House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021; Second Reading

9:59 am

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was a major achievement of both the Whitlam Labor government and its successor, the Liberal government led by Malcolm Fraser. The legislation was introduced by the Whitlam government, lapsed on the dismissal of that government in 1975 and was then reintroduced and passed, with Labor's support, by the Fraser government in 1976. The land rights act was based on the recommendations of the final report of the Woodward Aboriginal Land Rights Commission in April 1974. In that final report, Commissioner Woodward said that he believed the first aim of Aboriginal land rights is 'the doing of simple justice to a people who have been deprived of their land without their consent and without compensation'. Commissioner Woodward went on to state that the aims of land rights could be best achieved by measures which included the following:

(a)   preserving and strengthening all Aboriginal interests in land and rights over land which exist today, particularly all those having spiritual importance,

(b)   ensuring that none of these interests or rights are further whittled away without consent, …

Woodward's final report included drafting instructions for the bill that became the land rights act, which was the first legislation passed by any Australian government giving legal recognition to Aboriginal land ownership. This law has been of immense significance in shaping the Northern Territory ever since, with the provisions of the land rights act now governing around half of the land area of the Northern Territory.

Although this bill we are now debating was only introduced to the parliament last week, without any prior briefing to or consultation with Labor, in the week we have had it we've done our best to examine the sweeping changes this bill will make to Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. The minister, in his second reading speech, described this bill as 'the most far reaching set of reforms to the land rights act since it was enacted in 1976'. The minister went on to say:

The reforms are about activating the economic potential of Aboriginal land to grow the prosperity of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory for the long term.

…   …   …

This is a new era of land rights—one that empowers Aboriginal people to unlock the potential of their land and grow their communities, their businesses and their culture for generations to come.

Labor will always support effective measures to support the economic empowerment of Indigenous Australians.

In that context, I want to note that I was very pleased to see that, unusually for this government, it has consulted on the design of this bill with First Nations people who will be affected by its measures. In particular, the government has consulted with the four land councils of the Northern Territory: the Tiwi Land Council, the Central Land Council, the Anindilyakawa Land Council and the Northern Land Council. All four of those land councils strongly support the changes this bill will bring about. In a media release welcoming this bill, dated 25 August 2021, the Northern Land Council stated:

This historic bill represents years of effort by the Northern Territory land councils working with the Commonwealth government on the most significant set of reforms since the Land Rights Act came into effect in 1976.

In that same release the Chairman of the Northern Land Council, Mr Samuel Bush-Blanasi, is quoted as saying:

We have been working on this now for many years. For the first time Aboriginal people have been at the table with government ensuring the interests of Aboriginal people are front and centre. Finally we are seeing real progress.

Labor takes great comfort from the involvement of the four Northern Territory land councils in the development of this bill.

There are a number of measures in this bill directed to the objective of economic empowerment, which we see in the bill's title. Specifically, this bill seeks to make four significant sets of changes to the way in which the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 operates. First, the bill will establish a new Northern Territory Aboriginal investment corporation, an Aboriginal controlled corporate Commonwealth entity funded from the existing Aboriginals Benefit Account. The ABA was established in 1952 and continues to receive royalties from mining on Aboriginal land. Decisions about investment and other payments from the ABA are currently made by the Australian government with advice from the ABA advisory committee.

The new Aboriginal Investment Corporation is being established by this bill to make investment decisions largely independently of government, led by a board of eight Aboriginal representatives from the Northern Territory, two government appointed directors and two independent directors appointed by the board. This new body will also take over responsibility for making beneficial payments to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory that are currently made by the ABA. This is a very significant reform. The ABA currently holds some $1.3 billion accumulated from mining royalties. The government has stated that the Aboriginal Investment Corporation will receive an initial $500 million endowment from the ABA, with an additional $60 million per year during the first three years of its operation.

The second set of changes made by this bill are to the processes around negotiation, consent and approval for exploration and mining ventures on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. The government says that these changes will reduce inefficiencies and delays without compromising the rights of traditional owners. This includes measures the government says will facilitate 'more flexible traditional owner consultations' by land councils. I note that this government has a dismal history with respect to making changes to traditional negotiation and consent processes in the context of native title. In recent years, claimed improvements to make those processes more efficient have in fact come at a cost to the rights of First Nations people and have threatened the integrity of traditional decision-making processes. With that concern in mind, we have done our best to analyse the implications of the changes this bill will make to those traditional processes. Ultimately, we are guided by the fact that, unlike previous measures of this kind introduced by this government, in this instance there have been extensive consultations with the four Northern Territory land councils, and they have given their strong support for these measures. On that basis, Labor will support their passage.

The third set of changes this bill makes are to land administration arrangements under the land rights act, particularly with respect to community-controlled policing arrangements. This includes a range of measures to give land councils greater authority to act on behalf of their communities without ministerial approval and increase penalties for unauthorised access to Aboriginal land. As part of these changes, Labor welcomes this bill's repeal of section 28A of the land rights act, which was introduced by the Howard government in an attempt to fragment and undermine the authority of the land councils and which Labor opposed at that time. An attempt by the previous Labor government to remove this power was blocked in the Senate, but fortunately the power has never been used and we welcome the fact that the government has finally bowed to pressure from the land councils to remove it. The bill will also bring about the repeal of section 74AA of the land rights act, which was part of the Howard government's 2007 Northern Territory intervention. That provision has the effect of preventing land councils from overturning permits for accessing Aboriginal land that had been granted by a minority in the community and against the wishes of the traditional owners. That provision should never have been introduced, and its repeal is welcome.

Fourth, and finally, this bill will align the operation of the ABA under the land rights act with the Commonwealth financial framework by ensuring that payment of mineral royalties is consistent with Northern Territory legislation and by clarifying the purpose of the ABA. I note that the measures in this bill enjoy strong support from the four Northern Territory land councils, and Labor is happy to support their passage today.

Before I finish my remarks about the reforms contained in this bill I want to return to its title, which includes a reference to the stated purpose of this bill, which is economic empowerment. Speaking on the occasion of NAIDOC Week in November last year, my friend and colleague the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, the member for Barton, reiterated in unequivocal terms that Labor's commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart is rock solid. She made clear that our commitment includes support for establishing an Indigenous voice to the parliament in our Constitution. It includes establishing a makarrata commission, which will have responsibility for agreement- and treaty-making, and it includes establishing a national process for truth-telling.

My friend and colleague in the other place Senator Dodson, known across our nation as the father of reconciliation, had this to say during NAIDOC Week last year:

The Uluru Statement is a very important invitation to the nation, in order to take things forward and deal with a Voice to the Parliament, have that constitutionally entrenched; to deal with the Truth-Telling about our history, and our relationship, and an understanding of how it's intertwined, and has contributed good things as well as many sad things. But it's also an opportunity for us to relook at our relationship and enter into agreements around the many things that still cause consternation to First Nations peoples, and that actually diminish our nation because we've been haven't resolved them.

Voice, treaty, truth: these are the pillars of Labor's commitment to honouring the Uluru Statement from the Heart. As I've said before, it's of deep regret to me that the pillars of the Morrison government's response to that invitation to reconciliation have been arrogant silence, cynical obfuscation and lame excuses for the government's continuing to do precisely nothing.

It is clear that this bill includes important reforms that will help to provide a degree of economic empowerment to First Australians of the Northern Territory. However, it's of great regret to me that this government continues to deny First Australians from across the entire nation the more profound empowerment that they have asked for with such eloquence in the Uluru Statement from the Heart—voice, treaty, truth. It has been said of this government that it knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. While this bill makes welcome changes that Labor supports, if this government were respectful of the wishes of First Nations people across this nation and were serious about the lasting empowerment of First Nations communities, it would be focused on honouring the three key requests of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, rather than on trashing them.

Despite the appalling failings of the government in responding to the Uluru statement, I acknowledge the good work that has been done here to develop the reforms in this bill in consultation with the Northern Territory land councils. Labor commenced this bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.