Opposition to Kumarangk bridge strong despite ruling

April 8, 1998


Opposition to Kumarangk bridge strong despite ruling

By Martin Iltis

ADELAIDE — On April 2, the day after the High Court decision which effectively allows construction of the Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island) bridge, 50 Ngarrindjeri women and their supporters in the Kumarangk Coalition met and vowed to continue to campaign against the development.

The High Court's decision to uphold the Howard government's Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act is the latest development in a nine-year struggle to stop the construction, which will violate the Ngarrindjeri women's spiritual and cultural beliefs.

Lawyers for the women argued that the Bridge Act was invalid because it discriminates on the basis of race by preventing the Ngarrindjeri people from using the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act to protect sites of cultural significance.

The Hindmarsh bridge legislation was the first since the 1967 Aboriginal rights referendum — passed under the constitution's "race power" — which clearly discriminates against Aboriginal people.

Five of the six High Court judges upheld the government legislation, declaring that the Bridge Act, (supported by both Labor and the Coalition), did not contravene the Heritage Protection Act, and was an amendment to that act.

The court decided that, even after the 1967 Referendum Act, the Australian Constitution does not specifically state that the Commonwealth can not pass racist laws. But as Justice Kirby, the only dissenting judge, observed in his statement, people clearly voted in 1967 with the intention of benefiting Aboriginal people.

Speaking immediately after the High Court decision, Stephen Kenny, lawyer for the Ngarrindjeri women, said there is now no guarantee that Aboriginal people will get any protection anywhere in Australia. "If the commonwealth parliament decides to deny Aboriginal people the right to protect a site of significance, then the parliament can do that by amending legislation."

A media release from the Kumarangk Coalition stated, "Once again the legal and political structures of non-indigenous Australia have been unable to adequately recognise and address indigenous rights and cultural aspirations".

The reaction of the April 2 Adelaide Advertiser to the decision was the banner headline, "Judgment Day: the bridge wins". An article by David Penberthy described the Ngarrindjeri women as "a group of Aborigines whose legal challenge was a try-on that was doomed to fail". The editorial was a call to "build the bridge and be done with it".

According to the Advertiser, the bridge developers have been traumatised and "the best they can hope for is some kind of — eventual — compensation". The editorial warns its readers "not to be lulled into the view that this charade has anything to do with genuine race relations, reconciliation and respect for the beliefs of any ethnic group".

The claim that the Ngarrindjeri women are trying to gain some undeserved reward from the Hindmarsh Island affair is insulting and absurd. The struggle to stop the bridge has been traumatic for the Ngarrindjeri people and, as Kenny points out, the women have no financial motivation in their claim; they simply want to protect a site of significance to them.

The Kumarangk Coalition meeting discussed ideas for continuing to build the campaign. A number of events in Adelaide and interstate will be announced soon.

With legal avenues for stopping the bridge apparently exhausted, the mobilisation of large numbers of people to demand that the government not allow the bridge to be built is more important than ever.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's pledge not encourage its members to cross any picket of the bridge is the kind of solidarity that is essential if the Ngarrindjeri women and their supporters are to win.

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