After the first two Native Title Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) Authorisation Meetings in Bunbury and Busselton which recorded big wins for the Yes vote, the case for the No vote had its last chance in Katanning to challenge the overall claim.
As reported in the Guardian (#1671 February 4, 2015), the Liberal government of Premier Colin Barnett had made its final offer of settlement to the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALC) in 2014 in an attempt to settle long running disputes covering the south west of WA from approximately north of Jurien Bay to Merredin in the east and Ravenswood/Hopetoun in the south east.
In each of the first two meetings attended by about 300 and 200 people respectively, SWALC had been able to sell the benefits of the Land Use Agreement which would see the Noongar claimants forgo their Native Title rights into the future for the agreed settlement amount of $1.3 billion over 12 years. The money would be allocated into two streams with $10 million per year going to the six claim groups and $50 million going into a Future Fund.
The meeting of February 21, 2015, which covered the Wagyl Kaip and Southern Noongar Native Title group, was held in the Katanning Leisure Centre and over 400 Noongar claimants and their families were in attendance making it by far the biggest authorisation meeting to date. Many Noongar people who had grown up in the Katanning area were also former inhabitants of the Marribank (Carrolup) Mission and did not have fond memories of the mission experience and the associated Aborigines Act of 1905, which forced them together from around the countryside against their will for the pastoral interests which took over their finest hunting and gathering lands.
SWALC knew they might have a difficult time so once again they brought their legal counsel Tony Neal QC, who had assisted on the original Native Title claim for which the decision was delivered in 2006, to talk about the decision and what was left of Native Title.
It was subsequently appealed in 2008, yet while Justice Willcox’s original decision did not stand, there continued to be Native Title over the claim area. However, while the right to receive compensation has been extinguished over a majority of the claim area, there are still significant areas where there has only been partial extinguishment and areas where Noongar people have rights to enjoyment of the land which fall just short of the right to sell the land.
Yet if the Noongar people were successful in restarting the court action or the government simply conceded the settlement which the Noongar people ultimately sought, then they would enjoy the legal right to their land so long as they practised their culture.
While SWALC CEO Glen Kelly would like everybody to accept his argument that the ILUA would not be giving away rights but creating rights of access to land, it was an argument that was not being accepted by many in the auditorium.
There were several speakers who described not only their experiences of being marginalised and disrespected by government but also the importance of their connection to their land and culture and respect for their Elders.
Well known Noongar activist Marianne Mackay spoke dressed in the colours of the Aboriginal flag on the issues of Aboriginal sovereignty and a treaty which much of the discussion to date had avoided and which an ILUA would end.
Another Noongar activist, Mervyn Eades, also said, “The ILUAs have failed our people and these information sessions have failed to inform our people.” Eades also accused SWALC of acting for the Barnett government, a claim which Glen Kelly denied and added, “There are factions in the (Liberal) government that do not want this agreement to go through as this faction thinks they can roll the Noongar people in the courts for a whole lot less than the Noongar ILUA.”
The outcome of the voting was a narrow victory to the Yes vote 207-200 which though a little disappointing for those hoping for a victory over what many see as a sell-out of Noongar sovereignty and culture, will embolden and empower those Noongar people in the remaining three Authorisation Meetings that their land and culture is defendable and winnable.
The three further meetings are on March 7 in Gingin for the Yued area of the Noongar claim area, March 14 in Northam for the Ballardong area and the final one for the Whadjuk claim area on March 28 at Cannington, a south eastern suburb of Perth. All people intending to vote must register at 8am and each meeting commences at 10am in the three locations.