Yesterday the Federal Court granted traditional owners native title rights over about 35,000 square kilometres of pastoral lands and national parks in the Gawler Ranges on upper Eyre Peninsula.
This eighth South Australian native title determination is one of the most comprehensive in the state to date.
The fact that the traditional Aboriginal owners now have the right to hunt, fish and camp and have a say in the management of this spectacularly beautiful part of South Australia is a great outcome – their connection to this land goes back many thousands of years.
This area is blessed with rich, diverse wildlife. One hundred and forty different species of birds have been sighted in the Gawler Ranges National Park, along with three of Australia’s five kangaroos, the southern hairy-nosed wombat, pygmy possums, hopping mouse and yellow footed rock wallaby. It is these residents that help make it so attractive to Australian and overseas visitors – and such a special place for the traditional owners .
Lake Gairdner, located in Lake Gairdner National Park, is Australia’s fourth largest salt lake and has provided a stunning backdrop for many photographers and filmmakers over the years. Indeed, it is one of the first places I holidayed when I moved to South Australia just over 20 years ago. I have vivid memories of visiting this crystalline landscape, in the company of a talented wilderness photographer who was up at the crack of dawn to catch its still, luminous beauty under a rising sun. Accompanied by my firstborn of 3 months on his first camping trip, I wasn’t up quite so early! But it was a beautiful and memorable scene that awaited us when we emerged from our tent, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, pastoralism has displaced many Aboriginal people from their traditional lands in this stunning part of our country. But yesterday’s decision – 14 years in the making – finally gives them a say in the future of the Gawler ranges area and its management. It recognises the traditional owners’ age-old spiritual connection to the land and allows them to foster their ongoing bond.
This is the fourth native title determination this year in South Australia and I can imagine the joy of the traditional owners but also their relief when the decision was handed down.
It is great to see that years of negotiation – which were careful and often difficult, as National Native Title Tribunal Deputy President Chris Sumner said - and collaboration between the different parties involved have finally borne fruit and resulted in such a positive outcome.
Conflicting interests often make negotiations difficult, and in this case, one of the most significant events that led to the resolution of this case was the Spear Creek overlap mediation in 2004.
The negotiations at Spear Creek, held over six days, resulted in the resolution of nine overlapping native title claims.
The strategy that underpinned these meetings was the incorporation of traditional Aboriginal laws and customs into the native title mediation process.
The successful outcome of the Spear Creek meeting and several agreements since negotiated by the claimants in relation to minerals exploration and pastoral interests now has culminated in this result.
I commend the different parties, including the claimant groups, the State Government, Native Title Tribunal and Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, for persevering and negotiating this consent determination, a result to be proud of.
I would like to be able to say that the 14-year long journey it took to get to this point was an exception and only due to the differing interests among those involved.
Unfortunately, though, it is not an exception. Even more straight-forward native title cases regularly take well over a decade to resolve - often so long that, tragically, some of the original claimant group are no longer around to celebrate the outcome.
The Greens believe that the current system often works against the good intentions that first underpinned it when the Native Title Act was introduced. Its laudable aim was to ‘rectify the consequences of past injustices’ and secure ‘adequate advancement and protection’. But delay undermines such aspirations.
Reform is urgently needed – right now the system is too expensive, too complex and fails to live up to the promise of securing adequate social and economic advancement for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.
My colleague, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, has introduced a bill (the Native Title Amendment (Reform) Bill 2011) into the Parliament to address some of the hurdles often faced by claimants.
This legislation, if passed, will see claims managed in an easier, fairer and more timely way.
While it does not address all the shortcomings of the current system, it is a much-needed first step on the way to more comprehensive reform. For more information about the Greens bill and the Senate Inquiry into the bill, see here:
The Greens are committed to reform of the Native Title system to fulfil the intention of the original legislation.
I congratulate the Gawler Ranges native title holders on their perseverance and sincerely hope that future claimants will not have to wait too long to have the benefit of a system that better recognises their rights as the traditional owners of this country.