The Federal Government will provide $5.8 million to ensure the Native Title Respondent Scheme is available to landholders for the next four years.
The funding extension featured prominently at a hearing of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee during budget estimates in Canberra this week.
The scheme works to assist respondents resolve their interests in native title claims and negotiate Indigenous land use agreements by meeting some of the costs of their involvement in the native title process.
Native title claimants (eg: traditional owners) are assisted with funding administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The new funding measure extends the Federal Government’s commitment beyond its current end date of 31 December 2015 until 2019.
Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan, who is also a member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee, said the scheme provided financial relief to respondents in what can often be a long and costly process.
“I know there are many landholders and local councils across western Queensland that have not yet finalised their native title agreements and this funding extension is a commitment from the Federal Government that they will not be left to fend for themselves,” he said.
“This funding will assist a wide range of industry bodies including those representing pastoral land owners, small fishers, small miners and local government authorities.
“As the Senate estimates hearing displayed this week, everyone involved in the Native Title process was delivered a major blow when the previous government decided to scrap this respondent funding program.
“We are all still cleaning up the mess left behind to this day.
“Lady Justice was looking a bit tired and emotional for a while. But we’ve pulled out the sniffing salts and given her a shot or two of adrenaline and now she’s ready to go a few more rounds.”
Former Attorney General Nicola Roxon announced plans to scrap the scheme in 2012, which resulted in strong criticism from farm groups, local government and even the Federal Court of Australia that the decision had caused longer delays in resolution and more costly litigation.
Despite the respondent funding scheme being reinstated by Attorney-General George Brandis QC in November 2013, the previous government’s mismanagement of the program has led to a backlog of claims in the Federal court.
As at 30 June 2014, there were 410 active native title claims across Australia, with a typical native title claim taking many years to resolve.
Boulia Shire Mayor Rick Britton, whose council area has been involved in native title negotiations for eight years, said the extension of Federal Government funding would provide confidence that landholders could work towards the best possible outcome for the broad community.
“Native Title can be a long worn out process and without financial assistance from the government it would be virtually unachievable for landholders and small councils,” he said.
“We found that when there wasn’t government financial assistance for Native Title negotiations that landholders would just cut the cost legal advice from their budgets.
“Landholders had to prioritise putting food on their tables and delivering water for their livestock. Legal advice is too expensive when you’re also dealing with drought or a high dollar.
“Our shire council budget suffered as well. Any money we had to spend on legal advice was money we couldn’t spend on community service delivery.
“I think there will be a lot of western communities pleased this funding has been extended by the Federal Government.”