Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Native Title Amendment (Indigenous Land Use Agreements) Bill 2017; Second Reading

6:59 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | Hansard source

There is not a lot that I agreed with in Senator Ludlam's contribution. He and I have very different views about these issues, as we both acknowledge. But there is one thing that Senator Ludlam said which was spot on, and that is that the Labor Party are trying to walk both sides of the street on this issue. There is no doubt about it, and we saw that, embarrassingly, in Senator Chisholm's brief contribution, in which, for a change, he stopped attacking me and decided to attack the Greens—presumably in order to cover his tracks.

We still do not know where federal Labor stands in relation to the Adani mine, but we do know where state Labor stands. And you are right, Senator Ludlam, they are having the mother of all internal fights about this, because the Labor Party is deeply conflicted.

Senator Ludlam and others have suggested that this is a complex bill and that the parliament has not had time enough properly to consider it. With respect, Senator Ludlam, it is not a particularly complex bill. Of course, the area of native title law, the Native Title Act, is a large and complex act. And when the time comes to revise and reform the whole area of native title law, that will be a very complex exercise and it will involve a very long and complex debate. But that is not this debate. Those listening to Senator Ludlam might have thought that the Senate this evening is dealing with some comprehensive review of the Native Title Act. Not so—it is dealing with one very narrow, very discrete legal point, and that is this: whether or not the decision by the Federal Court of Australia delivered on 2 February this year in the McGlade case should be legislatively reversed. That is it.

Before the McGlade case, an earlier authority—a decision called Bygrave—determined that an area ILUA could be registered if it had been signed by at least one member of the registered native title claimant on the basis that the registered native title claimant as defined under the act was a singular entity. In McGlade, the full court of the Federal Court overruled that decision. It decided that an area ILUA must include the signatures of all individual members of the registered native title claimant, including any relevant members who are now deceased. That is the only question before us. And in the broad and complex field of native title, it is a narrow question. The bill restores the Bygrave decision.

So, Senator Ludlam and Senator Siewert, if you understood the Native Title Act before 2 February you understand it now, because this bill does nothing more than restore what was understood to be the law before 2 February. In fact, those listening to this debate might imagine that this is a very long bill. It is an eight-page bill, and by the time you take out the formal parts, there are five pages of provisions. I do not think that it is unreasonable to ask the Senate, or indeed the parliament, to deliberate on a five-page bill for four months. From the time this bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on 15 February this year to the time that it is being considered now on 13 June, some four months have elapsed. You might think that you can persuade the Australian people that it is rushing a bill to get the parliament to consider five pages of provisions in four months—five pages of provisions in four months! Good luck with that! I think the Australian people would expect the parliament to be good enough to deliberate and say anything that anyone wanted to say on five pages of provisions in the space of four months.

The debate has not been rushed. Not only has it been before the parliament for four months, but at no stage since the legislation came before this chamber has there been any abridgement of time whatsoever. It is not at all uncommon for there to be time management motions in the Senate or guillotine motions. The government have not done any of that. In fact, not only have we not sought to abridge the time for the debate, we actually sought to prolong it. When the debate nearly reached its end on the Thursday of budget week, Thursday 11 May, it was the government that moved a procedural motion that the Senate continue to sit on Friday 12 May until it had finished dealing with the bill. So far from abridging the time or stifling the opportunity for honourable senators to make their contributions, we actually proposed at that time for the debate be prolonged, and you voted against that motion. So please do not come in here to say this has been rammed through when it has been before the parliament for four months to consider five pages, and at no time have the government moved in the Senate to shorten the debate at all nor do we do so now. You go for as long as you propose. That is notwithstanding the fact that all of the native title claimant groups have urged the parliament to deal with this as a matter of urgency.

It is not just the native title claimant groups. Let me perfect the record and take you through the sequence of events. The full court gave its decision on McGlade on 2 February. Four days later, the Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, wrote to the Prime Minister asking for the parliament urgently to deal by legislation with the effect of that decision. Shortly after that, Senator Scullion and I met with Mr Glen Kelly, the CEO of the National Native Title Council, the peak group of Native Title councils—the stakeholders most immediately affected by this bill. Mr Kelly on that occasion and on many occasions since has urged on behalf of the native title stakeholders that the parliament deal with the matter urgently.

On 15 February, the bill was introduced into the House of Representatives and it was passed by that chamber on the following day, 16 February. On that day, it was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for report. The reporting date of that committee, which had initially been set for an earlier date, was extended until 17 March, so the Senate committee had a full month to consider this five-page bill. The report was tabled out of session on 17 March. The Senate committee made certain recommendations in relation to the bill, all of which the government accepted. The Labor Party supported the government senators. The Greens—Senator Siewert—were dissenters.

When the Easter recess of the parliament arrived and the bill had not been debated in the Senate, I convened a consultation workshop with the National Native Title Council members. I want to give credit to Senator Dodson, who has played a very constructive role in this debate, for suggesting that course of action. So representatives of all the native title councils in Australia were invited to a consultation meeting and many of them came. That meeting took place, by the way, in the presence of the opposition because we invited the shadow Attorney-General, Mr Dreyfus. Senator Dodson was also good enough to come as was the member for Lingiari, Mr Warren Snowdon, whose lifelong interest in this area ought to be acknowledged tonight. It is not very usual for governments to conduct stakeholder consultation in the presence of the opposition but, in the interests of transparency and seeking to reach the widest possible consensus of opinion about this bill, that is what we did. The native title council representatives met, and their message to us was, 'We support the bill, and we want to see the parliament deal with it urgently.'

I should say that there were two land councils represented at that meeting on 27 April: the Cape York Land Council and the Northern Land Council, which on that occasion suggested minor amendments which the government accepted. The government circulated those proposed amendments to all of those represented at the 27 April consultation meeting. So by the end of this process, by the time parliament came back at the end of the Easter recess for Budget Week, every single native title council was supporting the bill and urging that it be passed.

On 5 May, Mr Kelly, to whom I have already made reference, wrote to me referring to the consultation meeting on 27 April, and this is what he said: 'As expressed during the April 27 roundtable, there is consensus amongst NTRBs'—native title representative bodies—'and NTSPs'—native title service providers—'that the Native Title Amendment (Indigenous Land Use Agreements) Bill 2017, incorporating the amendments discussed at the 27 April roundtable, should be passed by the parliament at the earliest possible time. This has arisen from the view that it is firmly in the interests of the traditional owners across Australia for the bill to be passed, in that it will overcome the issues raised in the previous section of this correspondence—that is, the issues arising from McGlade.' He went on to say: 'For the sake of clarity and to reflect the discussions, this consensus refers to the original bill as put to the parliament with amendments reflecting the recommendations of the Senate committee report. These amendments were handed to the NTRBs and NTSPs at the 27 April roundtable. On this, the National Native Title Council urges the parliament to consider and pass this bill as soon as possible.' That is what the stakeholders wanted.

We have heard statements from the Greens—quite misleading statements—that Indigenous people have been kept out of the loop and that this is being imposed on them by some kind of deal between government and big business. Far from it. The people whose voices have been most loudly urging—indeed, beseeching—this parliament to get on with it and pass this bill are the traditional owners. That is what they have been saying. They have been saying it unanimously through their representatives, the National Native Title Council, which, as I say, is the peak stakeholder body.

So we introduced the bill into the Senate in Budget Week, and at last—after a lot of ducking and weaving by Mr Bill Shorten, I am bound to say—the Australian Labor Party, in the second reading debate, through Senator Dodson, announced that it would be supporting the passage of the bill. Notwithstanding that, the following day, on Thursday, 11 May, the Labor Party and the Greens voted not to consider the bill on the Friday of that week, Friday, 12 May. So, far from forcing this through the Senate, we actually moved—as I said earlier—that the Senate consider the bill for even longer than was usual, and you voted not to. You, Senator Siewert, and you, Senator Chisholm, and others voted not to do that.

So there we have it. Notwithstanding the urgings of every native title group representing all of the traditional owners that the parliament deal with the bill as soon as possible, and notwithstanding that there was unanimity, the government having accepted two proposed amendments, that this was the bill the traditional owners wanted, four months after this bill was introduced the Senate is still debating it. Hopefully that debate will come to a conclusion during the course of this week.

Please, let us not have any of these weasel words about the bill being complex; it is not. Let us not have any of these weasel words about the bill being forced through the Senate; it is not being forced through the Senate—in fact, you, Senator Siewert, and you on the Labor Party side voted to prevent the Senate considering it for an extra day. Let us not have any weasel words that this is not what the native title owners want, because it is precisely what they want, it is precisely what they unanimously asked for and it is what the government is determined to deliver.

Let me conclude my remarks at that moment so we can get onto the vote on the second reading. But before I do, I think it is appropriate that I put on the record my debt to Senator Dodson. Senator Dodson, of course, is a good person and a man of goodwill and has played a very constructive role in this discussion—a very constructive role indeed. I want to say that. Sadly, not all of his Labor Party colleagues have done so. We saw a trivial and footling article by Senator Leyonhjelm in The Sunday Mail a few weeks ago, full of lies and misrepresentations. We have seen Mr Shorten walk both sides of the fence, as Mr Shorten has done. But Senator Dodson has been a beacon of integrity throughout the process. You must be very lonely in the Labor Party, Senator Dodson, as an honest man amongst those thieves!

In any event, we now have a bill in the form that all the native title owners have asked for, and we ask the Senate to deal with it.


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