PHOTOS: Announcement of the Alice Springs native title claim decision by the Federal Court sitting in Alice Springs [above]. Former Labor Minister for Central Australia Karl Hampton signing the Mt Johns Indigenous Land Use Agreement [below].
By ERWIN CHLANDA
As Alice Springs is dreading yet another tumultuous footy weekend, some may look to Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation (LAAC) to help keep in line marauding drunks and out of control youths trashing homes, cars and businesses, anti social behaviour perpetrated disproportionately by Aboriginal people.
The organisation’s purpose is to manage the “rights and interests” of native title holders, as the Native Title Tribunal puts it. And LAAC has frequently claimed that its interests include upholding the image of the native title holders as people of high principles, concerned with maintaining an ancient culture and promoting respect for their traditional lands.
Reality check, please.
New interim chairman Michael Liddle has vowed to reform the organisation, but he says it may take five to 10 years to regain the confidence of the many native title holders who are giving LAAC a wide berth. The damage done by the previous regime headed up by the former CEO and the chairman has been devastating, says Mr Liddle. He is clearly referring to Darryl Pearce and Brian Stirling. (The issues were extensively reported by the Alice Springs News Online – google this site.)
And just as there appeared some light at the end of the tunnel, another controversy is erupting, with prominent Aboriginal man Russell Bray claiming that he is being denied native title holder status by Mr Liddle and fellow LAAC reformer Ian Conway. Mr Liddle says no-one is denying Mr Bray native title holder status: “Mr Bray lacks an understanding of the system and has shown disrespect to elders by talking about land issues when he does not have the authority. He is not followed the process which laid down in the constitution.”
“There are many native title holder families acknowledged by LAAC who are unhappy that their memberships in LAAC are not recognised by ORIC [the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporation] because of the past incompetent administration of LAAC.”
The poisoned arrows shot back and forth are allegations that people “do not belong” to Alice Springs: one side suggests that Mr Bray is from north of the town. Mr Bray says he has evidence that proves the Liddles and the Conways are themselves from areas to the north, and not from the municipality of Alice Springs, which is the subject of the native title determination by Federal Court Judge Howard Olney in 1999, from which arose LAAC.
Mr Bray says his evidence is from a video recording with elder Harold “Wheelchair” Ross, translated by Veronica Dobson, and from a videotaped conversation between himself and Wenten Rabuntja some 30 years ago. The Alice Springs News Online has a copy of Ms Dobson’s transcript and one of the Rabuntja videotape, both supplied by Mr Bray.
The self-congratulatory mood in the Alice Springs courtroom at the conclusion of the Alice Springs native title claim gave no hint of the bitter conflict the decision was about to trigger. The inconclusive nature of the directions set up for a field day the powerbrokers and bullies. For years the court decision has torn asunder the fabric of the Aboriginal society in the town. As one native title holder said to the News: “It was a way of getting us off their backs. Now we are on each other’s backs.”
The feuds became even more explosive when the NT’s first Labor Chief Minister, Clare Martin, concluded the Stirling Heights land use agreement, pegging the value of native title land at 50% of the freehold market value. She was not compelled to do that. In WA the value is around 5%. The Opposition at the time accused her of rolling over and rewarding Aboriginal interests for electoral favours over the years.
Now fueled by greed, the native title conundrum morphed from a private conflict within a minority to massively impacting the life and economy of the town: for years there was a desperate shortage of real estate. Land prices in one of the world’s most sparsely populated regions came to be line-ball with Sydney. People were leaving town. Speculators cashed in their vastly inflated real estate and retired elsewhere.
Within LAAC a brutal fight started for control over assets now worth millions. The Mt Johns Valley subdivision was started by LAAC-related interests and turned into a financial disaster, supported by a Federal Government approved gift from the Aboriginal Benefit Fund of $6m to assist with the purchase of three suburban supermarkets.
The court decision’s inadequate directions about the running of LAAC left much scope for wheeling and dealing. The crucial question became: Who are native title holders? Justice Olney said in his 1999 decision it are those people of the Mparntwe, Antulye and Irlpme estate groups in Alice Springs who are recognised as native title holders by the respective apmereke-artweye and kwertengerle – let’s call them A&K. Trouble is, few know who these A&Ks are.
“We don’t want to name those people,” says Mr Liddle. There could be “any number” of A&Ks. The estate groups sort out who their native title holders are.
“The caretakers approve membership of the estate groups. They know who the right people are.”
Mr Bray doesn’t agree with that. He doesn’t know who the A&Ks are, or he is not sure. How can he make his case to them for his recognition as a native title holder? We put to Mr Liddle that the process is not transparent.
Says Mr Liddle: “Aboriginal law doesn’t have to be accountable to non-Aboriginal people. To Aboriginal people it is the most transparent law imaginable. Aboriginal law is not recognised in the Western system.”
He says the estate groups are guided by “skin [kinship] structure” to manage approvals: “We are not open to public display. We have meetings, we see [which A&Ks] are available, and they will do the approving. We are not like the government. Aboriginal law in Central Australia has its own form of government.
“This decides not by a show of hands, or voting process, but by your skin name and your association with your country when you are born. In olden days, this is how it worked. No appeals.”
The issue of native title ownership will be raised at the LAAC annual general meeting on March 7, using information presented by the estate groups. So here we have a group which received powers, rights and significant previously public assets in highly transparent processes: by parliaments, government ministers and courts. But now the people who can enjoy these privileges are selected in a wholly secret process. The identity of the people doing the determining is kept under wraps, not only from the general public but also from people who may have a legitimate claim to native title rights. There appear to be no appeal rights.
It could be so easy: Want to know who the native title holders are? Just ask the A&Ks. Trouble is, Justice Olney did not direct that such basic questions be answered and the identity and the A&Ks to be declared for all to know. After all, in our world we don’t have people making decisions in the public interest from a vantage point of anonymity.
We put the following questions to the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, Anthony Beven, whose office requires Prescribed Bodies Corporate (PBC) to provide basic administrative information, but has no role in guiding their objectives.
Q: Is the PBC obliged to have a complete and current list of native title holders?
Q: Is the PBC obliged to have a complete and current list of members?
A: It must have a register in their registered office and advise ORIC once a year as part of their annual reporting.
Q: Can there be native title holders who are not members of the PBC?
Q: If native title holders want to be members of the PBC, must they be admitted to membership?
A: PBCs have to follow requirements in their rule book. ORIC approves rule books. ORIC checks if they meet the requirements of the CATSI Act, but very rarely rejects rule books.It has not rejected LAAC’s.
Q: Is the PBC obliged to consult with all affected native title holders in connection with mining and real estate projects even if they are not on the list of members or on the list of native title holders or if there is no list of native title holders?
A: There is no requirement in the Corporation (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006.
Q: That seems to be in conflict with a Native Title Tribunal brochure which says: “The Prescribed Body Corporate can only agree to doing things that will affect native title if it has consulted with any native title holder who will be affected by that decision and they have given their consent.”
A: Go with the Native Title Tribunal.
This is a further issue disaffected LAAC members may well like to take a close look at: Even if Lhere Artepe Enterprises Pty Ltd (LAE) was an entirely structure from Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, as Mr Pearce always claimed, LAE had to deal with LAAC with respect to Mt Johns. In turn, LAAC – with Pearce as the CEO – was under obligation to consult with ALL affected native title holders, registered or not. LAAC did not do so. Does that put in doubt the legal foundation of the Mt Johns subdivision?