I want to express some disappointment and frustration with the response of the government to the recommendation that we split the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006 today and pass the core components we can agree on and move forward in a positive way. Key areas were identified at the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry and through the debate we had in this place last week as remaining areas of concern, not just for the senators in this place-we are, in fact, in the final stage of this debate-but, more particularly, for the people who gave up their time and willingly came to give evidence to the committee. As we have all heard, we went through an extremely truncated process, but nonetheless, even with that one day of public discussion, threshold issues of concern were raised, particularly around the issues of consultation and particularly regarding the 99-year lease process. We have had public expression of concern and requests, even pleas, from people in the community to try to get this process as right as it can be-and there is no doubt that the vote will go through and that the government will get their way and push through changes to the legislation-and where it can be done as positively and progressively as possible. We have an organisation of the status and credibility of Reconciliation Australia, an organisation of which I am a very proud and long-term member, writing to every senator in this place suggesting a process that would include splitting the bill and allowing for a very minimal time for us to address the issues that have been raised. They are not new concerns, processes, worries or obstructions; they are the kinds of concerns we already know about and which have been debated in this place. It almost seems as though we need an interpreter at times, because we have a group of people saying one thing and another group saying exactly the opposite. In that kind of environment there is absolutely no way we can lay in place the bases of legislation that will succeed, because the common goal of all those involved is that this kind of process will be successful.
Reconciliation has been signed off by people like my friend Jackie Huggins, Mark Leibler and Mick Dodson, who have taken the initiative to contact all of us in this place-not just people suggested by lobbyists-to say that they want to see a short delay in order to address the issues of concern around consultation, real discussion with communities and interested organisations, including all those who have expressed interest, and the real need to reach a bipartisan resolution. That is one issue that has been acknowledged. I quote directly from a letter from Reconciliation Australia:
• Offer the opportunity to reach bipartisan resolution, acknowledged by all parties as essential if Australia is to make progress in improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
That would seem to be why we are all here-we share a common goal and we want to see good and progressive outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
When you listen to the evidence that came before our committee-and most of us quoted from that last week-you will hear that there was no blanket obstruction. There were people who saw that there needed to be evolution and change. But there was genuine concern not about the whole legislation but about particular elements. No matter how many times senators on the other side of this place get up and say that this particular bill has been the subject of years of discussion and debate, they cannot escape from the issue that not all elements of this bill have been on the table for that whole period. It would be very useful if we could just agree that and move on, but it is almost impossible to get that degree of agreement. There seems to be this need to impose upon all of us a particular version of exactly what has happened and a particular view of history.
All of us in this place know, no matter what our backgrounds are, that there is no perfect process of reconciliation and there is no perfect process of consultation. What there must be is a genuine attempt by all those involved to make it work as well as possible. It is of no surprise, having read the evidence that came before our committee and having read the report that was the subject of that committee, to know that there has not been absolute agreement from all those involved that this is the best way forward at this time. I would have thought that it probably would have been a good thing for all of us to take a step backwards and to identify what we could agree to that is there and that has been the subject of years of discussion. We have the core players involved. The Indigenous community have accepted that this type of consultation has gone on on some aspects of the legislation. The Northern Territory government accepted in evidence, as directly quoted in our report, that there was a need for further consultation. As I said in the contribution I made here last week, it seems to me that we all have a responsibility to ensure that this consultation occurs and that it is not good enough to just say, 'Yes, it has,' or, 'No, it hasn't.' We should be listening to the people who came to our very short inquiry and told all of us in the committee experience, knowing all the rules of committees-because these people are not unaware of the processes-that it had not occurred. The local consultation had not been done; people did not understand the aspects of all parts of the legislation. They accepted some but not all-in particular, the issue of the threshold lease. The 99-year lease arrangement was not fully understood. The implications of that were not fully understood by all those who would be affected by it. It is not the people in this chamber who are signing away, on a 99-year basis, the leasehold arrangements for their land and also-as we were told in evidence provided by the OIPC and the Northern Territory government-without a clear understanding of or rules about what was going to happen.
There was agreement that people were told that the actual land rights, the core aspect, would not be signed away-and that is as it should be-but there was genuine concern that was put to us in a very painful fashion that they did not understand all the implications of what the result of that was going to be, except, as we have been told by Senator Scullion a couple of times in this debate, that people would be able to get housing and that they would be able to access education. As I have said before, I would have thought they were basic rights and should not have to be the subject of the process.
But the particular point that we are discussing now is whether we can find something we can agree on, which would seem to me to be the best way forward. By splitting this bill we would be able to have some aspects on which we could vote together. We would be able to say to the communities, 'We have heard your concerns.' We would be able to say to Reconciliation Australia that we do want to respond to the last genuine plea that they made in their letter. I quote:
Reconciliation Australia would welcome the opportunity to work with the Government and Opposition parties to maximise the likelihood that amendments to the land rights legislation encourage positive outcomes for the benefit of the nation.
That would seem to me to be a positive outcome. We can move forward on this. Allow the amendment to split the bill to go through, take the time to ensure that those other issues are addressed and get something positive out of this debate rather than just once again saying, 'I said, you said', with a desperate need to find some common ground.
14 August, 2006