This is important because traditional owners must be empowered to make decisions about their land and economic development. The community control of subleases of Aboriginal land gives Aboriginal people control over how their community is developed, and that is critical. It will allow for a leasing model that builds on the aspirations and vision of Aboriginal people for what they want to happen on their country. To support the transfer of subleases to Aboriginal corporations, the Aboriginals Benefit Account will provide funding to facilitate the transfer.

The bill makes some important amendments in relation to the delegation of land council functions to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations. While I am very happy that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs has decided not to pursue the same path he took last year in relation to land councils, I think the government made a terrible and tragic mistake in terms of the relationship between the government and the land councils through the minister's almost obsessive attitude at the time. He wanted to bring in a regulation that would have stripped the land councils in the Northern Territory of some of the most important functions that they had, while at the same time making them legally responsible for decisions made by corporations that may not even have had any connection to that particular land or any Indigenous representation. We opposed that decision. We opposed it in the Senate and we were successful in stopping it, with the support of the crossbenchers and the Greens.

Those functions are critical for the land councils to exercise in a way that respects the traditional owners, and I am pleased that the government has had a change of heart. They have had an almost Damascus-road-conversion experience on this issue and want to restart their relationship with the land councils. It was a very inauspicious start for the minister. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs did not have the consent of traditional owners and the land councils to try and make those changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. But, finally, after the changes were fiercely opposed with much rancour and bitterness in the Northern Territory, the government saw fit not to make them.

A different approach was taken by the minister when he spoke at the Garma Festival. I spoke at the festival myself, and he spoke the night before me. He wanted to reset the relationship with the land councils, and I am pleased with the approach that he seems to have taken in relation to this legislation before the chamber. The opposition and the land councils have supported this particular amendment. We intervened in the past, but we will support this legislation. When the government puts forward good legislation that will benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we will support it. The minister has consulted in relation to this issue, and I am pleased that he has now listened to the concerns of traditional owners and the land councils.

We have to have genuine partnerships with the traditional owners and the land councils in the Northern Territory if we want to achieve anything. I hope that the minister and the government have learnt a very valuable lesson from the fiasco of the authoritarian way in which they tried, upon their election to government, to almost destroy the land councils. The amendments repeal section 28C, removing the minister's ability to override a land council decision not to delegate functions. We welcome that. This overriding decision-making power of the minister to overrule the land council, in addition to the inability of a land council to exercise functions or powers once they have been delegated, has impeded development in the area.

The land councils, as I say, are very important organisations in the Northern Territory. They comprise the traditional owners. We welcome the amendments to repeal provisions that would remove their decision making capacity in relation to their land. Similarly, we support the amendment to allow for variation of land council administrative areas at the request and with the agreement, consent, approval and approbation of the land councils. I congratulate the traditional owners of the parcels of land in respect of the Wickham River, Simpson Desert and the Vernon Islands, which are returned to their ownership under schedule 1 of the land rights legislation. We support the legislation before the chamber.