Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Providing Freehold) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014

Hon. GW ELMES (Noosa—LNP) (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier) (12.44 pm): I rise this afternoon to speak in support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land (Providing Freehold) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill. Can I just say to the member for Lockyer at the very start that in my particular case I may be about the size of Migaloo—and I know the gentleman who made the comment well—but we certainly ensure that we treat Indigenous people with a great deal of respect.

Improving economic circumstances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders has been the focus of this government as the key to addressing decades of historic disadvantage. This bill will provide opportunities for Indigenous and Island communities to own their own homes or to be involved in business just like every other Queenslander. This is something which has been denied for inhabitants of the state’s 34 Aboriginal and Islander communities.

The question we should have at the forefront of our minds is not what will happen if this legislation is enacted but, more importantly, the question of what will happen if it is not. If we leave things the way they are now, then there is every likelihood that in 10 or 20 years time Indigenous communities will still be more or less the way they are now. That means remaining dependent on welfare with little prospect of any community growth or personal development and, importantly, the absence of a real future.

The availability of freehold land in Queensland’s Indigenous communities will be a first for Australia. Different governments have wrestled with the issue but have not been able to make it happen. I believe that this legislation is similar to other historic Indigenous determinations like Wik and Mabo in the way it opens the doors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to experience increased autonomy and self-determination. Importantly, it provides a way out of the welfare dependency which has characterised so many Indigenous communities and denied them a viable future for so long.

The bill implements the government’s commitment to provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with the same access to freehold title as is available throughout Queensland and to remove barriers to homeownership and economic development in these communities. The bill provides the single biggest benefit that the government can bestow on Indigenous Queenslanders: the opportunity to own their own home on their traditional lands. This bill recognises the important connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with land and their rights to own a home on that land.

The bill does not force freehold on any community or any individual; it provides the power for communities which see freehold as part of their future to be able to have it. It provides flexibility for a community to take up freehold over only a part of the community if it wishes. We want to work with communities to identify what is best for each one and to what extent—if at all—freehold land can be made part of their community. 

A former member for Cook, Eric Deeral, almost 40 years ago saw a better future for Indigenous Queenslanders and he had a practical vision for how it could be achieved. He recognised that welfare was a self-perpetuating problem which created dependence and eliminated enterprise within communities. Unfortunately, the challenge that he saw 40 years ago remains the case today. There is a link between social problems and economic disadvantage. The more a community can be normalised through employment and business opportunities, the better the chance of dealing with social problems like alcohol and substance misuse and violence towards women and children.

This government’s approach to addressing Indigenous disadvantage is to see jobs created and local economies developed which support homeownership and the creation of small businesses. If we can create jobs, most of the rest of the social problems in the community will take care of themselves. I do not for a moment think that it will be a quick and easy task to make freehold land available across all Indigenous communities. There are major issues for communities to consider which could have enormous impacts on their lives. For example, a community that wants to make freehold land available must consider that freehold extinguishes native title over the area of land subject to freehold. Rights to land for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners have been hard fought for many generations, so the question of extinguishment is a very, very big decision.

Also, once a piece of land is declared freehold and purchased by a community member it is then available to be onsold at a later date by the owner to someone else, even a buyer from outside the community. If people have their own home on freehold, they are responsible for paying rates and maintaining the property. These are just some of the issues to be considered and discussed at length so that each community can come to an informed decision. Communities do not have to take up the freehold option. Some might choose to test the option by taking it up over a limited area within their community.

It is anticipated that making freehold land available will provide the opportunity to access a capital pool in terms of equity in commercial property, local business and homeownership. This will result in the ability to offer security for attracting investment to provide increased opportunities for employment and skills development in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Limiting freehold to townships removes the concerns—I heard what the member for Mulgrave said earlier but he was wrong—that large tracts of land can be granted as freehold and potentially lost forever to community ownership. It will also reduce the need for significant consultation, as the land available will have already been identified through the planning scheme and, in most cases, already utilised. This bill gives choice to local governments in their role as trustees about whether individual freehold land ownership is the way forward for their communities, which are currently held under a deed of grant in trust. Prior to this bill, leasehold was the only option.

To enable this bill and to make ordinary freehold a practical and realistic option, the Queensland government has been putting in place a strong land administration system across the 34 Indigenous communities in Queensland. Much of this work is invisible, but it establishes the underlying requirements and systems needed for individual freehold, homeownership and commercial leasing. This work is undertaken by a specialist part of my department, the Remote Indigenous Land and Infrastructure Program Office. Its work is critical to reducing the significant transaction costs that exist for residents who wish to buy their own homes—by leasehold or freehold—or to start a new business. The principal function of the office is to provide land and services for the construction of social housing, but they also work on private homeownership. The office facilitates Indigenous homeownership through its homeownership team. The team works with Indigenous Queenslanders to assist them to secure loans and to complete the processes associated with building or purchasing a home. Land freeholding and homeownership would not be possible without the work of the program office in Cairns.

The office is rolling out a suite of programs across the 34 Indigenous communities which include: land use planning schemes, which are key to good planning and appropriate future development that will identify areas available for individual freehold in a schedule attached to the land use plan; whole-of-township surveys, which cover housing, roads, local government infrastructure, reserves and buildings like clinics, shops and schools; tenure resolution to resolve anomalies identified through the survey program such as an encroachment on a housing lot or a road which needs to be fixed; Indigenous land use agreements, which formalise the consent given by the traditional owner group for the township area for the introduction of freehold as an enabler for homeownership and commercial leasing.

Building blocks are being put in place—both literally and otherwise—to achieve easier, cheaper land dealings in communities where this has previously been a real obstacle. Individual freehold is a big change. Many communities are now ready to embrace this change, as they have embraced the program of work that puts in place strong and enduring land administration systems.

A key part of the bill is for these communities to self-nominate if they wish to proceed with freehold. If the bill is passed, I expect to call for expressions of interest from Indigenous communities interested in participating in a pilot program. This bill enables change. The security of individual land tenure is fundamental to attracting investment and economic development as well as to providing residents in these communities the same access to homeownership as any other Queenslander.

Together we have come a long way through this, but this is just the start. The journey will be a long one, but with goodwill a family home where people have full-time work, the kids go to school and mum and dad can plan for a secure future.