Stall tactics continue Victoria's appalling land rights record

Mick Dodson Sydney Morning Herald September 1, 2010

Studio portrait of Sir Douglas Nicholls.
Sir Douglas Nicholls (centre) was a strong fighter for Aboriginal land rights in Victoria. The fight still continues, but in 2010 there is just 0.05 per cent of Victorian land held by the original owners.
Pic: Nat Museum of Australia (1967)
See: Campaign to save Lake Tyers

A bill to fix shortcomings in state native title is being used as a political football.

We are on the threshold of a significant and lasting reform that will bring native title in Victoria into the modern age. A Traditional Owner Settlement Bill, now before State Parliament, is an opportunity to address the appalling level of access of Victorian traditional owners to their lands.

Just 0.05 per cent of land in Victoria is indigenous held, the lowest of any state in Australia - even lower than in Tasmania, where it is five times higher at 0.25 per cent.

Some parliamentarians have sought to delay consideration of the bill indefinitely and, in doing so, would deny indigenous Victorians the benefit of the legislation. Sadly, indigenous issues have become a political football.

It has been suggested that there is no need for a comprehensive new framework, because the Parliament is already empowered to negotiate native title settlements one at a time. But "if it's not broke, don't fix it" is a recipe for exorbitant cost and delay.

The reality is the Commonwealth's Native Title Act has not worked for Victoria's traditional owners. It has not ''rectified the consequences of past injustices'' or ''given them the full recognition and status'' to which they are entitled, as articulated in the preamble of the federal act.

At the current rate of doing business, native title claims in Victoria will take another 50 years or so to resolve. The bulk of the resources in the system are squandered on a complex and adversarial litigation process that does not address the human experience of discrimination, or compensate people for the historic expropriation of traditional lands and waters.

As illustrated by native title determinations around the country, even a positive court outcome that recognises traditional rights to hunt and fish may do little to rejuvenate the economic life of indigenous groups, provide opportunities for land management, or establish effective processes that lead to cultural recognition and strengthening.

The Victorian approach is to give due recognition and deliver concrete, practical benefits and economic opportunities into the hands of traditional owners.

Some parliamentarians have suggested that consultation on the bill has been insufficient. But unlike other legislative initiatives across Australia, which have been introduced without substantial engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, the development of Victoria's policy and the subsequent bill reflects a true partnership with traditional owners.

The bill is the product of a year-long negotiation process between state government officers and a Victorian traditional owner peak body, a process informed by wide-ranging analysis of best practice, nationally and internationally.

A full 14 months later, the proposed legislation is now before the Parliament, yet some politicians are still suggesting that an extensive period of consideration is needed for its implications to be digested.

Perhaps the ink is still relatively fresh when it comes to the intricate details of legal drafting, but there are no surprises in the substantive content of the bill, its mechanisms, and its motivations.

It reflects the key recommendations of a 93-page report from the steering committee I chaired on a proposed policy framework that would expedite the resolution of land justice and native title matters in this state, while protecting the existing interests of third parties.

It is a bill that promises to bring the kinds of equity, clarity and flexibility to the resolution of native title that indigenous groups, as well as the Commonwealth and state governments, have been calling for in recent years.

Some people may suggest that the bill does not go far enough and, yes, it is only a first step. But it is an essential step, and it provides the legal framework for the substantive outcomes that are long overdue in Victoria.

The legislation will enable local agreements to be negotiated between traditional owners and the state, finally addressing traditional owners' aspirations for land justice, providing proper recognition for the diversity of Aboriginal cultures, and securing the rights and well-being of future generations - which is ultimately to the benefit of all Victorians.

The bill seeks to address the shortcomings of the current native title system in a comprehensive way, through a single state-based framework that will expedite the settlement of claims with equity.

This is a highly innovative piece of public policy championed by Attorney-General Rob Hulls. If adopted, it has the potential to make a significant and lasting contribution to reconciliation in Victoria and deliver real and practical outcomes for Victorian traditional owners.

In these matters, where Victoria has historically lagged behind the other states and territories, it is now time to lead.

Professor Mick Dodson is director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University.


Sub Editor

I will follow this up for you and post here.

Victorian Traditional Owner Settlement Bill

I support the rights and just expectations of Victorian traditional owners. What is the current state of play regarding this Bill? How can I support the passage of the Bill in the form that is desired by the TO's ? Jane

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