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HomeIssue 28How council went in to bat for custodians on gallery site

How council went in to bat for custodians on gallery site

By KIERAN FINNANE

The Town Council’s main objection to the NT Government’s move to compulsorily acquire Anzac Oval – Lot 698 – has been the impact it would have on the “cultural significance” of the area.

In its submissions to the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (asked to make a recommendation on compulsory acquisition) council made some reference to the oval’s significance for the broader community – its present use and history as a venue for sporting and community events – but the greater emphasis was on the impact for the area’s Arrernte traditional owners.

The tribunal did not agree that the “non-indigenous” impacts amount to “a substantial consideration against proceeding with the acquisition”, satisfied that the government would make alternative suitable arrangements for sporting uses and that community events would still be able to proceed on the site.

It took the Indigenous cultural impact much more seriously, devoting the bulk of its published reasons for decision to the evidence and arguments heard on this issue.

Its recommendation, as previously reported, was neither for nor against compulsory acquisition but rather that more consultation should take place, given the present “unanimous” opposition by Mparntwe custodians to the government’s proposed National Aboriginal Art Gallery (NAAG) being built in the Anzac precinct and the insufficiency of consultations in the past.

So what was the evidence for this considered by the tribunal?

On the government side evidence for traditional owners’ views on location was presented (based on the tribunal’s account) as it had been in its various public reports.

Mark Crees with Ministers Lauren Moss and Dale Wakefield announcing the tender for the gallery’s business case on 7 September 2018. 

These included its Final Consultation Report, summarising the government’s consultations conducted between 6 June and 31 August 2018.

That report cited support from “many Aboriginal Traditional Owners and Custodians, Elders, leaders and other stakeholders”, while acknowledging “some strong opposition from a minority of local Aboriginal people”, including one in particular, a “senior Mparntwe custodian and registered native title claimant [sic]”. (As pointed out in a past article, the native title claim over Alice Springs has long been settled; claimants then are native title holders now. )

This unnamed custodian was Apmereke artweye Doris Kngwarraye Stuart, as NTCAT confirms and as was surmised at the time of the report’s release, Mrs Stuart having made her views resoundingly clear in public by then.

And when in January 2019, she co-signed with Apmereke artweye Benedict Stevens and other senior Mparntwerinya a letter asserting their objection to the site, it effectively spelled doom for smooth running of the government’s plans.

The Town Council swung in behind their constituents – as can only be seen as proper – making negotiations over the Anzac Oval site conditional on evidence of custodian support.

This has never been provided, which is why the tribunal has had to examine the issue in some detail.

Apmereke artweye Doris Kngwarraye Stuart with her son Peter Renehan, 2017.

Mrs Stuart was present at a site visit by the tribunal and the parties and made some verbal submissions at the time, while also providing evidence in an affidavit and attachments. In its published decision, the tribunal notes repeatedly that her evidence has not been “challenged” or “contested” by the government.

This is not the same as according her position or the position of any other Mparntwerinya “a de facto legal interest” (as the tribunal puts it) in Lot 698. But their views have an undisputed moral force and have been accorded by council a “greater emphasis than the views of its [other] constituents”.

The unequivocal position of the Minister for Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics (Eva Lawler) before the tribunal was “that the custodians’ opposition was properly taken into account”. The tribunal would ultimately beg to differ.   

On 23 March 2018 the government announced that the Anzac precinct was its preferred site for locating the gallery. The precinct took in the government-owned site of former Anzac Hill High School, since demolished, and the council-owned Anzac Oval, Lot 698.

Mrs Stuart told the tribunal that she was first informed of the government’s position just the day before.

It was more than a year later, she said, “before there was any engagement” between the government and “the Mparntwe custodians as a group”.

 

At a meeting in early June 2019 the Minister for Tourism and Culture (Lauren Moss) acknowledged shortcomings in the consultations to that point, said Mrs Stuart.

Doris Stuart (seated) with former MLA Loraine Braham (left) and Veronica Hagan rallying outside council against any change of use for Anzac Oval, September 2018.

In follow-up correspondence Ms Moss put it like this: “As acknowledged in the meeting, there have been a number of consultations and discussions including with a number of people who attended the meeting, however this was the first facilitated group meeting of this kind, and it was expressed this is the preferred method of discussion for those present.”

To the meeting’s key point – objection to a gallery being built north of the Gap – the Minister reiterated that “the Government is not considering building the Art Gallery south of the Gap. There is no proposal for such a project nor suitable sites identified.”

Further meetings to progress the issues would take place if they seemed to be “a productive way to continue our engagement with you”, the Minister wrote.

Despite several invitations from the Mparntwe custodians, no further meetings took place, Mrs Stuart told the tribunal.

The government’s last communication with the group was by mail dated 2 August 2019, when they provided custodians with a copy of the Ernst & Young Business Case and advised of a sweetener if the group would consider negotiating an agreement “over a mutually acceptable location within the town of Alice Springs”: if they reconsidered their position, the government was “committed to ensuring that a package of benefits flow directly to Mparntwe custodians as a result of the project”.

The government, however, has continued to rely on its Final Consultation Report with its claim of “clear cultural authority” having been gained for building the gallery on its preferred location.

For this they leaned heavily on the initial agreement of Benedict Stevens (left, ABC photo). Once it was withdrawn, that cultural authority crumbled.

In any case the tribunal found that “[t]he comment about ‘clear cultural authority’ having been gained is difficult to reconcile with Ms Stuart Kngwarraye’s opposition to the NAAG development. The evidence before us does not support a conclusion that Benedict Stevens has any greater cultural authority for the NTG’s preferred development site than Ms Stuart Kngwarraye.”

Whatever the case on that particular point, Mr Stevens has maintained his public solidarity with the Mparntwe custodian group.

Further, the support of other unnamed “Elders and leaders” relied on by the government was couched in terms of their deference to the authority of Mr Stevens. Once his support was withdrawn, their opinion would “require re-evaluation”, says the tribunal.

“It is clear that the Final Consultation Report does not reflect the current views of the Mparntwe custodians regarding the NAAG development,” they write. 

“We are also not satisfied that the Final Consultation Report was based upon sufficient consultation with the Mparntwe custodians,” they continue, with reference in particular to the experience of Mrs Stuart as well as to “the fundamental importance attached … to thorough and ongoing consultation with key indigenous stakeholders” by the Initial Steering Scoping Committee.

This was the committee, as readers may remember, co-chaired by Hetti Perkins and Philip Watkins (below), whose final report was sat on and then ignored, the first in a long series of blunders sending the project off the rails.

Mrs Stuart, as anyone who has heard her speak knows, has a fine way with words. The report quotes her at some length on why the custodian group objects to further development of the site and to the gallery project in particular.

Her affidavit puts it succinctly and somewhat drily:

“The cultural symbols and stories contained in Aboriginal art and artefacts carry spiritual significance.

“While registration of sacred sites through AAPA is limited to specific visible landmarks like trees, hills and rocks that exist aboveground, the cultural stories and songlines that relate to those sites follow through connections underground.

“The [NAAG] would house art and artefacts from a number of tribes. It is culturally inappropriate to place these stories over the top of and in such close proximity to important sacred sites to the Mpartntwe.

“The sacred sites are also connected underground. The physical work of construction of the [NAAG] would interrupt this connection.”

Her words recorded during the site visit are more typical of her impassioned position:

…to me it is what you can’t see that also is very important to us who have the responsibility of being one and the same with sites that have always been here.

The sites could be the trees, which they are. The hill, the river. All that is part of who I am and where I come from and it’s always been like that because we belong to the place.

It owns us. We don’t own it… people call [us] traditional owners… we don’t use that word, because we are not traditional owners. Place owns us. It drives us. Look after the sites, because we’re one and the same and that is very important and my father was one of the main ones coming off a long line for this Mparntwe, the name that Alice Springs uses today. Mparntwe to us is the heart, the middle, the centre, all that… is enclosed in that word, in the Arrernte word, meaning who we are, where we come from, what we are responsible for, then it goes on to the next generation after.

Not all Aboriginal people speak for it. We have to come off a direct line … my father’s line goes right back. I’m just a junior alongside the ones that have gone before. But I’m catching up … my sons and daughter – they also have that responsibility to carry on with their grandfather’s story … when I’m not around – but I will be around still cracking the whip to make sure they do the right job.

You do not put a price on something as precious as that. You’ve got to walk the same land that our ancestors have walked. Underneath they’re listening today. They’re watching over us to make sure we do the right thing so that we don’t have any other stories coming from other areas plonked on top of what’s already been here and it is still here in us who belong here who have that right. It’s our birth right.

No others can come along – that’s why we have different clan groups for each area outside of here – and everybody should respect that.

And we had to come to school, learn the white man’s way so that we could live in both worlds… and then we understand – okay that’s why I’m here today trying to explain because … I can understand your world but you have no idea of what we have to go through by being that person for here – making sure that they’re not upsetting the ancestors that are still around us. Still guiding us…

And so… I have a job to do, and I can’t just agree because someone… a government wants to put other stories on top of what’s been here for thousands of years… and to think that we have to just roll over. No I can’t. I’m too embedded into this place but I can still live in the white man’s world and I don’t disrespect that… until they want to take something away that we are responsible for and we have to face the consequences because we didn’t do our job right.*

It was this evidence and the January 2019 letter combined that formed the basis of the tribunal’s conclusion that it is “the unanimous view of the Mparntwe custodians is that they are opposed to the NAAG development”on Lot 698.

The tribunal dismissed the letter of support for the government’s plans provided by the native title holder body, Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, subsequent to the collapse of custodian support. The letter is “directly contrary” to the custodians’ views, they say, and “[m]oreover, to [the] extent (if any) that the LAAC letter was a product of consultations with the NTG, they were not consultations undertaken with the knowledge or approval of the Mparntwe custodians”.

Above, the razed site of the former Anzac Hill High School with the oval in the background, January 2020. 

The tribunal also does not give credence to the Minister’s submission that the protections to the area’s sacred sites offered by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority clearance certificate “are a sufficient answer to the concerns of the Mparntwe custodians (and therefore to the Council’s objection based upon those concerns)”.

The consultation leading to the clearance was with Mr Stevens, not with Mrs Stuart, and Mr Stevens has since withdrawn his support for the gallery project to proceed at the site.

Further, the custodians’ objections to the development “extend beyond its potential impacts upon those sites. In particular, their concern extends to the use to which the entire site will be put”.

All this, however, was not enough for the tribunal to recommend against compulsory acquisition, which would force the government to go back to the drawing board.

Although the tribunal acknowledge the importance of the custodians having a “significant voice” in the project’s future development, they recommend only that the government consider further consultations before acquisition as the gallery “will, after all, be a celebration of the artistic expression of the traditional connections between indigenous Australians and their lands”.

 

Photos unless otherwise stated are from our archive.

*The transcription cited in the tribunal’s decision has been very slightly edited for clarity.

3 COMMENTS

  1. So talk to them a little bit more and then ignore them.
    The gallery it seems will not be a celebration of traditional connections between Indigenous Australians and their lands, rather a celebration of non-Indigenous Australians ongoing attempts to destroy those connections.

  2. @ Larry Pinta: Does a gallery necessarily destroy traditional connections between Indigenous Australians and their lands?
    Of course not.
    Those connections can be writ large in the design and content of the gallery.
    This can be custodians of the land hosting others in the generous spirit of traditional Indigenous society.
    So yes more talking and listening is needed to bring this important project to life.

  3. Yes more listening and respecting needed. South of The Gap is what the custodians have been saying.
    And so far there has been no rational reason put forward as to why it can’t go south of The Gap.

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