Larrakia claim Darwin harbour

December 11, 1996

By Tim E. Stewart

DARWIN — Responding to a native title claim lodged by Larrakia people on crown land around Darwin and the satellite city of Palmerston, warning shots have been fired by the Northern Territory establishment.

The NT News labelled it a "money grab" and an "outrageous claim", and accused the Larrakia Association of unsettling and confusing Territorians "by militant Aboriginal aspirations". The chief minister was quoted as saying, "They may not be after your backyard but they're certainly after around your backyard and they're after your lifestyle whether they mean it or not".

Answering this hysteria, the Northern Land Council has begun a direct mail campaign explaining what has and has not been claimed under the Native Title Act.

Most of the land is located outside the Darwin and Palmerston residential areas. It includes defence land at Lee Point, crown land near the Trade Development Zone and all mangroves in the Darwin region. Areas where Larrakia are seeking "coexistence" and recognition of their traditional rights include Casuarina, Mindil and Vestey's beaches; Rapid Creek, East Point and Casuarina coastal reserves; Bicentennial and Karu parks; Holmes Jungle and Marlowe's Lagoon.

The Larrakia Association is also claiming compensation for land rezoned by the NT government for the up-market residential developments of Cullen Bay and Bayview Haven. Pointing to a similar claim over a suburban development at Crescent Head in NSW, they are also calling for compensation for two new suburbs adjoining Palmerston.

In 1994, land was resumed by the NT government for the East Arm Port Development, a massive deep-harbour shipping wharf to be used for live cattle and mineral exports and as a base for oil and gas operations in the Timor Sea. Larrakia people have repeatedly called for negotiations on the proposal and in 1995 stated in good faith they would not obstruct the development. A native title application on land and sea was made to assist compensation settlements.

In announcing the Larrakia native title claim on December 6, Northern Land Council chief executive officer Norman Fry said: "The Larrakia people have been seriously disadvantaged in their own country as their land has been systematically resumed for other development ... It is the NT government's actions in compulsorily acquiring Larrakia's land which might lead to the government having to pay compensation. This is not the fault of the Larrakia. The responsibility is with the government.

"Larrakia people still practice their culture ... they still hunt and fish in these areas, collect bush tucker and bush medicines, and know the stories for these areas. Even after more than 100 years of coexistence with non-Aboriginal residents in and around Darwin, the Larrakia have kept their culture alive and maintained their links to the land. They wish to have this recognised formally."

Far from defending the coexistence of indigenous and non-indigenous lifestyles, the war-cry of the chief minister and the NT News is really about the possible obstruction to future infrastructure projects. As well as the Darwin to Alice Springs railway (which relies on the East Arm Port Development to be viable), the $1.9 billion Wickham Point gas plant and the Gunn Point space base are all proposals requiring huge tracts of land in the Darwin harbour region. The Larrakia claim falls exactly where business was hoping to set up camp.