Gail Mabo - Photo, couriermail.com.au

Gail Mabo – Photo, couriermail.com.au

The Native Title Act, watered down by Paul Keating and then butchered by John Howard, is in for another bashing under a Coalition Government. Earlier this year the Coalition’s Tony Abbott told The Stringer that there would be changes to Native Title processes. These changes would ensure less red tape for miners and developers.

Mr Abbott said he would describe the prospective changes and the detail around them closer to September 14.

The annual National Native Title Conference, with a theme of ‘Shaping the future’, was held last week in Alice Springs. More than 700 delegates attended, half of them from Aboriginal Corporations and the other half predominately lawyers. Attending the last day of the Conference was the Northern Territory’s Nigel Scullion, and if the Coalition wins Government, he will become the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Mr Abbott intends to work closely with Aboriginal peoples and will lead a whole-of-government approach with a new portfolio, Prime Minister of Aboriginal Affairs.

The Stringer reported in March that the Native Title Act and the processes around it will be overhauled, and this was confirmed by a credible source from within the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT). Furthermore it has been confirmed by a couple of sources within the Coalition. On the last evening of the Conference Senator Scullion delivered an address where he flagged the prospective reforms.

“If I am lucky enough to become the Minister after the next election, my priority will be to do whatever I can to speed up the process of Native Title.”

“I have always been saddened that too many Aboriginal people pass away before their Native Title rights have been recognised and their land returned.”

“The Coalition respects the rights of landowners to decide whether to develop their land.”

“The Coalition is not a friend of the anti-development brigade. However, where Aboriginal people make an informed choice that they do want to develop their lands to secure economic benefit, they will find no better ally than a Federal Coalition Government.”

He said he has had enough of the “nonsense” of conservation agendas overriding the potential wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples. He singled out the Queensland Wild Rivers legislation, which he said has denied opportunity and progress for Aboriginal peoples.

The Stringer understands that the Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson, a staunch critic of the Wild Rivers legislation, has played a huge role in informing the thinking of the Coalition leadership. Mr Pearson will play an influential policy chief maker role in Aboriginal Affairs under an Abbott-led Government.

Senator Scullion said he would remove the “road blocks” that prohibit development of Aboriginal lands.

“Aboriginal land has become an easy target for local government authorities to use to demonstrate their ‘green’ credentials.”

“It happens in other jurisdictions too, but under the banner of world heritage. “

“We must be prepared to take a stand against this sort of nonsense.”

Senator Scullion said that Aboriginal advancement could not occur without Aboriginal home ownership and land tenure reforms, and he criticised the Indigenous Land Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia for their “political” meddling which in his view had kept many Aboriginal peoples downtrodden.

Ironically, many of Senator Scullion’s comments were in stark contrast to many of the themes of the Conference and in stark contrast to what many Aboriginal leaders had to say about cultural heritage and substantive compensation. The Coalition’s views, unchallenged at the Conference, effectively degenerated to tokenism Conference workshop themes such as “The Right to Protect Sites”, “Building an assembly of First Nations” and “Reviving Traditional Knowledge.”

The annual conference coincides with Mabo Day, and Eddie Mabo’s daughter Gail Mabo delivered the conference’s introductory keynote address. Importantly she called for a national holiday to remember her father. “Native Title has a way to go but it can be done because it has been begun, by my father. He was told he could not achieve what he did, but he did. If we can come together as peoples, as blackfellas, we can achieve more in terms of land rights.”

“As Indigenous peoples we do have someone we can acknowledge, Eddie Mabo. He inspires us all. He is to our peoples what Martin Luther King is to his peoples.”

The conference’s 2013 Mabo Lecture was delivered by Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright. Ms Wright was the first Aboriginal person to win the Miles Franklin literary award for her book ‘Carpentaria’. Her lecture was oppositional to Senator Scullion’s comments which would have been quite upsetting for Ms Wright.

Ms Wright spoke of the need for “resistance” and that “the right to sovereignty” must be respected. She said that Aboriginal peoples should not give in to piecemeal Native Title outcomes. Her speech was polemical and she put Aboriginality and natural justice before compromised outcomes and assimilation.

She spoke of the contemporary anguish that Aboriginal peoples suffer from the effects of colonisation. She attacked inauthentic Aboriginal story tellers who sell out to assimilation for personal pecuniary benefits.

Mr Wright said Native Title needs reform but not of the sort that Senator Scullion and Mr Abbott are talking about.

“Eddie Mabo did not wait for any Government to do the right thing because he knew that was never going to happen.”

“He showed us that we can go higher, that we can raise the benchmark.”

“It is not acceptable for others who are not us to tell us who we are and what we can accept. Only we can.”

 “If we want to go forward as a people we need a Treaty.”

“If we lose our history and the want to occupy our lands and our space then we will lose our ability to tell our stories.”

The Stringer talked to a score of Native Title lawyers during the conference and just about all of them said that the Native Title Act is not what it should be nor is the oversight of Native Title by designated agencies, including the NNTT and the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC) what it should be.

“The whole process has been undermined by a lack of apt standards to ensure outcomes. For those developers and miners who don’t want to do the right thing by Native Title holders the legislation is that restrictive that they can get away with this,” said one lawyer.

Another lawyer said that despite a couple of hundred Native Title determinations and agreements between parties “that very few of them have returned to Indigenous communities what they should have, and therefore made little difference to the whole of the community.”

Most lawyers said Native Title had made some difference but that it had been thus far a “missed opportunity” to end Aboriginal impoverishment.

More than 100,000 Aboriginal peoples languish in third-world conditions in the world’s 12th largest economy, in the world’s richest nation per capita. Per capita Australia is the world’s wealthiest mining nation, but Native Title has failed to secure adequate returns for Aboriginal peoples from the mining boom.

Retired Federal Court Judge, former Aboriginal Lands Rights Commissioner and Deputy President of the NNTT said in his May 17 farewell speech from the Federal Court, “The biggest disappointment in my career has been to see the opportunity given to us by the High Court in the Mabo case squandered.”

“The concept of Native Title has been reduced to something of little practical significance by judges who have been unable to understand, and legislators who have been consciously averse to, the vital relationship between people and land in Aboriginal traditions.”

He said it was time for a new Native Title system that “recognises and respects the rights of our Indigenous peoples and returns to them a measure of control over what, but for colonisation, would have been indisputably theirs,” said Mr Gray.

The two score delegates spoken to at the Conference by The Stringer agreed that the current system had allowed for “rogue” and “extreme exploitation and behaviours” by some anthropologists and middle persons and mining companies. There was one presentation titled “Rogues in the system: Regulating anthropological conduct in the Native Title sector,” by James Rose.

The highlight of the conference was the Black Arm Band that intertwined their exquisite and emotional connective performance with the Mabo Lecture by Ms Wright. The Band sang in language and highlighted the right to historical identity, to justice, to equality, to land rights reforms, for the right to be and that assimilation should stand back, right out of the way, that humanity should come first.