BY KATHY NEWNAM
ADELAIDE — In a dramatic legal turn-around which has enraged the developers of Hindmarsh Island but sparked celebration among Aboriginal people in South Australia, Justice John von Doussa has backed the long-held claims of indigenous Ngarrindjeri women. The judge told a packed court room on August 21 that he was "not satisfied that the restricted women's knowledge was fabricated or that it was not part of genuine Aboriginal tradition".
Von Doussa threw out an application by Tom and Wendy Chapman for $20 million in compensation for delays in the construction of the Hindmarsh Island (Kumarangk) bridge, after it was banned for 25 years in 1994 by the then Aboriginal affairs minister, Robert Tickner, on the grounds that the island was an indigenous sacred site.
The ban was later overturned after a royal commission found that the cultural significance of the area had been "fabricated" by the Ngarrindjeri women. The construction of what has been termed "the genocide bridge", which is 80 kilometres south of Adelaide, was completed in February.
Tickner and the two researchers who provided the evidence to justify the ban, Commonwealth consultant Cheryl Saunders and anthropologist Deane Fergie, were all named in the Chapmans' suit.
In a statement, the custodians of Kumarangk said, "This is a very important decision for the Ngarrindjeri people. Since the royal commission they have been called fabricators, but in this case Ngarrindjeri men and women have given evidence willingly and were subject to extensive cross-examination on their culture and beliefs. They are extremely disappointed the bridge was built without waiting for the outcome of this case."
Ngarrindjeri elder Dr Doreen Kartinyeri, who the judgement found "was subjected to a sustained attack on her credibility", told media outside the court that "This is a victory for all indigenous people".
Kartinyeri had refused to give evidence to the 1995 royal commission, which had relied on evidence given by a group of "dissident Ngarrindjeri women".
The judgement questioned the objectivity of anthropologists who gave evidence at the royal commission, including Philip Clarke, the head of anthropology at the SA Museum.
Justice von Doussa also found that, "the evidence of Mr and Mrs Chapman — Mrs Chapman in particular — is notable for the high level of anger, hostility and suspicion which is borne by them to those who have played a role in events which have frustrated their ambitions. I consider the reliability of their evidence is seriously undermined by their lack of objectivity and a determination that at every turn they must have been right and the actions of others which impinged on their interests must have been wrong."
The Chapmans have launched many lawsuits against those that spoke out against the bridge or whom they claimed gave wrong information about the issue.
Green Left Weekly is one of the long list of publications and organisations sued by the couple, which includes the Australian, the Australian Financial Review, the ABC and Friends of Goolwa Kumarangk. The SA Conservation Council is currently defending itself from another suit.
Despite the attempts to silence opposition, support for the campaign remained strong and, as Ngarrindjeri woman Sandra Saunders told media outside the court, "The fight the Ngarrindjeri have put up has been strong and truthful".
Saunders also criticised the media for their disrespect of the cultural heritage of the Ngarrindjeri, saying "Tomorrow's headlines should be 'sorry, sorry, sorry because these women are not fabricators'."
"This was always about protection of Aboriginal culture and the fight to have a place of significance protected".
The August 22 issue of Adelaide's Advertiser, which had run a consistent line of support for the Chapmans, right up to the day of the decision, did manage one piece titled "Sorry, the royal commission may have got it wrong".
While happy with the decision, the Ngarrindjeri women said in a statement, "the bridge stands as a continuing insult to their human rights and culture."
This was a "victory at a price", explained Kartinyeri. "I have been sick for four or five years. I'm just glad I'm alive to see this decision."
Ngarrindjeri woman Maggie Jacobs spoke for many when she said, "I reckon they should pull the bloody bridge down now."