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Native Title ceremony at Borroloola

Joe Morrison, CEO delivers a speech at a special sitting of the Federal Court at Borroloola on 11 August. At this sitting a “right to trade” was part of the successful native title claim by the Rrumburriya Borroloola people (the traditional owners of Borroloola and members of the wider Yanyuwa group. It’s the first time in the Northern Territory that a right to trade has been recognised in a native title claim. The court sat on the bank of the McArthur River, where Justice John Mansfield, who will retire from the Federal Court on August 24, handed certificates of title to the native title claimants.

Welcome, everybody, and I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land where we gather today.

Only nine months ago, November last year, we were gathered at this very same place for another ceremony, when native title was determined over many pastoral leases around the Gulf.
Piece by piece, the native title jigsaw puzzle across the Northern Land Council region is being filled in – maybe not as fast as Justice Mansfield may like at times, but we’re all doing our best to complete the puzzle.

And the piece of the puzzle that has brought us here today for the recognition of native title at Borroloola is important, because the Federal Court has recognised that among the bundle of native title rights recognised by the court is the right to trade.

This is a first in the Northern Territory.

The court’s decision, handed down on the 30th of June, is an important read for those interested in the history of the laws and customs of the Aboriginal people that belong to this country. It is also an important fact of life for the Northern Territory and the nation itself to recognize the long standing commercial trade that took place long before the arrival of the British to Australia.

Clearly you have maintained those laws and customs - and the connections to country which go with all of that - and the Court has recognised your rich history.

On behalf of the Northern Land Council, I congratulate you for having kept your culture against the odds.

I say, ‘against the odds’, because the invasion of your lands by white settlers was the start of a long attack on your culture.
Worse, the invasion brought horrific bloodshed and caused the deaths of many of your ancestors. Once only has to read the book “Frontier Justice” by Tony Roberts to get a sense of regions violent past.

So, I congratulate you for having won recognition of your native title rights, especially the right to trade.

You have also been leaders in the long battle for land rights, because the Borroloola land rights claim back in the late 1970s was the very first to be heard under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Justice Mansfield for his great work in overseeing the native title claims across our whole region over many years.

This will be the last occasion he’ll be here as a Federal Court judge, because he’s about to retire after 20 years on the bench.

Justice Mansfield was appointed not long after the Native Title Act came into force, and he’s handled a big number of native title claims all over the Territory.
In every case His Honour has demonstrated a profound understanding of Aboriginal law and custom, the connection of people to land and how colonisation and government policies have affected them.

He brought that wisdom to the Borroloola claim which has brought us here today.

He has been not just a learned judge. He’s also been a great administrator in the way he’s managed the native title cases that he’s had to deal with in the Northern Territory.
He’s always encouraged parties to settle rather than have a drawn out battle in the courtroom.

That way, he’s managed many so called consent determinations, whereby the parties – the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments, pastoralists, the land councils and others – have come together and settled native title claims without the trouble and expense of a full blown trial in court.

That’s what happened late last year with those determinations of native title over pastoral leases around here.
Justice Mansfield’s management of his court has meant that more than 150 Aboriginal groups in the Top End have had their native title rights and interests recognised and claims resolved since 2011.

We Aboriginal people think you’ve been a very fair judge, and we thank you for all your hard work.

Above all, you’ve been very kind and understanding in your dealings with us Aboriginal people.

You will be remembered not only for your terrific intellect but also, for your humanity, generosity, and good humour.

We all wish you well in your retirement.

Not that you’ll be putting your feet up, because I’m glad to see that you will be continuing in your other job as the Aboriginal Land Commissioner.

I also want to congratulate all the NLC staff – the lawyers and the anthropologists – who did all the hard work to get a successful outcome here at Borroloola under the new leadership of Michael O’Donnell and Stephen Johnson.

And I want to thank the hardworking staff from Rick Fletcher’s office for organising today’s ceremony.

They always do an amazing job. 

Thanks, everybody.