Miller: Opposition speech on the McArthur River amendment

This is an edited version of Fay Miller’s, (CLP-Country Liberal Party) speech regarding the amendment. Three of the CLP members  voted for the amendment  (Fay Miller was absent), but the speech identifies some real issues of concern to the opposition.

The minister has come in to this House with a bill that will change the law of the Northern Territory. Putting it bluntly, it will change what the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory has deemed to be unlawful, and make it lawful. To that end, the minister has asked this parliament to set aside its normal procedure and rush through a bill that is designed to change what the Supreme Court said was unlawful. I ask members to ponder on the gravity of this. We are about to change the law to suit the outcomes of one party over another, and we are asked to do that in a rush.

The minister has asked these special favours of this House because he didn’t bother to read his paperwork.

Let us turn our attention to what he has asked us to do. He has introduced a bill. That bill asks us to pass a law that ratifies the decision that he made and that the Supreme Court ruled was beyond his power to make. He has asked more than that of us.

The bill will have the desired effect of ratifying what he tried to do, but it will also have a second effect. That second effect was not referred to at all in the second reading speech by the minister. The second effect is that, not only are we striking down the successful grounds for complaint that Mr Larsen had, but we are striking down all grounds for complaint that Mr Larsen had.

Madam Speaker, the arguments for appeal that were put in front of Justice Angel were staged. A good analogy is that there are hurdles placed before the minister, and before the minister tries to jump over the second hurdle, he needs to clear the first hurdle. Justice Angel’s decision said that the minister did not even clear the first hurdle, and that being the case, Justice Angel did not even have to bother to ask if he had got over any other hurdles. The minister had already come crashing to the ground.

The language of this amendment creates a legal super minister, because not only will he now clear the first hurdle with this House’s assent, he will clear them all in a single bound. To do that, we will not only say to Mr Larsen, ‘You were a winner, now you are a loser’, we are now going to take away his rights to legally question the minister on any of the points that he raised before Justice Angel. Minister, why did you not talk about this in your second reading speech yesterday? Why did you not tell this House that you were intending to crush Mr Larsen’s grounds for complaint forever completely. The minister’s wilful stupidity and subsequent appeal to this House has now saddled each and every member of this House with a dreadful burden, for he has now asked us to join in his drive to deprive Mr Larsen of his rights of challenge completely in relation to this issue. And the minister has not even had the decency to be transparent about that intention yesterday when he walked into this place and asked us to extricate him from this mire.

 This is now about the burden that has been thrust on our shoulders as legislators, and that is the burden of taking Mr Larsen’s vindication and treading on it, as well as taking Mr Larsen’s other rights of complaint and crushing them. I know that in legislation we do this from time to time, but on this occasion we are doing it retrospectively, with the effect of taking an established right to complain away from a person who is identifiable. We will also remove that plaintiff’s choice to pursue his and his family’s remaining issues.
Madam Speaker, this is why the haste of this bill frustrates me. I understand why it has to be pushed through in a hurry. The mine must go ahead. There are too many jobs and too much investment rides on its proceeding, but I was last night, and again this morning, Madam Speaker, still attracted to the idea of amending this bill, but today is the last sitting day for seven weeks.

The member for Arnhem, and all members who have professed their commitment to their Aboriginality, have reached a moral threshold here today. It is not unlike some of the other moral thresholds they have reached in this place and have been found wanting. They know it because of the discord that has been reported amongst their numbers about some of these issues. Sooner or later, they will have to make a stand to defend their passion for their people, or risk falling into a credibility chasm. Today, they are hanging over that abyss by a thread.

We are taking the rights of complaint of these Aboriginal people – complaints that the Supreme Court held up as being legitimate – and we are extinguishing them forever. All of this from a government which promoted itself as the champions of the concept of negotiations rather than litigation. Now, they do not negotiate, they litigate. In the case of Blue Mud Bay, they buy full-page ads in the newspaper to say they are not litigious. What is worse, when they lose their litigation, they legislate. To top it off, when they legislate, they do it with retrospective effect.

When the enormity of what we are doing here today began to dawn on me yesterday afternoon, I started to feel very uncomfortable. That disquiet has not abated, and I begin to realise the multitude of sins that I am being asked to support. To summarise: the minister cannot tell the difference between on open cut and an underground mine; the minister now has to fix his error by changing the law; the minister wants this House to set aside its normal operating procedure; the minister wants to push this bill through in 24 hours. That change in law will take away the otherwise lawful grounds of argument that Mr Larsen has. The minister has the audacity to put into his bill, not only the effect he is looking for, but also a secondary effect of taking away other actionable grounds by Mr Larsen. Also, to cap off the abuse of process, the minister does not tell this House that he wants to close off all of Mr Larsen’s grounds of complaints to the court when he gave his second reading speech.

I have gone from having a sense of disquiet to having a sense of feeling very grubby.

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