I acknowledge the traditional owners of this country, the Arrernte people of Alice Springs.
Thank you for welcoming me again to your country.
And thank you to AIATSIS for inviting me to make this closing address today.
Thank you also so for organising these fundamentally important events over the years. You have made a major contribution to getting the best out of our Native Title system for indigenous people and for the whole country.
I decided to take leave from Senate Estimates to be with you today not simply because I do not look so good on video but because I thought it would give me a great opportunity to network and to learn. I hope to engage with many of you at dinner tonight and I will be in Alice tomorrow morning if anyone wants to catch up.
While George Brandis as shadow Attorney General has prime responsibility for the Native Title System, as shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs I have responsibility for Native Title Representative Bodies and for making sure that native title holders and claimants and indigenous people generally, get the best possible service and a fair result.
Twenty years have passed since the Native Title Act became law and 15 years since the 1998 amendments. The National Native Title Tribunal and the Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner are celebrating 20 years of service to the Native Title sector.
Over those years the nature of native title work has changed as we move towards making the most of economic opportunities in managing small and large investments. After 20 years of claim work, many groups who have won recognition are now focusing on how to convert that recognition into meaningful practical benefits for traditional owners. Integrating native title into the governance of the regions creates challenges for PBC’s and NTRB’s and governments.
But it also provides great opportunities.
It would be fair enough to say that when the native title system began all those years ago that there was a fair amount on trepidation on the part of the general public.
Well, despite the large number of claims being settled, the sky has not fallen in. Native Title is now an accepted part of how we do business in Australia.
There is still a backlog of claims that concerns me and I have always been saddened that too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people pass away before their native title rights have been recognised and their land returned. We still have some way to go.
If I am lucky enough to become the Minister after the next election my priority will be to do whatever I can to speed up the process and to ensure that indigenous Australians get the best possible economic return and economic opportunities from their Native Title rights and from the land that they own.
The Coalition is not a friend of the anti-development brigade. The Coalition respects the rights of all landowners to develop, and indeed to not develop, their lands. However, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make an informed choice that they do want to develop their lands to secure economic benefit, they will find no better ally than a federal coalition government. We will want to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to gain the maximum advantage possible from their land and their Native Title rights. It is in the Coalition’s DNA to do this. The way in which Tony Abbott and the Coalition took a stand on Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation is proof of that. We will not put up road blocks to Indigenous development we will remove them. We will not foist it upon landowners but we will facilitate it.
I have been talking with the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council about a significant problem they face across the state. All too often once land is granted it is subsequently being declared a conservation area. Aboriginal land has become an easy target for local government authorities to use to demonstrate their “green credentials”. It happens in other jurisdictions too, sometimes under the banner of “World Heritage”. We must be prepared to take a stand against this sort of nonsense.
It is government’s role primarily to remove the barriers and let the people make it happen. Governments need to be careful about interfering. For example, political interference in the operation of the Indigenous Land Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia over the last few years has proven to be to the detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Those two organisations now need a major overhaul. If we win government I will want to put that right, while of course maintaining the value and integrity of the iconic Indigenous Land Fund.
The Aboriginal Benefit Account in the Northern Territory has copped its share of political interference too. It is my firm view that the fund should not be the subject of raids by government from now on.
If I become Minister, I will be responsible for the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory. I do not think that we have adequately explored the potential for the empowerment of local people that might be possible under the 2006 amendments. Despite the controversy that the media always chooses to whip up when anyone suggests a change in indigenous affairs I have been simply saying that there might be an alternative to a growing momentum from local people to set up breakaway land councils. We should be open to exploring how section 28, which allows for the devolution of some powers to local people, might be used as a pressure release valve for those emerging tensions. When I discussed this with the Full Council meeting of the NLC the other week, people were quite constructive about the idea. We should talk some more about this.
I do want to see more progress on home ownership and land tenure reform across the country. It is untenable that the only form of housing in some remote communities is that funded by the Commonwealth government. I am not satisfied that State governments have really shown good faith in a true tenure reform agenda to provide for proper home ownership in remote communities. Home ownership should be seen as a great opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and not a threat.
Despite a massive investment we will always be chasing our tail in terms of bridging the overcrowding chasm. We do need to foster the emergence of something that might begin to look like a normal housing market in some of these locations. It cannot happen overnight but we must energetically head down the path of home ownership and bringing in private capital to create private rental opportunities.
Returning to NTRB’s. While there being some ups and downs NTRB’ have generally performed their functions well and have not only been responsive to the needs of claimants but also to the needs of business. The work of recent years to improve the capacity of staff involved in NTRB’s has made a very positive difference making you an increasingly desirable employment destination for highly qualified and motivated people.
But the environment is changing as I mentioned before .I understand that FaHCSIA is undertaking a review and I have just received a copy of their discussion paper. I understand that the report of the review will be completed about the time of the election and delivered to an incoming government. I want to reassure you today that if the Coalition is successful at the election that we will be consider the report very carefully.
I began this address by acknowledging the Arrernte traditional owners of this place. Sometimes I think that the acknowledgements we give roll off the tongue too easily.
Governments need to demonstrate real respect for those Aboriginal people that have the authority in their land. Ron Morony, who many of you will know, was generous enough to take me with Pat Turner from IAD to meet with some very important local Arrenrte people here the other week. You see, we cannot solve the problems or realise future opportunities without them. They are the ones that need to take charge and we should support them. Governments should talk to indigenous elders as leaders to leaders. I think it is fundamentally important that governments are seen to be reinforcing and respecting cultural authority every step of the way. I have also been speaking to Smiley Johnson about how we might begin this in New South Wales as well. I will have more to say about this in the future.
Finally we as politicians, administrators, government bureaucrats and service providers will in the end be judged by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the ground by the extent to which we provide for better outcomes.
And that is as it should be.
I look forward to meeting you tonight and hope to be working with you for the advancement of the indigenous Australians in the future.
My door is always open.
Download media release:
130605 Native title conference.pdf