By Stephen Robson
Meeting in Melbourne on November 2 and 3, representatives of 25 Aboriginal organisations declared the federal government's funding for land acquisition inadequate. Aaron Ross, the publicity officer for the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, told Green Left Weekly that the meeting was highly representative, with most peak bodies present.
The meeting reflected "the diverse opinion in the Aboriginal community", Aaron Ross explained.
The bill was originally drafted as an image builder, to bolster the claim to be making real progress in improving the lives of Aboriginal people. Labor therefore attempted to portray Aboriginal communities as speaking with one voice in support of their bill.
To bolster this approach, the government successfully sought the endorsement of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The Melbourne meeting clearly indicated that this "one voice" was not reality.
Pledging an eventual $1.46 billion capital allocation, the federal government has portrayed this large sum as an indication of its genuine commitment. However, not $1.46 billion, but only $45 million, will be available each year for land acquisition, and an increasing proportion of this will be expended on land management. Clearly the fund will only tinker at the edges of Aboriginal needs.
Distortion over the money is not confined to the government. The Australian in its editorial on November 18 said, "The Bill is designed to provide $1.46 billion for land purchases by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who will not be able to claim native title rights under the Mabo legislation."
Greens (WA) Senator Christabel Chamarette told Green Left Weekly that all of the $1.46 million should be available to meet Aboriginal needs. "To lock the money [in the fund ] for 10 years is an injustice", she explained.
Since the Senate began debating the Indigenous Land Corporation and Land Acquisitions Bill, a healthy public discussion has begun about the merits and inadequacies of Labor's bill, opened up by the Greens' declaration of opposition to the bill at the beginning of September.
Much attention has been given to an amendment by Liberal Senator Chris Ellison. This states that "if a conflict arises as to the allocation of resources, preference is to be given to those Aboriginal persons or Torres Strait Islanders who are most severely dispossessed of their traditional lands". This amendment was supported in the senate by the Coalition, the Greens (WA) and conservative independent Brian Harradine.
The Melbourne meeting "agreed to disagree" on this clause. Tracker Timmouth from the Central Land Council, Peter Yu from the Kimberley Land Council and David Ross, an ATSIC commissioner, since the meeting have publicly indicated their opposition to the amendment.
However, support for the clause was also significant: from 12 of the 14 land councils in Queensland, the NSW Land Council, a legal group in Tasmania and representatives from South Australia and Victoria.
The Melbourne meeting declared that the amount of money allocated by the federal government was too small, and should not be viewed as meeting the compensation needs of Aboriginal people. Furthermore, the meeting called for native title rights to be extended to land acquired under the fund. A final amendment called for the seven members of the governing board of the Indigenous Land Corporation to be Aboriginal.
A delegation from the meeting was authorised to go to Canberra to lobby to support amendments to the bill. NSW Aboriginal Land Council executive director Aden Ridgeway supported amending the bill. "The Greens, independents and Coalition have all had enough insight to support the amendments", he said.
The aims of the 50-plus amendments were to increase the independence of the Indigenous Land Corporation from the government and to improve the control by Aboriginal people over the land they receive through the fund.
"Indigenous groups have expended an enormous amount of energy and resources making sure this bill will address the concerns of Aboriginal communities", Ridgeway pointed out. The support from the Greens (WA) senators for the amendments pushed by the Aboriginal community has been very important in challenging the hegemony of Labor.
And for opportunistic reasons, even the Liberal-National Coalition has supported many of the progressive amendments to the bill. With the process of amending the bill in the Senate completed, the Greens (WA) were keen to put the spotlight back on the federal government.
From the introduction of the bill in September, the Greens (WA) senators have indicated that they do not support the bill. Christabel Chamarette told Green Left Weekly that their view was that Aboriginal people "should not be disappointed yet again", and this tokenistic legislation failed to address the needs of Aboriginal people.
The Greens avoided an immediate vote on the bill by putting forward a special request for additional funding of $3 million for administration of the fund on November 16. "We wanted to test the credibility of the government", Christabel Chamarette explained to Green Left Weekly.
With the support of the Coalition, the request was carried by the Senate. Parliamentary rules dictate that requests for money have to be taken back to the House of Representatives for consideration.
The next day the government rejected the request and the legislation with all its amendments was returned to the Senate where it is expected to be dealt with on November 28.
Chamarette called on the government to accept the amendments to the legislation. "These amendments have the support of a wide cross-section of Aboriginal people." She indicated to Green Left Weekly on November 17 that it was possible that Labor, the Australian Democrats and the Coalition would combine to pass the legislation.