DOCUMENTS - Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet - Consideration

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The annual report 2015-16 goes to the work of the office of the Executive Director of Township Leasing. The office is an independent statutory authority under the portfolio and responsibility of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion. Its role is to hold and administer leases on behalf of the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory. The leases are located over Aboriginal communities and over Aboriginal title lands in the Northern Territory. The Executive Director of Township Leasing holds that title, and not the Aboriginal Lands Trust. He controls the use and goes through a consultative process with the traditional owners of the lands but he is not bound by their desires.

The executive director, Mr Greg Roche, has expressed some frustrations in his report with regard to progress in discharging his responsibilities. At pages 5 and 6, he is frustrated at the lack of commitment from both the Commonwealth and the previous Northern Territory government to establish some policy positions in relation to the Alice Springs town camps. These are important places to the Arrernte people and for those who live in the camps. Their wishes need to be respectfully weighed and considered. The agreement was executed in 2009 and extended for another three years. Today the Northern Territory government is in occupation of the town camps on a monthly-paid lease. The executive director expressed concern that no negotiations occurred under the previous CLP government and no clear position has been reached about the future of the town camps.

It is disappointing that the previous Northern Territory government was not able to address this issue in a timely fashion and did not engage appropriately with Aboriginal landowners and their organisations. I am informed that the new Labor government is awaiting the results of an independent review into the town camps situation and is willing to work cooperatively with the federal minister and his officials on developing options for a way forward, including on housing. Discussions of the future of the town camp leases in Alice Springs must include the relevant Aboriginal organisations such as the Central Land Council and Tangentyere Council. They must be partners in negotiations over the future of the town camp leases.

The executive director describes consultative forums he established on Groote Eylandt and the Tiwi Islands as 'crucial to the governance of the township leases'. He says that he pays close attention to the views of the forums in relation to the exercise of his powers under the lease. This is not good enough. There is a gap between paying close attention and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the owners. These leases are on Aboriginal lands and in Aboriginal communities. He must pay more than close attention to the views of land owners. He needs to listen respectfully not only to their views but to their property rights and be willing to negotiate in good faith.

This thinking in my view is a regrettable legacy of the intervention, and we need to keep careful watch on the role and function of the Executive Director of Township Leasing and how the property rights of traditional owners are in fact respected. In contrast, Monday's Australian carried an article about a historic 99-year township lease agreement negotiated by my old friend and colleague, Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu. I note that this agreement has been facilitated and signed by the Northern Land Council on the recommendation of the Aboriginal Lands Trust. Mr Yunupingu said this was 'the culmination of many years of hard work to make it happen' after being announced by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014. One can ask why it took so long to deliver what was announced as a fait accompli more than two years ago under a different Prime Minister.

I wish the Gumatj people well as they negotiate the economic development and jobs—something that Labor holds dear. Without constructive participation by the banks, government outlays are going to be necessary to leverage the Gumatj as a base, so that they do not lose it. The Gumatj approach is very different from the approach offered by the office of township leasing, especially on Groote Eylandt and the Tiwi Islands. Under the new Gumatj agreement, traditional owners who control the corporation will hold the lease, grant subleases and enforce conditions.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Marshall ): Senator Dodson, your time has expired.

Senator DODSON: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

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