Jervis Bay Territory Amendment Bill – Second Reading

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This bill makes important updates to the legislation that governs the Aboriginal community at Wreck Bay, which is in the Jervis Bay Territory. Jervis Bay is one of those unique places in Australia that is a non-self-governing Commonwealth territory. That effectively means it has the Commonwealth and whatever councils may exist there, but there is no territory government or state government that deals with it. The Commonwealth effectively performs the role that the state government may perform ordinarily in other parts of Australia.

This bill is the result of the hard work of Ken Wyatt when he was the Minister for Indigenous Australians. Extensive consultations were carried out with the community at Wreck Bay, community consensus was reached and the bill was introduced into the parliament on 30 March this year. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass before the election. I note the present Minister for Indigenous Australians took up the bill after the election. As the explanatory memorandum states, she asked the National Indigenous Australians Agency to carry out consultations with the Wreck Bay community to see if any further changes were required. The community preferred the bill in the form completed under Minister Wyatt, so that is the version that is brought before the House today.

I want to quote from the speech introducing this bill, as the text is in the identical form. The minister said:

The Australian government has worked with the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council and the broader Wreck Bay community over a number of years to co-design the Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Amendment (Strengthening Land and Governance Provisions) Bill 2022. The bill will: strengthen the council’s governance structures; enhance local control over decision-making; and help to enable homeownership style leases on Aboriginal land in the Jervis Bay Territory. The bill supports economic empowerment for the Wreck Bay community by ensuring people can access the benefits that come with homeownership and by reducing red tape in council administration.

The Wreck Bay community is located in the Jervis Bay Territory, on the southern New South Wales coast, 126 kilometres east of Canberra. The Jervis Bay Territory was formally established in 1915, on the land of the Bherwerre Peninsula, through the enactment of the Jervis Bay Territory Acceptance Act 1915. Of course, Aboriginal people had been living in the area since long before that time. Middens on the Bherwerre Peninsula provide evidence of thousands of generations of Indigenous occupation of the area.During the 1960s and 1970s, members of the community advocated for the recognition of their connection to their land in Australian law. This advocacy culminated in the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Act 1986. The act established the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council to hold title to Aboriginal land in the Jervis Bay Territory, to manage that land for the benefit of the community and to advocate for and serve the community more generally. There have been three declarations of Aboriginal land since 1987. Today, more than 90 per cent of the land in the Jervis Bay Territory is Aboriginal land owned and managed by the council.

This bill ensures that the council is well positioned to hold and manage this land for the benefit of the Wreck Bay community for generations to come.

The bill enhances local control over decision-making by increasing the amount the council can agree to spend under a contract without obtaining ministerial approval. This amount will increase from $100,000 to $1 million, empowering the council to pursue commercial ventures without having to navigate unnecessary red tape.

The bill assists the council to issue homeownership-style leases to individuals in the community. If community members wish to do so, they will be able to take out a homeownership-style lease. This will simplify arrangements for long-term leasing and provide opportunity for community members to enjoy the intergenerational benefits associated with homeownership.

The bill strengthens the council’s government structures, aligning them more closely with those of comparable corporate Commonwealth entities. The powers of the council will be vested in the board; until now, the council’s members have had to delegate powers to the board, creating uncertainty within the council. The board and the chief executive officer will be explicitly empowered to delegate functions and power so the council can function effectively. The bill also ensures only fit and proper persons may serve on the board and changes quorum requirements from set numbers to percentages of overall members, ensuring responsiveness to changes in overall membership numbers.

Importantly, the bill updates the title of the act to the Aboriginal Land and Waters (Jervis Bay Territory) Act 1986. This name reflects the council’s ownership of an area of the waters of Jervis Bay as well as freshwater sources across the Jervis Bay Territory. It recognises the community’s strong connection to waters as well as land and the importance of the act in supporting that enduring connection into the future.

The government’s closing the gap commitment to shared decision-making has guided the development of this package of reforms. I am proud to say the bill has been co-designed with the council and community over a number of years. Targeted co-design sessions were held in 2020 and 2021, including with the board, men’s and women’s groups, subcommittees, elders, youth and the broader membership. Some reforms were proposed by the community, others were suggested by government, and every reform in this bill has been explicitly endorsed by the board.

The government sincerely thanks the council for its work in the co-design of this bill. In particular, we acknowledge the leadership of Annette Brown and Julie Moore, who have chaired the council during the co-design process.

The council’s work honours the longstanding tradition of community service and representation in Wreck Bay. Those who advocated for land rights in the 20th century paved the way for the present generation to maintain their deep connection to their land and waters. This bill ensures that the Wreck Bay community will continue to live their culture through this enduring connection for generations to come.

Those were the words of the then minister.

I want to acknowledge the local member for the Jervis Bay Territory, the member for Fraser, who is in the chamber at the moment. I think he also has some responsibility for carriage of this bill. The opposition supports the bill. As I said, it was introduced in the same form by the former coalition minister. We commend the work that he’s done, and we commend the work that Minister Burney has done in maintaining that work. We commend the bill to the House.

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