Laying down the law in Lake Tyers

Jeff Waters ABC The Drum March 18, 2011

It's an action which is quietly sending shudders through government circles: what to do about an extraordinary and unprecedented political protest in a tiny Indigenous community in Victoria's East Gippsland.

Ten days ago, the community of Lake Tyers, which is not too far north east of Lakes Entrance but which might as well be a thousand miles away, decided to seize sovereignty of its own land in an act of peaceful non-cooperation.

It was a canny move.

A picket was set-up so as to refuse entry to the government-appointed administrator, as well as the second-most senior bureaucrat imposed on the community - the community manager.

For the past six years, it's been an administrator, rather than an elected council, who has had the final say over whatever happens at Lake Tyers.

That administrator - a consultant hired from the Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu company - no doubt comes at a hefty cost to the taxpayer.

The previous council was disbanded due to what the government has called a breakdown of authority, which, it says, was accompanied by violence.

But six years later, the 200 people who live at Lake Tyers appear fed up with their lack of political representation.

I spoke with some of the protesters next to a big fire at the picket site.

The road was open, and one of them, Janey Proctor, told me any government worker would be allowed to pass - except for the manager and the administrator.

"What we started was to stop the dictation of the administrator...and the Justice Department for coming in here telling us in no uncertain terms that this is what they're going to do, without consulting the shareholders - the owners of this land," Ms Proctor told me.

"We want our own self determination we want our own rights back, we want to have a say on what happens on our land - not be dictated to...by Aboriginal Affairs Victoria and the Justice Department and Deloittes, we don't want to be told want to be told what to do by non-Indigenous people that don't even live here, that only come here on a nine-to-five basis," she said.

Ms Proctor said there was little difference between living under an appointed administrator, and the old missionary system.

"There's no difference, all they need to do is bring the flour and sugar out with them when they come to work," she said.

Another protester, Leanne Edwards, agreed.

"It makes them feel like they're going back to missionary days - that [we're being] dictated to by government and the administrator who they appointed, and elders have said to me that it's gone right back to missionary days and the only thing that they haven't come in with is rations," she said.

I asked Ms Edwards what would happen if the administrator turned up with police, with the intention of crossing the picket.

"Well we would stop them because this is freehold title land, the road is public but we still have a right to pull them over and tell them to leave because we want to meet with the minister of Aboriginal Affairs to sort all of the underlying issues out."

The government's response so far has been to halt building and maintenance work in the community, and to cancel some other government programs.

I've been told that a breakfast scheme for school children, and a homework program, have also been stopped.

The Executive Director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, Ian Hamm, said it was because the government couldn't guarantee the safety of the workforce in the absence of the administrator and manager.

"Most of them are concerned because of the trust executive officer isn't there, who is the delegator of the lawfully appointed administrator, they're not sure of what risk that exposes them to so when services were prevented from going on even though the protesters have said they could return, they're not confident of returning until the ordinary and lawful operation of the trust is resumed," Mr Hamm said in an interview.

"We want to work with the protesters, we want to work with the entire community of Lake Tyers, we want to find a way forward," he said, "Obviously the people who are concerned enough to have made the protest have issues - we want to work with them around those issues, but do that in the context of the good governance of the Lake Tyers aboriginal trust."

The ABC has been advised, however, that the state government may very well be in breach of several state, federal, and international laws by denying the community the right to vote.

In a startlingly frank admission, Mr Hamm said that, while the government "aspired" to abide by such laws, what he called "practical" considerations would over-rule their validity.

"In terms of the charter rights and in terms of wider human rights law both national and international, I haven't actually got advice on that but certainly we look to observe the aspirations of all those laws and all those charters and we want to implement them and see that they are met but we also have to do that with a sense of practical application - we have to deal with what we've got on a day to day basis, but certainly we aspire to those higher ideals of all those covenants and international agreements," he said.

So with the rule of law openly being flouted in this community, its elders have sought to take legal advice on what to do next.

The ABC understands at least two high-profile Melbourne barristers have expressed interest in taking up the cause at no cost.

It'll be interesting to see how the government handles a meeting today between the community and Mr Hamm.

Any threats that may be made about the further withdrawal of services - or the suspension of wages for the 35 government employees living in the community - may very well result in a very embarrassing court case.