Labor letting its Indigenous legacy die

Labor’s greatest ever achievement for Aboriginal people was passing the Native Title Act in 1993. Not passing these amendments means it may as well not have bothered. Labor is allowing its own legacy to curl up and die.

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

As National President of the Labor Party I saw up close that Indigenous Affairs is not high on the priority list in the cut and thrust of politics. There simply aren’t enough votes in it. Indigenous people are around 3 per cent of Australia’s population and most voters don’t turn their mind to Indigenous Affairs from one day to the next. It’s also why Aboriginal people easily become pawns in a wider game.

That’s what happened in the last sitting of Federal Parliament when Labor refused to pass a set of changes to the Native Title Act in the Senate which would enable traditional owners to make Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) in respect of their land. These are a set of changes the Labor Party supports. A set of changes all native title representative organisations and most Aboriginal people also support. A set of changes the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended.

In fact, Aboriginal and native title organisations have lobbied for these changes for around a decade, when technical problems in the Native Title Act first became apparent which mean native title holders can’t enter into ILUAs without unanimous approval of the original applicants to the native title claim. Unanimous approval is a threshold no parliament, board, shareholder group, local council, not even your local football association has to pass to make a decision. But it’s a threshold traditional owners remain subject to, until Labor can be bothered to pass the amendments.

Why would Labor refuse to pass legislation it, and almost everyone affected by it, supports?

Labor says that they need to consult more. But the groups they’ll consult will tell them exactly what they have been telling successive Attorney Generals for a decade and have told Labor in recent months. That the law needs to be fixed.

The real reason is Aboriginal people are caught in a compromise between the Green Left of politics, which infests the Labor Left, and the Labor Right over the Adani mine. By delaying the amendments, Labor has given the Green Left a concession. For at least another month, maybe longer, the Adani project will be in doubt because its ILUA with the Wangan and Jagalingou People Native Title Claim Group, which voted 294 to one in favour of the ILUA, didn’t receive unanimous support of the named native title applicants. One more month for the minority Wangan and Jagalingou opponents of the mine to pursue further court challenges.

Notwithstanding Bill Shorten and Premier Annastacia Palasz­czuk’s assurances in support of the Adani project, the Labor Left is undertaking a concerted campaign against the mine. And they don’t care about Aboriginal people or their native title rights.

It’s no coincidence that Adani’s board is yet to make its final investment decision on whether to pursue the mine. Opponents of the mine hope this delay and uncertainty will lead the Adani board to abandon the project. Just as Woodside abandoned the James Price Point project in 2013.

Too bad for everyone else. Too bad for the 126 ILUAs now invalid since the Federal Court decision that prevents majority voting to approve ILUAs. Too bad the National Native Title Tribunal had frozen registration of all new ILUAs following that decision. Too bad many other ILUAs are now in legal limbo and vulnerable to litigation. All these ILUAs impact major infrastructure and other projects across Australia, projects which will create jobs and boost Australia’s economy. ILUAs that will enable Aboriginal people to get off welfare and find jobs and opportunities in their own communities.

Labor’s inaction doesn’t just affect people with native title rights. It affects everyone. Native title impacts most of Australia’s land mass. The idea that ILUAs could be negated by a minority of disgruntled individuals, often with activist backing, opposing what the majority of traditional owners want is absurd. It threatens all development in Australia – which is what the Green Left want. And it threatens Australia’s economy.

For the past decade, major mining, infrastructure and other projects have bounced around courtrooms like footballs. Time and money has been wasted while traditional owner groups defend their ILUAs against activists using them to stop development. This will now continue for the indefinite future.

Maybe Adani will abandon the project. If it doesn’t, how long will Labor keep delaying these amendments it supposedly supports?

Rousing speeches and symbolic gestures aside Labor’s greatest ever achievement for Aboriginal people was passing the Native Title Act in 1993. Failing to pass these amendments means it may as well not have bothered. Labor is allowing its own legacy to curl up and die.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is former CEO of NTSCorp, NSW’s native title service provider, and a former National President of the Australian Labor Party.

 

Edited versions of this article first appeared in The Koori Mail on 17 May 2017 and in The Courier Mail on 24 May 2017

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is former CEO of NTSCorp, NSW’s native title service provider, and a former National President of the Australian Labor Party.

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Comments

  1. Graham Thomson says:

    This is a clear test of where the recently elected Labor Aboriginal Senator Patrick Dodson sits in Aboriginal Affairs. I sincerely trust he does not become yet anohter tool of politics. He needs to stand up and voice his position in favour of the Aboriginal people.
    I have to this point in time, had great respect for Patrick and I trust that it may continue.

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