Opinion article

Native title agreements and economic reform

Constitutional reform and Indigenous recognition has been a key topic in the national political debate recently with the Prime Minister pledging during the 2016 election campaign to hold a referendum on recognition in 2017. In this blog, Reconciliation Australia Founding Co-Chair and 2014 Senior Australia of the Year, Fred Chaney AO discusses Western Australia’s approach to native title and shifts in Indigenous engagement.

Ceremonial welcomes to country and acknowledgements of country are now commonplace at public functions. Some may see this as a piece of political correctness.

In fact, they reflect an underlying change in the place of our first nations and Aboriginal people in the Australian legal political and economic framework.  That change has seen a big shift in Aboriginal economic involvement, with the mining industry leading the way in Western Australia.

After the High Court Mabo decision in 1992 and the passage of the Native Title Act in 1993 the mining industry was faced with new legal realities that translated into major agreements with first nation collectives.

Contemporaneously miners worked to employ Aboriginal workers and inspired other employers to follow suit.  This industry’s leading edge response was not initiated from a spiritual conversion. Mining companies faced a new legal regime in which traditional owners had to be dealt with as stakeholders rather than supplicants.
Many companies, but not all, have done this with more grace and greater effectiveness than governments and the broader community, both of which have at times struggled to come to terms with the new reality following the Mabo decision and Native Title Act. 

In the past Western Australia has had a history of resistance to Aboriginal claims to rights to land that flowed from their traditional ownership and status as first Australians.

Governments and miners had led campaigns against land rights.

But in the more recent past, Western Australia, like mining companies, has shown a welcome capacity for leading edge reform in its relationship with Aboriginal tribal groups.

As is often the case economic imperatives have driven change but in the process of change, enlightenment has also been involved. In cases such as this, enlightened self-interest is to be welcomed. 

The South West Native Title Settlement between the Government of Western Australia and the Noongar people represented by their native title groups settles native title issues in the most densely populated part of Western Australia. It is the Noongar people in these native title groups who are the tribes and entities we acknowledge at the commencement of many ceremonies in the South West region.

That agreement is accompanied by legislation which recognises:

“The living cultural spiritual familial and social relationships that the Noongar people have with the Noongar lands; and

The significant and unique contribution that the Noongar people have made; are making, and will continue to make, to the heritage, cultural identity, community and economy of the state.”

Critically this recognition is not just about the past and the present. It acknowledges that this is part of Western Australia’s future as well.  As the State Government stated in the second reading speech of the South West Native Title Settlement:

“The agreement…is the most comprehensive native title agreement in Australian history, comprising the full and final resolution of all native title claims in the South West of Western Australia, including Perth, in exchange for a comprehensive settlement package.”

The settlement package includes $1.3 billion in land and other assets in exchange for the surrender of native title claims and the establishment of a trust with up to 320,000 hectares of crown land to be transferred to it.

If this agreement had been made in regions outside Australia, for example British Columbia in Canada, it would be described as the Noongar treaty. A term which seems to excite concerns among some people in the constitutional debates in Australia.

Wisely the State has avoided unnecessary and unhelpful division by describing it as a settlement and an agreement.

It is made for the benefit of all Western Australians bringing land issues in the South West within an established state land management system which is respectful in perpetuity of Noongar history and culture.

This new Western Australia is one where respectful relationships are at the heart of closing the gaps that have afflicted our communities.  These relationships are central to economic as well as cultural change.

About the authors

Fred Chaney

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The Hon. Fred Chaney AO

Fred Chaney was born in Perth in 1941. He was in the Senate until 1990 and was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1983 to 1990.  He was Member for Pearce in the House of Representatives from 1990 to 1993.  Among his Ministerial appointments were Aboriginal Affairs, Social Security and Minister Assisting the Minister for National Development and Energy. 

In 1994 he was appointed as a part-time Member of the National Native Title Tribunal, a full-time Member in April 1995 and was Deputy President from 2000 to 2007. In January 1997 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.

He served as Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia Ltd from 2000 to 2005 and continued as a Board member until December 2014.  He is currently a board member of Reconciliation WA and Central Desert Native Title Services. In 2014 he was named Senior Australian of the Year.

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