Colonisation: 99 Year Township Lease

This is another invasion; this is another colonisation, another approach of taking over everything. You know you cannot sell land for something, the land is so precious you cannot do that.

– Reverend Gondarra, respected Arnhem Land elder.

Gondarra is fighting the Government’s push to take control of Indigenous communities through a “99 year township lease.” Gondarra evokes a critique of Australia’s colonial laws, which dispossessed the traditional landowners for much of Australia’s history (and which continues in various ways to this day).

Upon European settlement in 1788, Australian law imposed a terra nullius clause proclaiming that the land belonged to no one, even though Indigenous Australians had inhabited our country for an estimated 120,000 years.

Indigenous human rights activist Eddie Mabo launched a 10 year legal battle in the High Court to challenge this law. In 1992, Mabo’s victory led to new Native Title laws. These have been continually challenged, most recently in connection to the resources boom in rural and remote parts of Australia.

Native title issues are complicated by drawn-out legal hurdles as well as poor community consultation processes. This past week, the Australian Federal Court has recognised Native Title rights for the Bandjalang people over land on the New South Waltes north coast. There are two Indigenous rights claims made on this land covering 2,700 square kilometres. The claims were launched in the mid-to-late 1990s, meaning it has taken more than two decades for these land right cases to be finalised. The native title process obviously needs to be expedited. Bandjalang elder, Warren Willams, says:

It’s an all too familiar story at native title recognition ceremonies – remembering elders who were there at the start of claims, but not there at the end.

Also under way is a Lands Review in remote regions of South Australia. The process represents a potentially significant overhaul of the 1981 Land Rights Act governing the APY Lands (Anangu Pitjatjantjara Yunkunytjatjara Lands). The review is experiencing several problems in trying to solicit adequate community input. The APY executive includes 10 representatives of several remote Indigenous communities (there’s a push to broaden membership for two additional positions).

There are issues of inclusive representation, with a need to improve recruitment of women leaders as well as leaders of the smaller, hard-to-reach communities. The local Indigenous people, the Anangu, seem to be marginalised as they live in small homelands. There are other disagreements about the qualifications and criminal history of Executive members. The review is considering not allowing Executive members who have a police record, which would mean the current Chairman could no longer serve on the Executive.

The review is running into financial problems, with some locals believing that Government is wasting money on hiring consultants who are not focused enough on community issues. Robert Stevens, one of the Executive members says:

Things are really crook – no-one ever talks about homelands, no-one. All our funding is gone, been taken away from homelands and there’s really no talk, no one speaking up, there’s nowhere to go, we don’t know where to go. Really lost.

The proposed 99 year lease and the legal issues associated with administrating native title rights represent a useful way to examine how colonialism continues in the present-day. Postcolonial theory shows that historical processes, including land dispossession, continue to affect Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians have both a cultural and spiritual connection to their land. Moreover, their unique knowledge of the landscape provides an important social resource for sustainable planning for the future.

Sources: NITV and SBS News.