Further threat to native title in WA

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Further threat to native title in WA

By Sean Martin-Iverson

PERTH — Premier Richard Court has proposed a new state-based native title system which will further restrict the common law land rights of Aborigines.

The changes would replace native title claimants' right to negotiate with an even weaker "right of consultation". The WA Native Title Working Group has vowed to oppose the proposal.

Court's proposal, made possible by the Howard government's 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act, is a repackaged and modified version of last year's attempt to abolish native title rights in WA, abandoned after being heavily amended. Once again, the WA government is seeking to grant a state minister the power to override any native title decision "in the interests of the state".

While the previous legislation would have established a state body to replace the National Native Title Tribunal, the current proposal retains a role for the tribunal in the registration, mediation and determination of native title claims.

However, the legislation will also establish a WA Native Title Commission to deal with cases involving crown reserves, pastoral leases and mining or petroleum-related rights. At least 70% of future claims are expected to be directly affected by the proposed changes.

In case there were any doubts, Richard Court has made it clear that the main purpose of the state-based system is to speed up the granting of "thousands of applications for mining or exploration activity". Court claims that his proposal is "fairer" because the existing right to negotiate on pastoral leases is "unjust" and has been "taken advantage of" by Aboriginal people.

However, WA Native Title Working Group spokesperson Brian Wyatt has called Court's proposal mean spirited and likely to result in a "legal quagmire" and more bureaucracy. He stated that it "sends a message that Aboriginal rights count for nothing".

While the legislation is likely to be passed by the WA parliament with the support of independent MLC Mark Nevill, federal approval is also required.