In the south west of Western Australia the first of six regional authorisation meetings voted on whether 40,000 Noongar people should in effect cede their Country, extinguishing even native title rights. The State Government negotiated a $1.3 billion in-kind package over 12 years with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council on the condition that native title rights are signed away. In the first of six authorisation meetings, only 300 out of more than several thousand eligible voters turned up.
In the south west regional town of Bunbury, 170 voted to accept the offer while 80 voted to reject the offer. SWALSC CEO, Glen Kelly said last week’s ballot was the first of six to be held across the south west over the next two months in order demographically to reach as many potential voters as possible. The next authorisation meeting will be held 53 km south of Bunbury, in Busselton, on February 14.
Busselton based Noongar Elder, John Pell said, “More than 90 per cent of our people will not vote. Either they do not understand what the deal is actually about or they want nothing to do with it.”
The Government’s offer has been argued as potentially delivering significant financial, community development and land opportunities in exchange for the extinguishing of the whole of the Noongar peoples’ native title rights. The 23 clans of the Noongar peoples, who others state should be known as the Bibbelmun peoples, have been lumped together for this deal which therefore represents more than 40,000 people. Over 12 years $600 million will be disbursed to six regional authorities as operational funding and as a revenue base from which to draw interest. These regional authorities will liaise with the State Government. In-kind arrangements valued at more than half a billion dollars have been promised in job creation within the national and recreational parks, predominately as park rangers and in conservation management. There is the promise of a precinct of 120 houses to be built for Elders and also a potential handover of some land, but the land will not be granted in perpetuity and can be repossessed by Governments for development. These property rights are yet to be negotiated.
“We have five more (authorisation meetings) to go. People are free to come along who are part of those individual claim groups,” said Mr Kelly.
“Basically, the happiest thing for us is to actually be able to provide people with the choice, and the one thing we were thinking as we were coming into the meeting on the Saturday just gone is say look at whatever happens at the very least we were able to give people the choice because as Noongars we have never ever had the choice before. So we were really happy to put this on the table, give them the choice and enable them to exercise their free will to say whether they agree with it or whether they don’t.”
But dissenters criticised what they said was low voter turnout.
“There is huge dissent against this giving away of our land. Clearly, the majority of our people do not want any of this and the majority have refused to vote for it. How can a 5 something per cent turnout of voters be considered as the will of our people?” stated Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation director, Mervyn Eades.
“Many of our people at the Bunbury authorisation meeting did not know what was going on or what was being sold to them. There were those who once they better understood that their land rights were being ceded that they wanted to change their vote but then it was too late.”
Mr Kelly has spent years supporting claimant groups as litigants and has long argued that even if this was not the most ideal package it was likely the best that could be gained for the Noongar peoples.
“Otherwise we return back to the long haul process of litigation. Otherwise we return back to the Courts.”
Noongar Daniel Garlett spent four and half years with the SWALSC but left dissatisfied with the State Government’s in-kind package to his peoples.
“It is not a fair offer to our people. It was not negotiated with the openness it should have been and with the extent of the involvement of the whole of our people that should have been involved,” said Mr Garlett.
The CEO of Aboriginal Legal Services WA, Dennis Eggington said, “The deal offered by the State Government is unfair. They cannot even be fair. Just be fair. This is a lowest common denominator deal.”
Recently, Wiradjuri social justice campaigner, Jenny Munro delivered a powerful speech on the Aboriginal rights struggle and land rights.
“We have never ceded our lands – there has never been a single Black signature in the two hundred years of violent dispossession where anyone can point to any of our people signing our lands away. Point us to a single Black signature, prove that we have ceded our lands. There is no Black signature. We own these lands,” said Ms Munro.
Mr Eades said, “We’ve been asked to vote on whether we are prepared to cede our lands and our rights for some dividends that will never reach the majority of people. They’ve got the Black signature they’re looking for. Many of our people are devastated but we will fight to raise awareness of this with the coming authorisation meetings.”
The South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council do not believe that the narrative of extreme poverty should be allowed to continue and that everything that can be done to empower people and the advancement of Noongars should be done now.
Recently, I met with heavy duty national native title experts who at this time I will not identify, and one of them said to me as the others nodded, “Effectively, native title arrangements are about extinguishing rights. Native title is merely about compensation.”