Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007; Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007; Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007; Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008
The Australian Democrats oppose part 4, clauses 31 to 64 in the following terms:
(2) Part 4, clauses 31 to 64, page 28 (line 2) to page 51 (line 30), TO BE OPPOSED.
Part 4 is to do with the acquisition of rights, titles and interests in land. This is a pivotal part of this legislation but it is not a pivotal part of ensuring better protection for Aboriginal children. These land related measures have been called lots of things by a whole range of people, but from my point of view they are clearly ideologically driven and, frankly, quite clumsy. No evidence that was put forward or provided to the admittedly disgracefully brief inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into this legislation drew any linkage between the need for the government to acquire rights, titles and interests in land and the issue of addressing child protection.
If there was one single thing the government could do to demonstrate goodwill, to demonstrate its recognition of the need to reduce and remove apprehension and suspicion amongst many Aboriginal people about all that is happening at the moment in the Northern Territory, then removing this part of the legislation would be it. Everybody knows that land rights for Aboriginal people were hard fought and hard won, particularly in the Northern Territory. Everybody knows the initial implementation of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was put in place by the Fraser government. It was one of their most significant legacies, which one would think the Liberal Party would be keen to claim and highlight. That legislation was backed on a cross-party basis at that time and retained cross-party support right through until very recent times.
That is not to say that land rights law is some iconic thing that should never be altered under any circumstances or that it operates perfectly in every respect, but to make amendments that remove people’s property rights in a capricious way and without consultation or any evidence to back up the assertions as to why this measure is needed to address issues such as child protection is bound to raise serious concerns across the board and particularly with Indigenous people.
As I have stated a number of times already, there is a very important responsibility on all of us not just to make this legislation as effective as possible but to do all we can in an ongoing way to maximise the chances of making a positive difference for Aboriginal children and families in the Territory and, ideally, more widely around the country. A key pathway for doing that is to recognise and embrace the common ground, the shared goals and those areas where there is widespread agreement and remove those parts that have no relevance to what is being proposed and the stated goal, such as this measure before us, and that increase suspicion and are a barrier to building trust and cooperation.
If there is one part of this whole package that is a barrier to that trust and cooperation, it is the government simply moving in and giving itself the right to acquire rights, titles and interests in land. That would be something of massive concern to anybody in the country. It is of particular concern to Indigenous people because they had their land taken away from them the first time around without any consent and by processes that were immensely traumatic and destructive. They won back those rights after enormous struggles. To have them just taken away again without a very strong reason, without strong consensus, without consultation, without consent and without any evidence that it is in any way related to justification of the government’s action is simply unacceptable. The Democrats simply cannot support this part of the legislation. For the reasons I have just outlined, we cannot support this legislation if it retains this measure.
All of us have spent a lot of time over the last six or seven weeks trying to hear the views of the Australian community and particularly the views of Indigenous Australians—and, more particularly, the views of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. I fully recognise Senator Scullion as one of only two people in this chamber who are from the Territory. No doubt he has far more engagement on a day-to-day basis with people in the Territory and, I would assume, with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. I do not see any point in getting into a ‘someone told me this versus someone else told you that’ discussion, but from all of the responses I have heard from Indigenous people this is the one area, along with the permit system changes, that comes up most consistently—and that includes many of the people I have spoken to who, in broad terms, welcome the government’s intervention. I do think it is important to reflect and acknowledge in the Democrats’ contribution to the debate on this legislation those views that have been expressed to me.
There are a lot of Aboriginal people who are so desperate, who have been calling for assistance for so long, that they are willing to support the government’s intervention because at least it offers them some potential for hope compared with what was not happening and had not been happening for so long. I acknowledge that, as I said in my contribution to the second reading debate on this legislation. But, even amongst the strongest supporters of the government’s intent that I have spoken to and heard from, I have not heard a single Aboriginal person say, ‘Yes, this is needed.’ There are some who say, ‘If we have to cop this along with it, we’ll cop it because of what we hope will come with it,’ but I have not heard a single Aboriginal person say, ‘Yes, we need to allow the government to take over the land; yes, we need them to be able to do the five-year leases.’
Even more so than with the permit system, this issue is one where not a single voice has said, ‘Yes, this will make a difference to child protection.’ I am not denying that there are some out there who believe that; I am saying that the overwhelming view is that if you are trying to move forward in a way that will maximise the chances of working together with people and getting a cooperative outcome then removing this part of the legislation is absolutely key.
As I said at the start, these measures are clearly ideological. It is no secret that they barrel along with the ideological agenda of the minister with his 99-year leases and so on. I have said on the record that I am not 100 per cent opposed to any amendment to the land rights legislation, and I am not 100 per cent opposed under all circumstances to exploring forms of leases—99-year leases or anything else. What I am opposed to is imposing that on Aboriginal people and taking away their rights without their consent via legislation. This is a key principle. We have heard some members of the government, quite ironically, relying on international conventions to justify all they are doing—particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am pleased to hear the government focusing on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I shall encourage them to look at it more frequently in all of their actions. But an overarching part of almost all international human rights conventions, whether it is the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—particularly when you are dealing with Indigenous peoples and particularly when you are dealing with issues that are removing their rights—is consent. There is no consent here. There has not even been an effort to gain consent.
The sad irony of what the government say they need these powers for, which is to move in and be able to build infrastructure and houses, is that there are no proposals for new houses in any of the funding that is attached to the appropriations for this legislation. Can you name any Aboriginal community in the Territory that, if the government said, ‘We are coming in, we are going to build a new house and we are going to build a new something else,’ would say, ‘No, go away’? Of course they would not. They have been asking for it for years. It is no surprise that so many people think that there is some other agenda here.
These measures are clumsy and ideological. They are not necessary and they are not related to child protection. There has been no evidence put forward to draw any link between those two issues. All we have had, at best, are some general assertions that this is somehow holding back the development of infrastructure, with no evidence to demonstrate that the government’s proposal would fix that problem in any particular way or that that has been a problem. This is a crucial part of the legislation, and the Democrats call on the government to demonstrate some degree of willingness to work cooperatively with people at a community level, to endeavour to build essential forms of trust and to recognise the need to strengthen and empower people at community level. You do not empower people by taking away their rights, particularly in such a heavy-handed, unjustified and non-consultative way.