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Nature Conservation Act 2002 - Approval of Proclamations

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 27 October 2022

Tags: Parks, Aboriginal Heritage, kooparoona niara/Great Western Tiers

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, less than 1 per cent of the land that was taken from Aboriginal Tasmanian people with the arrival of the English has been returned to them. We have not returned any of the land that was taken from the palawa/pakana people since 2005. It has been 17 years since any land was handed back.

In last year's state of the state address the former premier, Peter Gutwein, spoke in what we believed - and I think Aboriginal people believed - was a very genuine way where he called for Aboriginal people to put forward land claims. In good faith, the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania put forward a claim in March last year for a kooparoona niara national park. The letter was respectful and thoughtful but it made it really clear that this land is in fact Aboriginal land and it should be returned. That letter was not acknowledged for more than a year. The claim by the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania was not acknowledged by the premier then. It was not acknowledged by his successor. I understand it was belatedly acknowledged in correspondence by the minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

The whole process in relation to this proclamation has been disrespectful: disrespectful of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and disrespectful of the Aboriginal Land Council. The first thing that happened, seven years after UNESCO requested that the Tasmanian Forest Agreement reserves inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area receive national park status, was that we had two proclamations tabled in this place that change the tenure of those parcels of Tasmanian Forest Agreement Crown lands to mostly conservation areas and regional reserves. Thus, of the total hectarage of about 26 500 hectares that is covered by those two proclamations, only 2850 hectares are actual national park.

This minister knows that UNESCO had requested that the state party, that is the Australian Government, represented by the Tasmanian Government in legal terms, include those TFA areas in the TWWHA as national park. The Tasmanian Government and the Australian Government agreed to do that.

Then there was a protracted period of consultation and we are dished up with these crappy reserves. At the same time, a legitimate claim from First Nations Tasmanians is completely ignored. This was dropped on the table without ALCT even being forewarned. This Government, which makes so much of consultation, did not even let the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania know what was happening.

When that happened in the first instance, when the Government actually made a significant error and laid on the table a disallowable instrument, we moved a disallowance motion. We did that not because we do not want to see those reserves, those areas of land, protected inside the TWWHA. We did that because someone in this parliament needs to give voice to Aboriginal people. Some people in this parliament, that is the Greens, will always be a voice for Tasmanian Aboriginal people and, in this instance, the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania.

Parliament was prorogued, but before that happened we got a letter from the previous Parks minister in response to our disallowance motion which I found really disingenuous. It says:

The processes that the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania undertook in relation to the proclamation processes concluded that most parcels of land do not meet the criteria for national park reserve status due to previous land disturbances, including but not limited to forestry practices. However, approximately 2850 hectares have been identified as containing significant values, including an internationally important karst system that contains an extensive landscape of caves, sinkholes, gorges, streams and springs, and therefore it has been proposed that this area be added to the existing Mole Creek Karst National Park.

The minister gave the game away in his contribution just then, because he was at pains to assure the House that this proclamation is not a lockup. When you think about reserve land in that way, land that is rich in cultural and natural values, it means you are not motivated to properly protect them, so the whole process of consultation on these reserves was framed in the context of declaring conservation areas and regional reserves.

We have never seen anything from the minister's department that would confirm this claim that these 26 000 hectares are not worthy of national park status and it would certainly assist our understanding of the process to determine reserve status if we had a copy of the reports and the work that NRET did that the previous minister states have concluded that most parcels of land do not meet the criteria for a national park reserve status due to previous land disturbances. It was a predetermined outcome because I remember when the consultation started there was never an intention to fully meet the commitment to UNESCO that these lands be protected inside the TWWHA as national park.

We also have the former minister conflating what the Liberals did under the Forestry (Rebuilding the Forest Industry) Act where they actually created a tenure known as future potential production forest. They also created the permanent timber production zone lands and they tore up the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, which meant that those lands recognised for their high conservation value, which is why they were recommended to be included in the boundary of the TWWHA, were of high conservation value because of their natural and cultural values.

We had the minister sort of conflate. In her letter she said:

The current statutory rules process before parliament is being undertaken as a result of the 2011 Tasmanian Forest Agreement, where areas of crown land adjacent to an outside of the then TWWHA boundary were identified for reservations. Subsequently this resulted in the Australian Government determining in 2013 that the TWWHA boundaries should be expanded.

I will pause there for a moment to remind the House that former prime minister Tony Abbott, cheered on by the Liberal state government, fought very hard to have those extensions reversed. Fortunately, they lost.

The letter continues:

As a result of this expansion, the TWWHA currently contains approximately 25 428 hectares of crown land that is FPPF land and 942.3 hectares that is permanent timber production zone land.

The only reason they have that tenure is because of the Liberals messing around with the Tasmanian Forest Agreement once they got elected, and we still have the minister keep talking about this:

For the TWWHA management plan to have statutory effect over the future potential production forest land, it must first be reserved through the current proclamation process. This is because while the FPPF land is protected from mining and forestry in accordance with the policy positions outlined under the TWWHA management statement, the land remains subject to the Forestry (Rebuilding the Forest Industry) Act 2014 until such time as it is reserved.

That is on these people to my left.

We had a claim put forward by the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania last year which was repeatedly ignored until this proclamation landed on the table. It had to be retabled after Mrs Petrusma resigned and parliament was prorogued and now, again without any consultation with Aboriginal people or the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, there is another motion, the one we are debating today, tabled in the parliament.

It is disingenuous to imply that these proclamations are a necessary or desirable step towards land returns. We do not believe this is correct. For a start, the claim that a return to Tasmanian Aboriginal people cannot be contemplated until the land is reserved is untrue. The Government can contemplate whatever it likes.

The other matter is the deliberate inference that these proclamations are required before a return could occur. This is misleading. It is correct that the land remains subject to the Forestry (Rebuilding the Forest Industry) Act 2014 until such time as it is reserved, but the minister and his predecessor are ignoring the fact that the establishment of a new reserve tenure of Aboriginal national park or Aboriginal protected area would have to lead to a new reserve tenure in the Nature Conservation Act 2002. A proclamation could convert this land from FPPF to the new reserve class tenure directly if the Government -

Mr Jaensch - Which does not exist.

Ms O'CONNOR - When I was minister for Aboriginal affairs, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs started work on developing a reserve class tenure for the return of lands. That was 10 years ago. From what I gather from the minister, none of that work has been done since. I have seen a letter from the secretary of the director of Parks, Jason Jacobi, to ALCT head Rebecca Digney which says it would take 18 months to develop that tenure.

I am staggered that the work has not even begun. This Government that wants us to believe that land returns to First Nations Tasmanians are a priority has not even begun the work on a new tenure. They have been in government since 2014 so, in eight years, ignored UNESCO or dithered on it, made a promise to upgrade the tenure to national park, has done no work on a tenure that encompasses Aboriginal protected areas, disregards a legitimate claim from the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania over that northern part of kooparoona niara-Great Western Tiers. The minister has not justified that in any way.

Even if you do change the process for the return of lands by making changes to eligibility to be on the ALCT roll, primarily it will still be the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania that would have lands returned to it, so I do not understand. More importantly, nor does the Aboriginal Land Council and the community they represent understand why the Government would, first of all, invite claims then ignore a claim and then refuse to respond to that claim by returning the land.

There is threshold issue here that we lose sight of in this place: it is not our land. There was never a truce or a treaty. The land was never ceded. Even the term 'handback' does not capture what we need to do here. There is no justification for a 17 year gap between the last land return and the point where we are now, where a legitimate land claim has been made and ignored.

We tried in government. The best we could get through Cabinet was for the return of larapuna on the East Coast and Rebecca Creek, which is a spongelite quarry. It passed through this place unanimously then it was clagged-up in the upper House. I felt there was an element of racism in the response to that legislation in the upper House. It just sat there and sat there. That was an upper House that history reminds us was hostile to the people who were in government down here because it was a balance-of-power parliament. So, we did not return that land then either, those piddling amounts of land we could get through the majority Labor Cabinet.

We have a government here that has been talking about changing the process for returning lands for eight years. Now they have developed a framework for a process that has alienated and deeply worried many Aboriginal Tasmanians.

We do not believe this proclamation is a necessary step. It is unusual for the Greens to be not supporting an upgrade to tenure but, first of all, those lands are safe inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, even though they are FPPF lands.

However, there is a higher-order moral imperative here. That is to respond to the need for land justice and a people who will describe themselves as a patient people, but they are running out of patience. That is why we move to disallow the first proclamation. That is why we have such huge problems with what is on the table today: it is being disrespectful to Aboriginal people. It is being entirely disrespectful to the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. We have this proclamation with this pathetic tenure; the vast majority of the lands we are debating today in the proclamation will only be conservation areas and regional reserves. That is because this minister regards national park status as a lock up.

When professors Kate Warner and Tim McCormack did their outstanding deep consultation work within the broader Aboriginal community and delivered their Pathway to Truth Telling and Treaty report a year ago, last November, recommendation 12 was very clear about kooparoona niara again being ignored by government. The recommendation reads:

Together with the enabling legislation, the first Aboriginal Protected Area, the kooparoona niara Aboriginal Protected Area in the Western Tiers including the Future Potential Production Forest Land (FPPFL) on the boundary of the TWWHA should be declared. [OK]

If the land boundaries to be determined was vested in the Aboriginal Land Council, there could be conditions relating to joint management with the local Aboriginal community in the management plans for the park. This first Aboriginal Protected Area could serve as a model and would serve as a test of local management and access. We believe that the proposal for the kooparoona niara Aboriginal Protected Area would have considerable support from the wider community. For example, we were contacted by the Friends of the Great Western Tiers/kooparona niara, who wrote to us to support such a proposal:

We are writing in support of the Aboriginal community's claim for an Aboriginal-owned and managed national park in kooparoona naira/Great Western Tiers as a significant contribution to much-needed land justice and as a source of empowerment for the Aboriginal community. It will also be of benefit to the non Aboriginal community through the increased tourist visitation that such a national park would attract.

A year ago, the two esteemed professors, who the previous premier had tasked with engaging with Aboriginal people to map out a pathway to truth telling and treaty, came back with this key recommendation. They do not say, 'Oh, consult more widely on it'. They do not say, 'Wait until you change the process for land returns, or amend the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995'. They say it should be returned.

A year after this report was handed down, we still do not know what is happening with truth telling and treaty, not in any depth. Parliament does not know. Many Aboriginal people are scratching their heads about it, too. A year after this report was handed down, that recommendation was ignored in the same way that the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania was ignored in its land claim. Why this minister, this Government, will not make a commitment to respond to that claim and return those lands to the body they intend to return lands to in future is baffling and very difficult to understand.

To say, as Mr Jacobi has in his letter to Rebecca Digney, as Mrs Petrusma said to her letter to the Greens, that this proclamation of these tenures does not preclude a future Aboriginal-owned and managed kooparoona naira/Great Western Tiers National Park is just paying lip service to Aboriginal people. It says nothing really and is totally disrespectful, again. Why can the Government not just make a commitment here? That letter from ALCT was sent almost 18 months ago. This is not some new, shock proposal the Government is having to deal with.

The injustice continues; it just goes on and on. I remember a premier before a premier, Will Hodgman who, on Australia Day 2015, made a commitment to reset the relationship with Aboriginal Tasmanians. That was seven years ago. Nothing has changed except more uncertainty and dissatisfaction within the broader Aboriginal community about this Government's talk, talk, talk. White men making promises that things will get better in the future and meanwhile, nothing.

We have an amendment to the minister's motion, and while I am sure he is disappointed we have decided to do this, there is no reason at all that the parliament should not support this amendment. Mr Speaker, I move -

That the motion be amended by inserting the following paragraphs after paragraph (2) -

(3) Recognises the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania's (ALCT) March 2021 claim on kooparoona naira/Great Western Tiers inside the TWWHA; and

(4) Supports the return of kooparoona niara to ALCT under a new reserve tenure of Aboriginal-owned national park or protected area. [OK]

I hope that Labor will at least be able to show good faith and support this amendment. It is not as if the Tasmanian Government has to reinvent the wheel in order to establish an Aboriginal national park tenure. There are examples of it all over the country. Where I grew up on minjerribah, Stradbroke Island, the Quandamooka people own, manage and have social and economic independence as a result of having the Quandamooka National Park returned to them. It is not a body of work that needs to take years and years. Uluru is another example. Aboriginal protected areas are all over the country. Seriously, you could just about do this in a month.

If you are serious about truth, treaty, justice and the return of lands, you do not keep making excuses for why you are not returning land. If you are serious about it you do not imply we need a three year consultation and drafting process, you just get on with it because it is just the right thing to do. We do not buy the argument that this is urgent and necessary now. The Government sat on this for seven years, has dished up primarily a bunch of low-grade reserves, has a claim before it from the peak Aboriginal land management body in the state and should be able to just get on with it. I do not understand the deep resistance to taking some steps. Even though the framework is not perfect yet, shouldn't we be aspiring to return as much land to as many Aboriginal people through every mechanism possible? We should. The Aboriginal Land Council is now in a situation where it is fundraising to buy its own land back, to buy the land of the Aboriginal people back, private fundraising in order to have its own land returned.

There have been some tiny parcels. There was a little parcel of Hydro land that was sort of returned, but I believe Tom and Jane Teniswood on the east coast have returned more land to Aboriginal people than the Liberals in eight years of government. With all the tools of the bureaucracy and the numbers in parliament with them, they have done less for Aboriginal people than two private citizens on the east coast of Tasmania.

I do not doubt that this minister at some level must feel he is doing the right thing, but I hope he has an opportunity to reflect on how badly this has been handled. The Aboriginal Land Council does not feel that its claim has been genuinely recognised or considered. It says all the reasons for not progressing with the kooparoona niara National Park as a priority are easily overcome in a legislative package required to establish the new Aboriginal-owned reserve tenure and are nothing more than shallow excuses. This is from the Aboriginal Land Council.

If the proroguing of parliament means the statutory rules need to be reintroduced, this gave the Government a face-saving way of reconsidering the Aboriginal Land Council claim, abandoning the low-grade reserve declarations and moving to honour the claim and establish an iconic new reserve tenure and land justice combination. If indeed land returns are a priority for the Rockliff Government, there should be no problem making a commitment regarding step two, an Aboriginal-owned national park for kooparoona niara as part of the affirmation of this motion. There are specific questions for the minister to answer from the Aboriginal Land Council which we have been provided with and perhaps the minister could respond to them in his contribution on the amendment.

Minister, you have told us, ALCT and the Legislative Council that these reserve proclamations are needed to overcome constraints in the Forestry Act and this is a required action. So that is step one but does not preclude step two: the return of this land to Aboriginal ownership. Will you commit to step two, honour the Aboriginal Land Council claim and move to create the proposed new Aboriginal-owned reserve tenure, and if so, by when?

Do you recognise and acknowledge the ALCT land claim? If so, aside from the excuses you keep giving for not taking legislative action now, what is your response to that claim? Will you embrace the offer of an Aboriginal-owned reserve tenure and instruct departmental staff to start the legislative work required to establish this new tenure? Are you aware that Aboriginal-owned national parks are common around Australia, such as Uluru, Kakadu - and around the world? Tasmania is behind the game with regards to the creation of this tenure, and using it as a mechanism to deliver land justice and the cultural, community and economic opportunities that come with returning land to Aboriginal people.

Will you commit to legislating this reserve tenure, and moving to translate some or all of the land under these reserve proclamations to that new tenure?

I am going to place on the Hansard record, minister, that, unfortunately, you were not paying full attention then. I am going to give you a copy of those questions because -

Mr Jaensch - I was seeking advice on a matter you raised.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay, thank you. For the record, the minister was seeking advice on a matter that had been raised by the Aboriginal Land Council. Just so there is no confusion over these core questions that have been asked, I will hand you a copy of these questions now.

Mr Jaensch - A redacted email.

Ms O'CONNOR - No worries. I will just take away any identifying features.

I know others will want to contribute and the minister will want to respond to our amendment, so I will not talk for much longer. I hope the minister understands the level of deep frustration of many Aboriginal people about the lack of progress on anything. There has been nothing but reviews, rewrites, and lip service. There has been nothing. It is disrespectful. It is not good enough. Aboriginal people deserve justice. If this minister thinks that he has a leg to stand on in knocking back our very simple amendment, after eight years of inaction from government, then perhaps he has the wrong portfolio.




Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I will just speak briefly on the substantive motion, first of all to express my great disappointment in that vote; and to note that it was the two Greens and Ms Johnston who voted to recognise the Aboriginal Land Council's March claim on kooparoona niara Great Western Tiers inside the TWWHA and support the return of kooparoona niara to the Aboriginal Land Council under a new reserve tenure of Aboriginal owned National Park or protected area.

I also reinforce what Dr Woodruff said about how dispiriting and unsatisfying it is to have both the minister and the Leader of the Opposition, in making excuses for not supporting this amendment, point to a period in the future, Never Never, when maybe- if we are to believe the minister - maybe a new Aboriginal tenure that would allow the return of kooparoona niara Great Western Tiers or any other area of Aboriginal inside that reserve estate. I have known or worked around this minister long enough to understand he is cautious in his language. At one level, I get that.

However, on the question of returning land, Aboriginal people need commitment. They need an expression of commitment. What we have had from the minister is commitment to review processes, to establish a new a process - but no commitment that I could hear. What he said was 'to consider developing an Aboriginal Reserve Tenure'. So, no commitment that I could hear to starting work and developing a new tenure under the Nature Conservation Act for an Aboriginal Protected Area. The language was very non-committal, and that is highly regrettable.

Aboriginal people have waited 219 years for a measure of justice, and they would be prepared, I am certain, to wait another 18 months or two years to have kooparoona naira/Great Western Tiers returned. It is a furphy, to say that we have to go through this proclamation process before you can make a commitment to return that land. It has been a slightly disingenuous process. If you go back through the paper trail, right from Mrs Petrusma's letter to me, to Mr Jacobi's letter to Rebecca Digney, there is a level of very qualified and, I think, disingenuous language about the circumstances that have brought us here today and the statutory processes that we are caught up in.

I am very interested to understand, - and this is a Parks question - why the decision was made not to declare areas inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area a national park to give them full protection. In the community consultation on the department’s reservation process, and this is in relation to the forests and the lands inside the boundary, the previous minister in her letter to me rejected the legitimacy of national park status for the land in question. The consultation report, which was published by Government, by the department, highlights the fact of the 60 in-scope submissions all but two supported the declaration of future potential production forest land as national park. So, the consultation did not guide or direct Government to give about 23 500 hectares of these lands inside the TWWHA boundary a lesser conservation status. That did not come through the consultation.

Again, I think we have had a level of just being a bit flaky with the facts about how we got here because the consultation process affirmed that these lands should be protected as national park. UNESCO requested that their tenure be changed to national park. The Australian and Tasmania Governments, and it was under Mr Groom at the time, agreed that they would change the tenure to national park.