House debates

Thursday, 24 November 2022


Northern Australia Joint Standing Committee; Government Response to Report

9:11 am

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

On behalf of the coalition I welcome the opportunity to respond to the ministerial statement. Firstly, I too acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal peoples past, present and emerging, and I also acknowledge members of the alliance. Thank you for your detailed work and working with the government.

On behalf of our shadow environment minister, Senator Jonno Duniam, I would like to express our gratitude to the minister and her office for providing us with notice yesterday that she would be making the statement. I also commend the minister on the depth and the sincerity of her address.

Clearly, the issues canvassed in the statement are extremely important and they command very serious attention and consideration. As the minister noted, Juukan Gorge is one of the oldest sites of human occupation in Australia, and it is home to many forms of profound and sacred Indigenous heritage. It has always been the coalition's view that the events at Juukan Gorge on 24 May 2020 represented a tragic failure in Rio's interaction with the Traditional owners. More broadly, they drew into very sharp focus the wider need for the modernisation of Indigenous heritage protection laws here in Australia.

Accordingly there are a number of points in relation to these on which the coalition resoundingly agrees with the minister. Indeed—and I'll return to the point later—we are very pleased that the minister has now made clear that she will be continuing the work that had already begun in this area during the years of the coalition government and particularly through our then environment minister, Sussan Ley, and Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt. That work was underpinned by funding in the 2021-22 budget that was specifically devoted to developing an engagement process to identify the best ideas, frameworks and models for reform.

As we also said throughout that time, we always considered that it was vital that this process be centred on the views and the experience of the traditional owners. In meetings at the time between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, there was a very clear and collective view that the Juukan Gorge disaster should serve as a launchpad for reviewing and modernising Indigenous cultural heritage laws, and we were very pleased to instigate that process.

The coalition would also like to pay special tribute today to the work of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia. It is their work more than anyone's that is continuing to serve as the foundation for the policy development in this field. That committee worked in a very considered, sensitive, bipartisan fashion under the outstanding leadership of the member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch.

As the minister said in her statement today, the committee also drew on a range of very powerful and compelling evidence from Indigenous Australians. All of that led to a series of seminal conclusions and recommendations. It is also very pleasing to see a bipartisan approach in adopting so many coalition policies going forward. Further, I note the minister's very important commitment today that the approach to Indigenous cultural prediction is, 'not about stopping development or halting progress'. Any work that is aimed at improving cultural heritage law should not be transformed into an exercise that demonises industry or imposes unacceptable risk to sensible, sustainable economic development across Australia.

On the matter of the government's decision to accept the first seven recommendations of the joint standing committee's 2021 report, the coalition will take that commitment at face value. We're also comfortable that the government will continue to at least explore the potential merit of transferring responsibilities for Indigenous cultural protection from the environment minister to the Indigenous affairs minister. We look forward to seeing the outcomes of all of that work.

That said, it does become apparent, from listening to the minister's statement today and from reading the accompanying document, that these outcomes may not be reached for many years. That creates some concern. As does the intensifying sense of unease across the business community, in the resources industry in particular, about Labor's broader agenda in the environment portfolio.

There has been considerable shock and dismay in response to the Albanese government's decision to hand nearly $10 million in funding in the recent budget to radical environmental activists. The effect of the decision to review 18 coal and gas projects approved by the previous federal environment ministers has also been concerning. Through the IPA's detailed analysis, we now know that this action alone could cost 174,000 Australians their jobs and cause the loss of $100 billion worth of investment in our country.

In turn, there is also growing disquiet about the government's imminent release of its response to the Samuel review of the EPBC Act and its looming creation of an environmental protection authority. However, in the meantime, we again thank the minister for her statement today. We also pay tribute to the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge for their ongoing determination to preserve and honour their beautiful and phenomenal cultural heritage. We thank all of the many people who have been involved in the past two and a half years in trying to turn an environmental tragedy into a much more positive and inspiring future.


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