Thank you, Madam President. I second the motion that the address-in-reply to the opening speech by the Governor-General be agreed to. I have been honoured by the Northern Territory community in being elected to represent their interests in the Senate. I wish to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, who are the traditional owners of this land, and to thank one of the elders of the Ngunnawal people, Matilda House, for her welcome last week and her presence in the gallery today.
As the Country Liberal Party senator in this chamber, I will be continuing the great work of Bernie Kilgariff and Grant Tambling. Both of these dedicated Territorians have made a vital contribution to the life of all Australians. My thanks to everyone who encouraged and supported my endeavour to represent Territorians’ interests in Canberra. The Country Liberal Party and the people of the Northern Territory offered a wonderful level of support. Thank you.
I would like to thank particularly my wife, Jenny, and my three children, Sarah, Daniel and Luke, who have travelled from Darwin to be with me today. I suspect my two young boys are enjoying one of the universal pleasures of having an acceptable excuse for a few days off school.
In 1985, when I arrived with Jenny in the Northern Territory, I knew that our search for a home and a place to start a family was over. You have never seen such a place! On the journey north to Alice Springs, through the Red Centre, you cannot help but be impressed not only with the magnificent harshness of the desert country but also with the Centralians who have built such a splendid town and a vibrant tourist industry, with products that rank amongst the finest in the world. Arguably, Australia’s finest and most comprehensive advertising campaign has been conducted by the Arrernte desert people. Wherever you travel in the world you will see images of Central Australia depicted in the unique art of dot paintings. All Australians, particularly those involved in the tourist sector, have benefited significantly from the efforts of those hardworking Territorians.
Darwin has to be the true cosmopolitan capital of the world. We have people from half the nations in the world represented in our population, and the other half wants to move there. It is the friendliest place in the world—the kind of place where you can leave the airport, jump in a cab, drive to one of our many watering holes and sit down and have a beer, and within an hour you will be sharing a table with a whole range of new mates. It is just that sort of place. So I had this vision of sitting on a vessel surrounded by perfect balmy weather and swaying palm trees, catching barramundi and getting paid for it. I thought: that seems to be a great way of life. A professional fisherman—that’s the life for me, I thought. Well, the vision was soon shattered. As anyone who has made a living from the sea will attest, success is usually about very hard work, a few tears and a fair bit of luck.
There were pretty significant downsides to living off north-east Arnhem Land: the harshness of the environment, the unforgiving nature of the sea. Challenges ranged from the unpredictable—like being grovelled by a wounded buffalo when attempting to put some meat into an otherwise all-seafood diet—to the more predictable—like cyclones, and trying to resolve fights with your missus in the confines of a 40-foot vessel. I must say the downsides were substantially outweighed by the upsides: the unlimited pleasures of waking up each day in one of the most beautiful, pristine and remote areas of Australia. Imagine it, if you can: emerald-coloured rainforests that come down to a crystal clear, cobalt sea. It is just a glorious place to work and a glorious place to live.
As a conservationist and a fisherman, I have developed and maintained a keen interest in the use and control of our natural resources. I am the immediate past chairman of the Australian Seafood Industry Council, one of the largest conservation groups in Australia, the work of which I have no doubt is well known to the members of the chamber. I can remember—as perhaps many other people in the chamber will—that, as a young bloke, `environmentally friendly’ meant putting the cigarette butt out in the beer can before you threw it out of the window. In the past, we had followed what we considered to be the world’s `best practice’. We were encouraged to cut down those `ugly’ native trees and we were encouraged to plant wheat and other European crops. We treated fisheries as if they were a danger to swimming. `Bigger vessels, more capacity!’ cried the experts.
Australia now understands that the worst aspects of environmental degradation in this country, evidenced by dryland salinity, degraded rivers, depleted fish stocks and a net loss to our biodiversity, are the result of our own historical world’s best practice. I have noticed with growing concern the call for primary producers to stop these practices overnight—`Fisherfolk, lay down your lines!’; `Irrigators, just give up your water quota!’; `Graziers, clear no more land!’— without consideration for compensation. If we ask the food producers of Australia to repair 50 years of our bad management and our bad advice without adjustment packages, and that means compensation, then we are asking for the job not to be done.
I was delighted that, in his speech yesterday, His Excellency the Governor-General highlighted and reflected on Australian’s concerns about the environment. The establishment of a new Sustainable Environment Committee of cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister will most certainly place this most important of issues under the strongest focus of government. As part of the Australian Seafood Industry Council’s role in protecting our natural resources, it lobbied the federal government to take a strong stance with regard to protecting our sovereign resources in the Great Southern Ocean. I am delighted to report that this government now has a policy that sends a clear message to those who come to Australian waters with the intent of stealing our fisheries resources: `If you come to steal, we are prepared. You will be caught, you will be prosecuted, and it is very likely you will lose your vessel and your equipment.’ This is a strong policy that has resulted in a substantial decline in the number of recidivist illegal fishers.
In an international sense, Australia has been a leader in the high seas fishing agreements and is widely respected for its strong position on maximising the benefits to Australia over the sustainable use of our marine resources. Unfortunately, it seems that our policies with regard to our offshore oil and gas reserves do not enjoy the same focus of putting Australia first. Recent discussions with representatives of the oil and gas industry reveal that serious consideration is being given to constructing a floating liquid natural gas plant over the Bayu-Undan gas field north of Darwin. This has actually been proposed as an alternative to bringing natural gas onshore to be processed in Darwin and to connect Australia with cheap, efficient power. Instead of creating jobs and an economic stimulus in the Northern Territory and Australia, these jobs will be created in Korean shipyards, and another nation will enjoy the economic benefits that are necessarily associated with the construction of liquid natural gas production plants. You would have to agree that this is clearly not in our national interest.
Processing the gas offshore and having gas loaded into ships destined for overseas markets gives the impression that Australia has an unlimited supply of gas or that there is little domestic demand for this commodity. We all know that is not the case. What legacy shall we leave our children? Will they live in a truly independent country—you know, independent; not to rely on another—or will we leave our children with a country that relies on other nations for its power supply? Or, instead, will we leave them with a country that has access to affordable power and enjoys the jobs, the economic stability and the security that comes with industries that thrive on affordable power? Every endeavour must be made to ensure that, if multinational companies wish to profit from our natural resources, they accept that future use of extracted resources should be managed in a way that maximises the long-term interests of all Australians. I will continue to work with this government to ensure that the resources that lie to the north of my beloved Territory are extracted in a way that achieves this outcome.
I have also been closely associated with the issue of sea rights. In fact, I am one of the principal respondents to the Croker Island test case of native title over seas. We entered this process willingly and will accept the determination of the court in this matter. Aboriginal land under inalienable freehold title comprises 84 per cent of the Northern Territory coastline, with virtually all of the rest of the coastline under land claim. Almost the entire area of the intertidal zone of the Northern Territory, in some cases stretching over a kilometre seaward, is also under claim. My principal concern is that, if these claims are granted, the fish stocks that live or move through these waters will no longer enjoy the protection offered under our fisheries legislation, thus enabling new owners to issue additional access rights which will inevitably place extra pressure on our currently well-managed fish stocks. The depletion of fish stocks, particularly in breeding areas, will lead to depletion in other areas. You just cannot take the plug out of one end of the bath and expect the water to remain in the other.
Much of my time in the Territory has been spent on land that belongs to Aboriginal people and on waters adjacent to that land. Indeed, the times my wife and I valued most were those spent with our only neighbours at the time, the Aboriginal people who inhabit their lands and islands along the Arnhem Land coast. It still amazes me that in the Territory you can drive for days in a vessel through myriads of the most magnificent islands or for countless hours across country so rich not only in a cultural sense but also in an economic sense, with potential for industries such as tourism, aquaculture and forestry, and yet when you arrive at the home of the proud owners of these vast, rich tracts of land you are not greeted, as you may well expect, by a community whose housing, health and economic wellbeing reflect the riches of their land. Instead, dwellings sometimes consist of a few sheets of tin, and the overall community demonstrates the lowest standards of mainstream education, the lowest standards of health and an average life expectancy for men which is less than my current age.
I do not stand before you claiming that I have the answers to this most complex challenge. In fact, if you ever get a phone call from somebody who claims to have the answer to the challenges facing indigenous Australia, just hang up. Whilst I am sure that the social debris from the collision between a Stone Age culture and modern times is not going to be cleaned up through implementing just one or two ideas, I suspect that the special Aboriginal freehold title issued to indigenous Territorians under the current legislation is a sad comparison with the real freehold title enjoyed by other Australians. The nature of the tenure of this land is a principal impediment to development and the economic self-determination that will surely follow.
Residents of our six states may not be familiar with legislation that gives rise to such discrimination against indigenous Territorians in relation to their land, that provides for massive sea and river closures and that drastically reduces our capacity to manage the marine environment in a sustainable manner. This is because the Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction affected by such legislation, and that legislation is of course the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Since the introduction of native title, the Northern Territory now has a double whammy. We have two Commonwealth acts dealing with essentially the same issues. If a single Commonwealth act is good enough for the rest of Australia, then it should be good enough for the Northern Territory.
I will be calling on the members of this house to support Territorians in amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act that may be brought forward to make it consistent with native title. I strongly believe that appropriate amendments will deliver not only a secure and sustainable economic future for all Territorians but also the capacity for genuine self-determination for indigenous Territorians.
The Aboriginal land act is an ill-considered piece of legislation that became law in the Northern Territory in 1976 because Territorians had no choice in the matter. Madam President, the people of the Northern Territory are regularly reminded of the fact that we often have little input in determining our own future. A stark example was the euthanasia debate. Territorians’ very mature attempt to resolve the most complex of social issues was treated with contempt, and our decisions were overturned as if we were errant children. This is the sort of reminder that keeps the vision of statehood and the struggle for self-determination fresh in the minds of Territorians.
I was very pleased to hear His Excellency the Governor-General reflect the government’s position that Australian society is fundamentally built upon the principles of fairness and equity. I am delighted to report to His Excellency that statehood is again a focus of discussion in the Northern Territory, and I will be working with all levels of government to ensure that the principles of fairness and equity are applied to all Territorians as we take our legitimate place in the Federation as the state of the Northern Territory.
At some time during the escalation of hostilities in East Timor, prior to that young nation’s independence, my eldest son, Daniel, sidled up and stood quite close to me. He was silent for a moment, which, in Dan’s case, usually prefaces a statement of great import—or he has broken something. He said, `Dad, when the war comes here, will I have to fight?’ I assured him that there would be no war in Darwin and he would not have to fight anyone. I also reminded him that the last time Australia was attacked was 60 years ago, when Darwin was bombed. We then spoke for a while about how lucky we are; about how Australia, in comparison with the rest of the world, is a hostility-free country.
Dan’s concerns were also a reminder that Darwin, whilst it is the capital of the Northern Territory, is also an Australian capital in South-East Asia. In such turbulent times, I see much wisdom in the words of a great Australian and Territorian, the late Reverend Fred Mackay, who suggested, `We should view tolerance and forgiveness as greatness.’ If these words were to become the mantra of all Australians, our beloved island home would remain free, for another 60 years, of the sorts of hostilities that have tormented so many other nations of the world.
I will work with the members of this chamber to ensure that our legacy to the children of Australia is at least equal in quality to the social, economic and environmental legacy that previous generations of Australians have bequeathed to us. I have always felt a little sad for all those Australians who have not made the Northern Territory their home. In the interests of fairness and equity, I invite the members of the Senate to visit the Territory at any time; and, when you are there, experience a new benchmark in hospitality and, in your memories at least, take home a slice of paradise.