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Applications backlog in Government’s sights

THE State Government is expected to begin drafting legislation within weeks to introduce sweeping reforms to land access procedures to clear the huge backlog of mineral tenement applications.

In December, Deputy Premier Eric Ripper released a 290-page report compiled by the Technical Taskforce on Mineral Tenements and Land Title Applications, which met eight times between April and October 2001 to consider the issues and make recommendations.

The taskforce is chaired by Bardy McFarlane of the National Native Title Tribunal.

There are currently 11,000 mineral tenement applications held up in the system, caused mainly by difficulties arising from the conflicting laws of the Mining Act (1978) and the Native Title Act (1993).

The litigious approach of the Court Government, combined with complicated Native Title procedures, have resulted in very few resolutions on the ground and have contributed to the huge downturn in exploration.

The key recommendation in the latest report, which is available for public comment until the end of January, would make exploration possible without Native Title negotiations right up until the explorer proposes to construct a mine.

Mr Ripper said he would like to see legislation that allowed unimpeded exploration.

“The fact that a company has applied for a mining lease triggers the Right to Negotiate under Native Title laws, and so all of those Native Title considerations have to be taken account of,” Mr Ripper said.

“But people negotiate on the basis that this is an application to mine, whereas the mining company simply wants to continue exploration.

“We could get a whole lot of mining lease applications out of the Native Title system if we changed mining laws to allow people to continue to explore without the need to take out a mining lease.”

He said Aboriginal heritage laws needed to be overhauled.

“One way to streamline the process is to get a regional heritage protocol in place so that, in the Goldfields for example, we’ve got a standard heritage agreement,” Mr Ripper said. “If someone wants to explore on a piece of land they would make application to explore on that land and sign off on a standard heritage protection protocol to satisfy the concerns of Native Title parties.”

The report recommends doubling the number of Department of Minerals and Petroleum Resources officers involved in Native Title negotiations from 11 to 22 and placing the extra staff in the Goldfields.

Mr Ripper said both sides of the ledger had problems with current resources.

“The land councils don’t have sufficient resources to properly negotiate future Acts, including exploration applications, and they’re suggesting that the best way to deal with it is to have some additional staff in the Mines Department and also provide some additional staff for land councils.

“All of these staff will work specifically on approvals for exploration,” Mr Ripper said.

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) has welcomed the report, saying that it gives the right signals and sets out an agenda which should clear the backlog of applications.

AMEC CEO George Savell told WA Business News explorers would not support the recommendations until several other issues were addressed.

“We have to know what the implications of the High Court judgement is in the Ward appeal in the Mirriuwung Gajerrong case, which involves pastoral leases,” Mr Savell said. “We need to have in place an agreement which is acceptable to the Native Title representative bodies, the claimants, AMEC and other stakeholders.

“We don’t believe that you need to have an agreement for every single one of the tenements for grant.

“We have a policy which says quite simply that we’re very happy to do any surveys of a heritage nature as and when it’s necessary, which is normally when you’re going to undertake ground disturbance.”

Wongatha man Tony Shaw, who is a partner in a private firm dealing with claimant groups and resource companies, said the Aboriginal position on Native Title was heritage protection.

“If resource development is planned for a Native Title claimant area it has to happen on a solid under-standing that there have been people there prior to European settlement and are still there and operating within their core culture,” he said.

“If development happens there has to be longer-term benefits that sees them as a grouping of people in a better position 30 or 40 years down the track, and I’m talking in terms of education, employment, health and all of those key areas that enables people to make life-changing choices.”

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