Aboriginal Land Rights Amendment Bill 2013

The Hon. JAN BARHAM [4.46 p.m.]: I begin my contribution to the debate on the Aboriginal Land Rights Amendment Bill 2013 by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet: the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I acknowledge also the traditional custodians of our first nations across the State and, specifically, the Arakwal people of Bundjalung country from my home area at Byron Bay. I have been deeply honoured to have worked alongside the Arakwal people for almost 15 years. I pay tribute to the Bundjalung Elders Council, which, when formed in 1989, was the first Elders council in Australia. I believe Elders councils are overlooked in many considerations relating to Aborigines and their issues.

The importance of their role in local communities should not be overlooked. Elders councils are important. They should be recognised and funded to enable their great work to continue. From the outset I indicate that The Greens support the Aboriginal Land Rights Amendment Bill 2013. The bill implements a large number of targeted amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. In December 2011 Minister Dominello initiated a statutory five-year review of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The aim of the statutory review is to ensure that the purposes of the Act, namely, the provision of land rights for Aboriginal people in New South Wales, are being enabled through legislation.

A formal working group was formed to assist in the review. The group comprised, Mr Stephen Wright, Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act; Mr Geoff Scott, Chief Executive Officer of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council; Mr Sean Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council; Ms Stacey Meredith, a New South Wales Government recognised Aboriginal owner from central western New South Wales and a member of the Griffith Local Aboriginal Land Council; Dr Richard Sheldrake, Director General, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, and his alternate Renata Brooks, Deputy Director General, Catchments and Lands Division, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries; and Ms Kristy Masella, Group Manager, Social Justice, Office of Aboriginal Affairs, New South Wales. The working group was given the following broad terms of reference:
(1) Inquire into and make general recommendations as to whether the aims and objectives of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act require expansion or change of the Act in light of developments since 1983,

(2) Inquire into and make recommendations as to whether administrative and operational provisions within the Act require any change to facilitate and improve the efficacy of the Act, and

(3) Report all findings and recommendations by 1 November 2012 incorporating public responses following a period of public consultation.

The working group identified six broad topics to be addressed in its work: one, land claims; two, housing; three, regulative framework; four, incentives; five, targeted legislative amendments; and, six, miscellaneous matters for consideration. They were called upon to consider the targeted legislative amendments and were provided a draft of the amendment bill drafted by Parliamentary Counsel to review. This draft bill now forms the basis of what we are considering in the House. It is clear from the working group’s report titled, “Facilitation to Enable not Frustration to Disable” that after 30 years of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act there is significant room for improvement. Part of the reconfiguring means having frank dialogue and discussion about the Aboriginal Land Council entities, and the characterisation of funds and assets held by land councils. I doubt any member in this House would be satisfied with how land claims have been managed historically by the Department of Lands. Reform should be a priority for this Government.

Equally important is structural reform around the Local Aboriginal Land Council’s provision of social housing that the working group has identified. Approximately 30 per cent of the total Aboriginal social housing stock is owned by local Aboriginal land councils, with local Aboriginal land councils owning 2,670 properties in New South Wales. Previous NSW Local Aboriginal Land Council reports have highlighted that the Aboriginal social housing sector faces significant financial deficits that make repairs and maintenance of existing stock extremely difficult. We will have an opportunity to talk about Aboriginal social housing when the broader reform package comes to Parliament, but I am particularly interested in seeing greater consultation with local communities about the type of housing they want and greater training and employment opportunities for local residents, particularly in trades, in the delivery of any housing.

The Hon. Mick Veitch: Hear, hear!

The Hon. JAN BARHAM: Yes, it is an important issue. Very often Aboriginal people have ended up with housing that is not of their choosing and does not meet their cultural or domestic needs.

The Hon. Mick Veitch: And it is non-sustainable.

The Hon. JAN BARHAM: And it is non-sustainable. Workshops are scheduled throughout August and September across New South Wales to obtain feedback and comments on the working group’s recommendations. I support the Minister’s efforts to have open and transparent consultation on the Aboriginal Land Rights Act review and acknowledge the office of the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act for coordinating the next round of consultation.

The bill includes mostly uncontentious—I emphasise mostly uncontentious—amendments because some amendments did raise concerns at the July 2013 NSW Aboriginal Land Council statewide conference. For the most part, the amendments balance the need for workable governance and administrative arrangements with mechanisms for compliance and probity. This does not diminish the need to re-evaluate regulatory frameworks established by the Act and demands placed upon the NSW Aboriginal Land Council in its regulatory role. The key amendments increase flexibility in powers of delegation to local Aboriginal land council boards and allow local Aboriginal land councils to select auditors from a pre-approved list maintained by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council rather than require them to appoint an auditor.

Training in the governance requirements specific to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and, more generally, corporate governance standards are important issues. I know they are a high priority for the Minister. I support the removal of the current restriction on only providing training the first time a board member is elected. Building capacity to deal with the governance requirements of the Act is an important function for the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council applies significant sums for governance training for board members and it is vital that land councils invest in building capacity in board members. It is equally important that the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council is sufficiently financially supported to undertake this task. A study of our history reveals nothing is more important at any level of government than to ensure that governance standards and training are in place to protect the interests of the people being represented.

I draw members’ attention to amendments relating to notification of the Minister for Crown Lands. Currently the notification requirements in section 42D (c) prevent the NSW Aboriginal Land Council from dealing with land vested in it unless the Minister for Crown Lands is notified of the proposed dealing or transfer. This requirement was introduced in the Act towards the end of 2009 by the Aboriginal Land Rights Amendment Act 2009 No. 58 section 42E of the principal Act and imposes a similar notification requirement on local Aboriginal land councils. The original 2009 amendments beg the question: Why was it envisaged that the then Minister for Lands, the Hon. Tony Kelly, and Warwick Watkins, his then director general, be notified of land dealings of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council or local Aboriginal land?

As a few Government members in the other place questioned, why have a notification provision for a Minister who has nothing directly to do with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act? I disagree that the Minister for Lands has nothing to do with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act but, according to section 36 of the Act, it is apparent that the Minister for Lands is critical in respect of the land claim stage. My 15 years of experience from working with the Indigenous land use agreement taught me that the role of the Minister for Lands was extremely important in respect of the progression of that process. I find it curious that the Minister for Lands needs to be notified of proposed dealings with land by Aboriginal land councils considering the lack of involvement post-settlement and transfer of the land to the local Aboriginal land councils. The land is no longer Crown land, yet the Minister for Lands is again drawn into local Aboriginal land council affairs for no apparent reason.

Further, when we consider many of the battles between the Minister for Lands and Aboriginal land councils over the past five years where, in some cases, the department was found to be acting in ways inconsistent with model litigants, the Minister for Lands is the last person many local Aboriginal land councils would want to deal with when making decisions about asset and land management. Assuming better intentions, it was an example of the unthoughtful creation of red tape in an Act that is designed to empower. The bill that introduced this provision received the full support of the House. It is a prescient and revealing reminder that even with the best of intentions we can still get it wrong. Members of this House eventually will have to consider a much fuller suite of reforms to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act arising from the working group recommendations and ongoing community consultations. I look forward to the reports on the community consultation with the Aboriginal land councils at the conclusion of the forthcoming workshops. I commend the bill to the House.

Adjournment Speech: Koreelah State Forest Audits and the NSW Forestry Corporation

I will speak about the management of New South Wales State forests and follow on from the speech made by Mr David Shoebridge about his visit to the North Coast. Along the Pacific Highway on the North Coast there used to be a Forestry Corporation sign that read, “Your forests are in safe hands”. Unfortunately, few people believed that because of the effective contribution made by members of the North East Forest Alliance who have for years gone into our State forests to check whether the prescriptions and protocols are being observed. The unfortunate reality is that the Forestry Corporation has not been observing the rules.

During seven court cases in the early 1990s the Forestry Corporation was found not to be meeting its legislative requirements in relation to the management of State forests. After 1995 when some protocols and prescriptions were changed and a new forest system was created we still did not see much of a change. Complaints were still made, evidence was still collected by the North East Forest Alliance and, upon inspection, breaches were found. That is a great disappointment to the people of the North Coast.

It was a pleasure to host Mr David Shoebridge on the North Coast on the weekend of 17 August and 18 August. On the Saturday in Byron Bay he spoke at a forum regarding the changes proposed to the State planning Act. People have considerable concerns about the issue, particularly those in the environment movement. The Friends of the Koala representative, Lorraine Vass, spoke with great concern about koala protection in relation to the management of public lands. On the Sunday Mr Shoebridge, members of the North East Forest Alliance, an expert ecologist and I visited the forest. As Mr Shoebridge mentioned, we entered an area that had not been inspected before to see if we could find evidence of koalas. As Mr Shoebridge also stated in his speech, it did not take us long to find the evidence. We found scratches on the trees and koala scats at the tree bases.

It shows how many koalas are in the area, and that takes us back to the question of whether the area should be a State forest. It was recognised a long time ago as being of high value, but it was not included in the reserve system perhaps because of its location at the time—a marginal seat for an Australian Labor Party member. At the moment, the Royal Camp State Forest is being logged without meeting the prescriptions—and we only know that because a group of volunteers and conservationists who care about the environment have gone out and checked. They have done what the Government should have done. Since our visit Mr Dailan Pugh of the North East Forest Alliance has sent a letter to the Acting Chief Regulator of the Environment Protection Authority, Mark Gifford, which says:

We are astounded that they are now denying they were able to find clearly documented breaches that were shown to them on the second site inspection. It is outrageous that they have blatantly lied about this and unjustifiably dismissed key evidence shown to, and discussed, with them.

That it has taken the EPA a year to produce such a simplistic, shoddy and inaccurate response to only some of our complaints a poor reflection on the organisation.

I call on the Government to follow through on this complaint and observe that the area is significant. This area of koala habitat is a significant concern. Also of concern is a V notch yellow-bellied glider sap feed tree that was identified and should have been investigated and resulted in a breach and fine. Those things should be observed because this is our natural heritage. We need to have this matter resolved.