14 February 2007
Government seeks to wind back Native Title rights – Again
Amendments to the Native Title Act being debated in the House of
Representatives today would increase the powers of the Minister and
Native Title Tribunal at the expense of traditional owners, their
representative bodies and the Federal Court, according to Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR).
ANTaR National Director, Gary Highland said the amendments would
further limit the ability of Indigenous people to have their native title
rights recognized. Instead they will create greater uncertainty, conflict and
confusion by threatening the independence of native title representative
bodies, compromising the mediation process and reducing Ministerial
Mr Highland said the proposal to introduce fixed terms of recognition
for native title representative bodies into the Act was particularly
“The changes take the heavy stick approach to trying to improve the
efficiency of native title representative bodies, rather than tackling
the real source of the problem – a lack of capacity caused by chronic under
“Under the changes, representative bodies could be recognized for as
little as one year – even though it is unheard for a Native Title claim to be
resolved within this period of time,” he said.
“Limiting recognition for such a short time would make it impossible
for representative bodies to adequately plan for the future, attract and
retain qualified and experienced staff and develop productive relationships
with industry and government.
“In addition, representative bodies frequently find themselves in
conflict with the Federal Government which has shown itself to be generally
hostile to native title claims. The greater threat of de-recognition could
therefore threaten the independence of a representative body seeking to
uphold the interests of traditional owners who are opposed by the
Government,” Mr Highland said.
Mr Highland said the Bill also gives too much discretion to the
Minister who could decide to de-recognise a representative body in an arbitrary and non-transparent way.
The Bill also opens the way for non-Indigenous organizations to be
recognized as native title representative bodies – further reducing
Indigenous decision making and control over these sensitive matters.
Mr Highland said that the proposed changes to increase the powers of
the National Native Title Tribunal could ironically diminish its ability to
mediate native title claims effectively.
“The changes would allow the Tribunal to compel parties to produce
legally privileged documents and enable it to report to the Federal Court on
the merits of native title claims – even though the mediation process is
meant to be without prejudice.”
“These harsh and oppressive measures run counter to the spirit needed
to ensure effective mediation,” Mr Highland said.
Mr Highland said that the Bill would reduce the ability of the Federal
Court to mediate in relation to native title claims – even though this
body had proven to be a more effective mediator than the National
Native Title Tribunal.
“There are already significant hurdles placed in the way of Indigenous
people seeking to have the limited rights of native title recognized
and protected. The Government’s proposed amendments will make these
hurdles even higher, further eroding the confidence of Indigenous people in the native title process,” Mr Highland said.
“Indigenous organizations, the Federal Court, the Government’s own
Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner and the mining industry are all
opposed to key elements of this Bill. ANTaR urges the Senate to listen
to these concerns and not pass the Bill in its current form.”