Noongar people fight Native Title sale

Photo Chris Jenkins

Noongar elders, activists and supporters marched through Perth CBD on November 8 in opposition to the planned sale of Native Title by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) to the Labor state government.

Official preparations for the Native Title sale began in 2009 between SWALSC and the then-Colin Barnett Coalition state government. The sale has been consistently opposed by Noongar elders and activists, who argue the Noongar community has not been properly informed or consulted and that SWALSC and the state government have simply steamrolled the process towards a pre-determined outcome.

The sale would effectively extinguish Noongar Native Title over their sovereign lands. Thereafter governments, mining companies and pastoral interests would no longer have a legal obligation to consult with Noongar people nor negotiate access to sacred sites.

Naomi Smith, one of the legal challengers to the deal, told NITV: “This is a bill of sale. We will not have any royalty rights. We will not be able to make any decisions on our land as Noongar people.”

In exchange, the government would place $1.3 billion in a trust over a 12-year period. This sum amounts to $43,000 for each of the 30,000 people who make up the Noongar people.

Speaking at the rally, Rex Bellotti Sr said that Noongar people are being told that selling Native Title is the only way of getting out of poverty: “We as human beings deserve a decent life, but it's being denied us by governments that deny us justice. We shouldn't have to sell our identity and our land to have opportunities that non-Aboriginal people have.

"And if this deal is signed off and Noongar people then have no voice, what's going to happen to all our Aboriginal corporations and centres? I bet you they all disappear. I bet you the funding disappears. Today is about saying we will not disappear.”

Uncle Ben Taylor Cuiermara told the rally: “No way will I bow down to the colonisers and say yes [to this deal]. What they've [SWALSC] signed, it's not about what we're going to get, it's about what we're going to give up.”

In February last year, Aunty Mingli Wanjurri McGlade, Mervyn Eades, Naomi Smith and Margaret Culbong took the Native Title Registrar, SWALSC and the state government to court to stop the sale. The Federal Court ruled in their favour, saying the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) was invalid as not all Native Title claimants had agreed to the sale.

The so-called McGlade decision posed a major challenge to government and corporate interests, as it established that all claimants must be in agreement for an ILUA to be ratified. This had immense and immediate implications for the future of such projects as the Adani coalmine in Queensland, which Traditional Owners are fighting to block.

The federal government was quick to respond and, with Labor's support, made amendments to the Native Title Act (nicknamed the Adani Bill) two weeks later that effectively overturned the Federal Court's decision. With the road for the deal reopened, SWALSC resubmitted the six ILUAs with the Native Title Registrar in August. It is in the context of a renewed legal challenge to again block the sale that the rally and the campaign group Noongars Not for Sale have been organised.

The 6.5 kilometre march began at Matagarup (Heirisson Island), site of the Noongar Tent Embassy in 2015, and ended at Parliament House. Yamatji man and WA Indigenous Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt spoke briefly to reporters at a side entrance to Parliament House, but both Wyatt and Labor Premier Mark McGowan ignored calls from the elders to address the rally.

The deadline to submit a legal challenge to the sale is November 16.

[Donations to assist with this challenge can be made to: Noongars Not For Sale BSB 066018, Acc 10211178.]