03 September 2020

Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Jabiru) Bill 2020 - Second Reading SPEECH - Thursday 3 September 2020


Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:07): Firstly, I extend respects and greetings from the Labor opposition to the Mirarr Aboriginal people, traditional owners of the township of Jabiru, which is the subject of this bill. I do so as I acknowledge the traditional owners of this country, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people. Labor is happy to support this bill, which has been a long time coming for the Mirarr. The effect of this bill will be to return ownership of Jabiru to the Mirarr people and to allow for a community entity representing the Mirarr to hold a lease over the town.

Let me remind the Senate that it was a Labor government back in October 2009 which set this course of Mirarr self-determination, with an in-principle agreement for amendments to the land rights act. And it was former Labor leader Bill Shorten who, in January last year, committed a Labor government—which, sadly, didn't eventuate in May last year—to fund $220 million to improve the visitor experience in Kakadu National Park and to support the future development of Jabiru. Undoubtedly, it was knowledge of that commitment that spurred Prime Minister Morrison to commit similar funding for the same purposes.

Labor is glad that a new Mirarr community entity will be holding the head lease over Jabiru township, rather than the Commonwealth's executive director of township leasing, because that reflects the preference of Northern Territory land councils and traditional owners. Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation first presented a plan for Jabiru to become a service and tourism hub for the region in 2001. Even before that, in 2000, an agreement known as the Kakadu charter was signed by Mirarr traditional owner Yvonne Margarula and then president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Peter Garrett, to mark a path forward for Jabiru from uranium extraction to sustainable tourism and development.

Twenty years on, today begins a new chapter for the Mirarr traditional owners. A Jabiru settlement sets an innovative and practical standard for Aboriginal led regional economic development. The Mirarr and their team at the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation are to be congratulated on their groundbreaking achievements. This history-making is possible because of the enduring and inspired commitment and hard work of the Mirarr people themselves, especially Mirarr senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula and her next elder sister, Nida. The Mirarr have been ably served by tenacious and dedicated staff at the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, and particularly their long-term expert legal adviser, Susan O'Sullivan, who has worked tirelessly with the Mirarr for almost 20 years and is very much a driving force behind all of this. I'd also like to acknowledge Justin O'Brien, CEO of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation. He certainly did not want to be mentioned; Justin, I couldn't help myself, because you certainly deserve to be.

This bill is about a future for Jabiru post-mining and a future that is about local landowners making and realising their own plans. There will soon be a head lease that provides security of tenure for the Mirarr to develop Jabiru. The town of Jabiru was built on Mirarr country in the 1980s, without the consent of the traditional owners, to service the needs of the Ranger Uranium Mine. The town and the mine are surrounded by Kakadu National Park, Aboriginal land which is leased to the Commonwealth's Director of National Parks. The Mirarr never wanted the Ranger mine or the Jabiru township that goes with it. The good news for them is that Ranger Uranium Mine is set to cease operations in January 2021, and the Mirarrs' vision to turn the mining town into a service and tourism hub for the region can be realised.

The Mirarr want the parliament to know that Jabiru is open for business. Kakadu is home to spectacular scenery, a pristine environment and immense cultural value, and it should be shared with the world. Traditional owners want Kakadu to be at the top of the list for Australian and international visitors. The impact of COVID has been felt on tourism in the Northern Territory, and that is obviously unavoidable in the current climate. But the Mirarr are ready to rebound, to restore the future of the World Heritage listed environmental and cultural site. This will require infrastructure investment from this federal government.

Jabiru falls within the realm of the Northern Land Council, and I'm pleased to record the NLC's support for this bill, under CEO Marion Scrymgour. After the bill was introduced back in May this year, the NLC noted that it would allow for the transition of the township from a mining town to a regional service centre and tourism hub that would drive economic activity throughout the West Arnhem region. For many years, the Mirarr people have been planning and looking forward to the shutdown of Ranger Uranium Mine next year, and they've developed a comprehensive master plan that will transform the Jabiru economy from one that's been focused on mining and ancillary services to one based on the social, cultural and natural resource wealth of the region.

I'm also pleased to record the observations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has considered the human rights implications of this bill. The committee has reported that the bill engages various human rights embedded in international covenants: the right to enjoy and benefit from culture, the right to self-determination and the rights of equality and nondiscrimination. The committee has noted:

The Land Rights Act, as a whole, promotes the right to enjoy and benefit from culture by recognising the Aboriginal system of land ownership by traditional owners and providing ways for them to own, control and use the resources of their land. … By restoring Aboriginal land to the traditional owners, the Land Rights Act has enabled them to maintain, and in some cases re-establish, their cultural identity.

They have withstood immense pressures from political and mining industry influences for so many decades, and their culture has remained strong and vibrant. Now, finally, they have the opportunity to chart their own destiny, to manage their own affairs, and to prosper from their own endeavours. I know that the Mirarr people have been looking forward, with much anticipation, to the passing of this legislation, and we on this side are happy for it to proceed without the need for further scrutiny by a Senate committee.

In closing, I wish the Mirarr people well in their future business. To the Mirarr people: there's so much work ahead of you to realise the full potential that will be delivered by the passage of this bill. I'm sure you will achieve your aspirations for economic development, and I'm sure you will enjoy the goodwill of us all. Yo bauji barra.