You are here

Aboriginal Lands Amendment (2024 Council Election) Bill 2023

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 14 November 2023

Tags: Tasmanian Aboriginals, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I acknowledge I am standing on Aboriginal land - the land of the of the palawa pakana. I pay my respects to the old people who lived here and to the Tasmanian Aboriginal elders in the community today, especially to the people who are in the Chamber with us who are watching this really important bill. I thank you for your wisdom and for your determination. We are here to represent your views.

Tasmanian Aboriginal people fought a war of resistance and most people died cruel deaths and many others were enslaved or died of grief. The land was never ceded to the English colonists and Aboriginal people were removed from their country through trickery and violence.

A peace treaty was agreed to but never honoured. It has been 200 years since Tasmanian Aboriginal people suffered acts of genocide. They live in lutruwita today amongst us, practising an ancient continuous culture. They continue to fight for justice, for a treaty and especially for the return of lands. Despite the repeated promises of governments, there have not been any significant land returns since 2005. It has been over a decade, under the Liberals, where more promises have been made by minister Jaensch and the ministers before and not honoured.

There have been formal land claims made on an invitation. Former premier Gutwein made land claims on an invitation in his state of the state address that was snubbed. The opportunity to make kooparoona niara an Aboriginal land national park was rejected. So, here we are today and we have a bill before us that is nothing that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have asked for. They have not called for it. They have not wanted it. They are very clear that the biggest problem in Tasmania with the return of lands is not the legislation, it is about the will of the government of the day to do the job so what we are seeing today is a fabrication which essentially has politics at the heart of it.

It is an attempt by this minister who has refused repeatedly to sit down in good faith and talk to members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, or even dignify the Aboriginal Lands Council of Tasmania with a formal correspondence. Instead, he sees fit to just pick up the phone and have an informal chat as though that is an appropriate, respectful way of communicating with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community about enormous changes to legislation that governs how land is returned.

Every year, since 1995, elections have been held. It is that democratic process, that enshrinement in legislation that is the heart of the concerns reflected by the support of the people who are in the Chamber. They represent the thousands of other Tasmanian Aboriginal people who want the democracy for their election process to be respected. Just like the democracy for the election process for non-Aboriginal people, for the state of Tasmania, for local government councils, for the federal level of government is respected.

The idea that coming up to a state election or to local government elections there would be a hash job done on the fly without wide consultation with the community about postponing elections without any motivating reasons, I believe it has been done twice before. There was strong support and agreement among the Aboriginal community for this to happen. That is not what is happening here.

This is a fixed job for the minister who has failed repeatedly to listen to what the Tasmanian Aboriginal community want. What they want is nothing more than for this Government to focus on their priorities. Self-determination, what we signed up to, under the United Nations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We signed a commitment that Aboriginal people will be self-determined in decisions of land and culture.

That means self-determining in decisions of who manages land, of who gets to vote on decisions about land, who has the voice of the community, who are the elected people of the Aboriginal community. That decision is made by Aboriginal people. It is not made by a non-Aboriginal minister on behalf of Aboriginal people with a phone chat to the Aboriginal Lands Council, telling them that this is what is going to happen. That is not how self-determination works. That is not what we signed up to under the United Nations. We signed up to something that means that Aboriginal people decide on these processes. Not the ministers of government.

The land was stolen from the Aboriginal community and it should be returned to and cared for by the community through the process of the Aboriginal Lands Council of Tasmania.

The minister, Mr Jaensch, has always come to his portfolio with his own interests first, then he tries to fit everyone else in around his interests. All of this could have been fixed if he had listened more than a year ago to the direct pathway of Tasmanian Aboriginal people's actions for implementation. His direction as a minister was to go forth and dump the work on the Aboriginal Lands Act. Forget about it, the community said very clearly, because the most important issue is to prioritise working on the Aboriginal Heritage Act because it is moribund. In the words of the minister, it is not fit for purpose. It is a woeful instrument. It is failing to protect ancient cultural Aboriginal heritage that is being trashed every day in Tasmania.

Each time a new development gets approved Aboriginal people grieve for the loss of cultural heritage. They are angry and hurt at the outrage of not being able to do something about it. At the fact that there is no cultural heritage protections.

It is so bad that four-wheel drives can trash the Tarkine and it is up to the Aboriginal community of Tasmania to take that to the High Court to override this Liberal Government, to get some protections.

They are doing it again. They are having another go. They are doing it again and again. It is no wonder that Aboriginal people sitting in the gallery watching today are sickened at this latest effort, his fix job for his failure to listen to the Aboriginal community and go on with trying to work through changes to the Aboriginal Lands Act which have been widely panned. His response to that is that at the 11th hour he says, 'Hold on, my bad, this is not going to happen now. I have an idea let us pause the elections, the democratic process for electing the members of the Aboriginal Lands Council'.

During the briefing I heard a number of reasons why the timeline that is being presented to us was reasonable. If we had this pause it will all get sorted out in 15 to 24 months. I heard in the briefing that this process with the Aboriginal Lands Act will be sorted by June next year, at the latest. How does that work?

That requires us as legislators to pass a bill on the presumption that another bill is going to pass by June next year. That is presuming that there will be an Aboriginal Lands Act bill that goes through parliament that has been agreed to and supported by both Houses by June next year. That might not happen.

Given the form of the minister and what is currently on the books that is extremely likely not to happen. There is huge resistance. We are listening to that and representing that in our views here.

Mr Bayley and myself, as members of the Greens, have always listened to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. We have always done our best to represent their views. Mr Jaensch is pushing this bill today because the legislation will not pass this year but it might not ever pass. I want to let people who are watching understand the views that are being presented in response to this. Minister Jaensch did have a phone conversation. Rebecca Digney, from the Aboriginal Lands Council of Tasmania, wrote to the minister and said that during that phone call she informed the minister that ALCT was strongly opposed to any delay in holding ALCT elections.

This is the reason why it is good to be respectful and professional and put things in writing. Ms Digney did that. The minister did not do that. He picked up the phone and had an inappropriate informal chat on the phone. It is okay to be nice and have friendly chats with people but not when you are dealing with changing matters of legislation like this.

She said:

It is a genuine expectation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community that the current democratic process legislated under the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 be upheld regardless of any proposed law reform currently being considered.

Aboriginal people are entitled to certainty around electing people to act as trustees of Aboriginal land. Delaying the forthcoming election will undermine that certainty and raise suspicions about the motives behind delay.

I think Miss Digney should get some sort of award for her diplomacy and understatement. Raising suspicion 'about the motives behind delay' really undersells the level of concern there is in the community. It is more than suspicion.

There is a real belief that the minister's intent is to hold over these elections indefinitely, because it may well be that that legislation does not pass. She says:

The proposal to interfere in the Aboriginal community's electoral process was not one initiated or requested by the Aboriginal community or the Aboriginal Land Council.

Just so there is an abundance of clarity for people who are listening, this was the minister's idea. It has got nothing from the Aboriginal community.

The first we heard of your proposal to delay the 2024 election was when you rang me last week.

What is the precedent? Is there a precedent, Mr Speaker? For a non Aboriginal person to make an internal decision to override the democratic processes of Aboriginal people when it has not been widely workshopped and agreed to by the majority of community. I go back, again, to our United Nations declaration. What is the precedent for non Aboriginal people just intervening and making an assessment on what the right thing is, in this circumstance?

She said:

If the Government wishes to push its amendments to the Aboriginal Lands Act, which are opposed by the TAC, the Cape Barren Aboriginal Association, the Aboriginal Elders Council of Tasmania, and 95 per cent of the Aboriginal community, it may do so independently of the compulsory election due in 2024.

Miss Digney also wrote a letter to the leader of the Labor Party and also sent a similar one to us, in which she said:

The Tasmanian Aboriginal communities from the Tasmanian Aboriginal communities' perspective, the Aboriginal Land Council elections are the only legislative process in the state of Tasmania which aims to empower Tasmanian Aboriginal people to have some control over our own affairs.

In every other facet of political, social, and economic life, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are completely reliant on the goodwill of the government of the day to empower us through policy or through small legislative snippets within larger instruments that can be enlivened, or not, at the whim of a decision-maker with complete discretion. This comes against a long history of deliberate legislative disempowerment of Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

And she says:

For example, it is widely accepted that by 1835, almost all Tasmanian Aboriginal people had been exiled to the Bass Strait Islands. It was here, from the years 1915-1945, that Tasmanian Aboriginal people living on Cape Barren Island were subject to the heinously racist Cape Barren Island Reserve Acts 1912-1945 and 1945-1951, which allowed for Aboriginal people over the age of 21 years to be forcibly removed and relocated from their home by the state.

In fact, religious institutions of any dominion had more proprietary rights than the Aboriginal people themselves. If, for instance, a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman was to marry a white man under those legislative regimes, she would relinquish her ownership rights to any property she once held on the island. Moreover, the Cape Barren Island Reserve acts ensured the Tasmanian Aboriginal community were so closely monitored by the state of Tasmania, that their names appeared in annexures of the legislative instruments.

I think it is important to understand this historical context for where we are today.

In 1943, during the impositions of these successive racist acts, and against a history of violently brutal treatment, the jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the phrase and definition of genocide. Lemkin's work spurred the United Nations in developing and ratifying the Convention on the Prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. In coining and defining genocide, Lemkin specifically referred to the abysmal treatment of Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

For context, Uncle Jim Everett, who was here in the Chamber two weeks ago when this bill was meant to be debated, and I am sure he would be here today if he were able to, was born the year prior to Lemkin's pre-eminent work. This means that when Uncle Jim says he is a survivor of genocide, he is saying it as a matter of truth and not rhetoric. To be clear, Uncle Jim was in the Speaker's Reserve during the last sitting week because he was strongly opposed to any imposition on his democratic right to vote.

The Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 and the democratic process it enshrines stand as an official measure, extended by the state of Tasmania as a means to redress the historically barbaric treatment of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. It was enunciated as such when the act was unanimously passed in parliament. It is against this backdrop that we ask of you to uphold our democratic rights contained within that act and oppose the Aboriginal Lands Amendment (2024 Council Election) Bill.

She is very clear about the reasons why it is dangerous to proceed with a pause. Ms Digney says:

We are very concerned about that the increasing instability of the current government may mean any potential delay in Tasmania's Aboriginal democratic processes by virtue of this current bill could extend far longer than intended, should a state election be called.

The delay of democracy is unacceptable by any measure, and most especially in the historical and political context of Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

On that point, this has been a bad faith process from the start. We are really concerned. I cannot think of any parallel in the non-Aboriginal community where local council elections would be postponed through an act of parliament without widespread conversations and broad agreement within the local council community that it was a necessary and important thing to do.

I also want to read the words of Theresa Sainty, a highly respected palawa woman. She said:

The original Lands act was created in consultation with Tasmanian Aborigines to provide our people recompense for the loss of our country by legislating us as the true owners of any lands returned under said act. It championed us as the people with the cultural authority and knowledge to manage our land without political interference. Under the current act the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are able to elect our people to the Aboriginal Lands Council to represent our issues independently from government. I fail to see why this is an issue. An independently run democratic process surely is an aspiration to us all.

Mr Speaker, it is, which is why people feel so passionately about us, and some of them are here with us today.

The proposed new amendments remove any power we currently have, along with the right to determine our own membership of our own community. It is clear to me that minister Jaensch is more interested in appeasing the voices of a few who claim to be Aboriginal than listening to a community who has been here forever and who have been instrumental in making positive change for our people. We know who we are and I do not accept that it is appropriate for a white government minister to meddle with sensitive Tasmanian Aboriginal community business.

I want to point to the dishonesty that is throughout parts of the second reading speech, and even in the fact sheet, about what has been going on, and the intentions behind this bill. In the fact sheet it states:

The postponement bill is not a change of policy; it has simply brought forward in a separate single-purpose bill the postponement of the next election - an intent that was already publicly foreshadowed in the draft Aboriginal Land Act Bill released for consultation in early August 2023. No specific objections to postponing the election were raised during extensive consultation.

That is a bad faith argument. The Government has done two consultation processes on the Aboriginal Lands Act [TBC Aboriginal Lands Amendment Bill 2023?]. In neither of those consultations was there a discussion about postponing the elections. The first time it was heard was - 'an intent that was publicly foreshadowed in the draft bill in early August'. When that bill was dropped in early August, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community had a bill that was such an insult, such an attack on so many fronts, it is not surprising that people did not write that in their submission responses. This is exactly the way this Government operates. They hide something down in the weeds while they are clear-felling the forest and, somehow, they expect people to find that detail and make a submission that specifically addresses that. Let us scotch that idea. This was never consulted on. This was an idea that the minister cooked up to create a political fix for a situation of his own making. It is not plausible that people would have been able to identify that with all the other serious concerns they had about that bill.

To summarise, the Aboriginal Lands Council do not want this bill; the Tasmanian Aboriginal community do not want this bill. It pre empts the passage of the Aboriginal Lands Act bill [TBC Aboriginal Lands Amendment Bill 2023?]. We do not believe that is reasonable or fair. We do not believe that is necessarily going to happen because we have no idea if this Government is going to be here come next June. It is highly likely that you might pull up stumps in March and that means that this all sails into the never-never, democracy for Aboriginal people, so hard won after such a long time and so many broken promises and bad dealing.

This is not the way to fix a problem of the minister's own making. What the minister should do is fall on his own sword, accept he has failed at this process and go back to what the Aboriginal community have told him to do in the first place. That is to focus his efforts and the good people who are sitting there from his department, who do very good work, I thank them for their briefing, and are obviously working hard to try and keep up to speed with what this minister is throwing at them. It is not their fault that this is here today. We hope it does not pass this place because it is something that the minister has brought on himself. He needs to go back to the drawing board, listen to the people he seeks to represent and bring in to this place an Aboriginal heritage act that has been properly consulted on and has the support of the community before it hits the desk for members to vote on.

The Greens do not support this bill and we will vote against it.