Tuesday 22 March 2005

Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, in considering the Aboriginal Lands Amendment Bill 2004, I believe we have been given the task of bringing to some conclusion a long and divisive argument which has split the Flinders Island community. Many in the Furneaux Group would like this matter settled one way or another so they can move on, but this argument does not just concern the some 1 000 residents of the Furneaux Group, some of whom have long entrenched views, one way or the other, which are unlikely to be changed by the present arguments. This is an argument based in history - the history of European settlement in Tasmania, which dates from 200 years ago. In those 200 years, Europeans have taken possession of most of Tasmania and its offshore islands, including the Furneaux Group.

The original inhabitants of Tasmania have interbred with the later settlers and have varying degrees of identity with their Aboriginal ancestors. That is their prerogative. Some identify themselves more with ethnic Tasmanians than they do with the later settlers. That is their privilege. This identity with their ethnic roots going back many thousands of years includes a strong feeling for the land. In many cases this identity with the land is vital to their own sense of identity and place. Their feeling of connection with the land of their ancestors is central to one side of the argument. Those who feel this connection with the beautiful Tasmanian land are spread throughout the State; they do not just live in the Furneaux Group.
We also have Furneaux Group residents whose origin there dates back to early settlement by European settlers, whether or not they identify themselves as of European or ethnic origin. They too are not just confined to the Furneaux Group but are spread throughout this State.
The argument over the transfer of some land in the Furneaux Group to the Aboriginal community is not just an issue for the residents of Cape Barren or Flinders islands, it is an issue for all Tasmanians. We are looking today, Mr President, at an issue that concerns the whole population of Tasmania. We must not get bogged down by the arguments on Flinders itself, but look at this issue from the perspective of all Tasmanians. I believe that most Tasmanians, like the residents, would like this long-running argument settled.
Among the many representations that we have heard on the issue of a transfer of Cape Barren Island and Clarke Island to the Aboriginal community is one which sums up that sentiment and I would like to quote from one particular e-mail. It is from Jamie Mason. It says:
'If the legislation is passed everyone will be able to get on with their lives. This has been a divisive process not helped by deliberate attempts to inflame the community. Many people believe that the amended legislation is a reasonable compromise and passing it will mean that this can be put behind us and we can move on. What we do not need is to have this legislation rejected and then have to go through this again any time in the next 10 years.'
I will continue to quote, Mr President:
'The only basis for rejection of the legislation now is if the Legislative Council can guarantee that this will not happen.'

Mr President, it would seem that this is indeed a representative view of many on Flinders Island and indeed in the rest of Tasmania who would like this argument resolved once and for all. However, there is obviously a division about what would be a satisfactory resolution, and I would like to summarise those arguments shortly. It is highly likely that if this proposal to transfer some land to the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania does not go ahead at this stage the issue will indeed return to haunt us until it is finally resolved. The original transfer or proposal to transfer land which then included Goose Island was seen by the late Premier, Jim Bacon, as a gesture of reconciliation. Many Tasmanians would agree with this assessment but some on Flinders Island argue that this bill is anti-reconciliation. I would suggest that only the Aboriginal community whose forebears were arguably wronged by history can make that judgment. I refer to the Aboriginal community of all of Tasmania, not just the Furneaux Group. You only need to understand the history of Aboriginal round-ups, the settlements at Oyster Bay and on Flinders, to understand why I hold this view.

Mr President, members of this House all have thick files on this bill. We have visited the Furneaux Group and we have listened to many views. I would like to summarise some of those views for and against. Those who oppose land transfer say that Cape Barren Island has a European heritage as well as an Aboriginal one. It is generally considered that Cape Barren Island was uninhabited when the first European sealers arrived. We must of course realise that the Furneaux Group comprised part of the land bridge, as we heard from the Leader, joining Tasmania with the mainland across which Tasmania's first ethnic settlers arrived. We cannot be certain of any Aboriginal settlement in the Furneaux Group before Europeans arrived and took Aboriginal women there, and in many cases against their wills. But those who oppose this land transfer say Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families have occupied the land together and this bill threatens a harmonious relationship. They say this bill not only has put Aborigines against non-Aborigines but has split the Aboriginal community. I would suggest that the line between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in the Furneaux Group is a fluid one and is mainly a case of self-identification. Those opposing this bill say that previous land transfers on Flinders Island have caused disharmony. They say Aboriginal families have had the opportunity to own freehold land or occupy leases but have not taken up the opportunity. The Flinders Council has stated that no economic development will occur on Clarke and Cape Barren islands if they are under the control of the Aboriginal Land Council. This view may well be based on the Council's rate base. Tourism operators are said to fear that access issues will have a negative impact on tourism, although we do not know if the operators quoted truly represent the tourism industry. I wonder what the tourism figures are for Clarke and Cape Barren islands.

There are some of the arguments against this bill, Mr President, and I cannot say whether they are backed by fact. Those in favour of the proposed land transfer say it will help to bring a genuine reconciliation. Aborigines say the transfer of the land will allow future generations to retain affinity with the land which they believe was promised to the Aboriginal community in the nineteenth century as part of the forced-free settlement of Tasmanian Aborigines in the Furneaux Group.

Those supporting this bill argue it allows for agreement between the Aboriginal Land Council and the Cape Barren Island Aboriginal Association for local management. As we have heard during our earlier briefing today, the bill allows for continued public access to the foreshore and to all public roads, the airstrip and the jetty. It allows for all licensees and lessees to retain licences and leases until existing contracts expire. The bill allows for compensation to be paid for improvements in certain circumstances. Land transfer will not be available for later sale. Land rights are integral to ending the Aboriginal community's reliance on government funding. Those are some of the arguments that I have heard in favour of this bill.

Mr President, there is now a new Federal landscape in support of Aboriginal communities. Within the Federal Government there is a belief that past policies, while well-intentioned, have served to make Aborigines second-class citizens. Within the Aboriginal community there is a belief that government help in itself is not enough. Many Aborigines want to take more responsibility and initiative to overcome community problems. One of them is Brendan Buck Brown, quoted in the Australian newspaper on 22 November last year. According to the Australian , he is a former Cape Barren islander who has recently returned to try to build a life on the island. He is said to want a self-sufficient future for his two young boys and believes land rights are integral to ending the community's reliance on government funding. Mr Brown is quoted as saying:
'There is a huge potential here for ecotourism on the island and that can only happen if the community is in control of its own land.'
That is the quoted view of one Cape Barren resident, Mr President.
There are some in the Aboriginal community in Tasmania who see this proposed land transfer as a first step in a new self-reliance. Under a changed Federal landscape, moves towards Aboriginal self-reliance could well be viewed sympathetically for potential funding. Mr President, as far as the wider Tasmanian community is concerned, there is a feeling that arguments about the past should be put to rest but there is a need for a gesture of reconciliation.

However, one general concern, even by those supporting this bill, is apparent to me. Will the transfer of Cape Barren and Clarke islands be part of a continuing process of demands and future transfers? If this bill is approved and the proposed land transfers take place will that be the end of the matter as far as the Furneaux Group is concerned? Where is the line in the sand? I suggest that this should be it. This bill is a significant gesture of reconciliation, at least as far as the Bass Strait islands are concerned. Of course, those who feel themselves as descendants of European settlers and of the original inhabitants of these islands must not forget their history but I suggest, Mr President, that it is time to make a gesture of reconciliation in Bass Strait and to move forward as a Tasmanian community. I believe most Tasmanians with a sense of history would agree with me.