By Richie Ahmat, chairman of the (Aboriginal) Cape York Land Council
THE confrontation between the Aboriginal traditional owners of Cape York Peninsula and The Wilderness Society in relation to Queensland's Wild River laws is fundamental. If it is not resolved fairly and soon, it will be the beginning of a long war that our people will never abandon until justice is restored.
What is at stake here is the very meaning of land rights. While our people are defending the principle that Australia was not a terra nullius, TWS is pursuing the restoration of terra nullius through the concept of wilder nullius.
Wilder nullius, which is a vision that TWS has for indigenous homelands across northern and remote Australia, allows for black people in the landscape but in a highly restricted form. These blacks are not supposed to engage in any form of wealth creation or development. They are only allowed to pursue traditional activities. They are to eschew employment or consumption, and not participate in or be in favour of any form of industry.
If the blacks abide by the role envisioned for them, then TWS will arrange for the environmental agencies of government to provide funding programs for them to be employed as rangers and so on. If they step outside of this role, then TWS will get the government to stop the funding. Only compliance to the TWS vision of wilder nullius will receive support.
To us in Cape York Peninsula it is disturbing that an environmental organisation born in the genocidal context of Tasmania is seeking to reverse the Mabo principle that Australia is not and has never been terra nullius.
If you want to do anything with Aboriginal land you must get the free and informed consent of the Aboriginal traditional owners. This is our right to self-determination. These are our land rights.
Whether you want to undertake development or you want to create protected areas: the principle is free and informed consent.
And the mechanism for securing this free and informed consent is via Indigenous Land Use Agreements that are registered under the Commonwealth Native Title Act. ILUAs are ultimately supervised by the Federal Court of Australia, which ensures that all of the traditional owner groups have been fully informed, and that they have given their free consent.
Our job as a land council under the law is to make sure the proper process is followed, that all of the traditional owner groups are properly identified and are given all of the relevant information. We are required to ensure that the necessary meetings take place, and that the traditional owner groups have legal representation throughout the whole process. We must make sure that consent is provided by the whole group, not just individuals or subgroups. Where there is dispute within the group, we are required to assist in the mediation of the disputes.
Land councils are like trade unions. We provide support to traditional owner groups, so they are not left vulnerable in their dealings with governments and third parties over traditional lands. We make sure proper negotiation processes are followed. We make sure legal and anthropological advice is available.
We don't allow individuals and subgroups to make agreements without ensuring that the whole group is involved. Otherwise unscrupulous bureaucrats, developers and other third parties will rip the landowners off.
Just look at what has happened and is still happening in Papua New Guinea and throughout the South Pacific with timber companies and tribal groups. Tribal groups are being ripped off because they do not have strong representative bodies with legal and other expertise to support them.
My colleague from the Kimberley Land Council, Wayne Bergman, and my fellow countryman from Cape York Peninsula, Noel Pearson, have pointed out the sinister parallels between the way in which TWS is pursuing its wilder nullius campaign across northern Australia and the way the mining industry used to operate in the 1970s and 80s.
The mining industry used to split tribal groups up, peeling off individuals and subgroups from the main group and setting them against the land councils and the majority of their own people. They discredited the land councils and pushed governments to weaken land rights because they did not want strong land councils. They wanted to rip off the traditional owners without any interference.
TWS has been pursuing the same tactics in its campaigns in the Kimberley and Cape York. As Pearson wrote recently, it is the extreme environmentalists who are today the real rednecks.
My own analogy of what is going on is a bit different. I come from a trade union background; I worked for many years for the Comalco bauxite mine in Weipa and participated in the strike against Rio Tinto's individual contracts.
I know from my CFMEU days about the tactics undertaken by opponents who don't want equality at the bargaining table. They want to peel individuals off and have direct dealings with them without dealing with the tribal group as a whole. This is what TWS is now doing across northern Australia.
The most curious thing about all this, is that the Labor politicians who are playing key roles in the Wild Rivers imbroglio have close affiliations with the trade union movement. Queensland minister Stephen Robertson was the state secretary and national president of United Firefighters Union of Australia. The chairwoman of the senate committee inquiring into Tony Abbott's private members bill which seeks to overturn the Queensland Wild Rivers Act, Senator Trish Crossin, was an industrial officer in Darwin with the National Tertiary Education Union and the Australian Education Union, as well as having been a development officer for the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union.
They should be the first ones to recognise that the way in which the Queensland government has conducted itself, and the divide and rule tactics employed by the environmental groups is exactly what trade unions have experienced throughout the history of organised labour. Robertson should hang his head in shame.
Posted by John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here