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Northern Development: Embracing the Indigenous Difference

Posted: Mon, June 30, 2014

Saturday, 28 June, 2014, Townsville, Queensland

Speech by Joe Morrison at James Cook University’s Northern Development Summit

I ACKNOWLEDGE the Traditional Owners, their stewardship and careful management of the lands and waters that now enshrine the World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef. I would also like to acknowledge the conference organisers, distinguished guests, Northern Land Council Chairman Mr Samuel Bush-Blanasi, Deputy John Daly and co-presenter Mr Fred Chaney.

I acknowledge the Minister for Trade and Investment, the Honourable Andrew Robb. The NLC is very much aware of Andrew's significant contribution in previous years to the expansion of the Northern Australian economy and Indigenous economic development. We expect that he will play a pivotal role in future planning for this vital part of Australia and we look forward to working with him.

We have gathered to discuss one of the great wonders of the nation – northern development.

I am reminded that Indigenous Australians had the nation’s first international trade, a long standing arrangement with Macassan fishermen many hundred years prior to European arrival – we have trade in our DNA.

I believe that northern Australia is on the cusp of enormous economic and social change. Having been through numerous exercises examining the north’s potential, including the extensive work of the Northern Land & Water Taskforce and North Australian Indigenous Experts Forum as the CEO of the North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance. We return to this topic yet again, and now for me, as CEO of the Northern Land Council.

And while frustration can be easily expressed at the continual ignorance towards the obvious Indigenous reality that confronts the nation, I want to lead my discussion here today to take a more inclusive approach, hence my title – ‘Embracing the Indigenous Difference’.

However, I want to state that the White Paper for Northern Australian development represents a real and, perhaps, historic opportunity to set a policy framework so that northern development is sustainable and inclusive for the north’s residents, particularly its poorest and most disadvantaged – Indigenous residents. But I also think the green paper has enormous gaps in knowledge and understanding of Indigenous rights, interests and voices and how the full potential of Indigenous people and their lands and waters can deliver for the nation.

But to develop such a public policy framework remains critical; to imagine future trends on the basis of the evidence and not be distracted by contemporary ideological views that may fade away in coming years.


Across the NLC region, the birth of Caring for Country, a movement that initiated ranger programs that spread throughout the country was born in the 90s, combining traditional knowledge and western science. This has now developed into a national program that employs hundreds of remotely-based Indigenous people, undoubtedly the largest Indigenous workforce. It is now larger than what the mining industry could ever generate and has emerged as a legitimate employment opportunity for remotely-based people who have little to no other employment options. These rangers manage on behalf of the nation some of the most intact land and seascapes in the world that generate flow-on benefits to the recreational and commercial fishery, tourism operators and the national reserve estate.

Over the years, the NLC has delivered under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act hundreds of leases whereby Traditional Owners provide their consent to third party interests ranging from mining companies to barge companies, to a 99- year housing lease, to abatement of greenhouse gas emissions, to, just recently, the first Aboriginal-owned mining company commencing operations on their own land in north east Arnhem land. The range of activity on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory is enormous and cannot go without notice of the successful role of land councils and traditional owner consent.

Continuous government focus on infrastructure will indeed continue to maintain underdevelopment and I call on all northern governments to broaden their focus away from just hard infrastructure to include soft infrastructure – people, traditions and practices and governance needs to name a few. There are many niche opportunities before northern Australia and we need to consider them as well, such as small scale production of bush soaps, creams and food that involve Aboriginal women and young kids.

There are critical issues that must be faced. The cultural and environmental destruction that has occurred in southern Australia must not be repeated in the north.

The ongoing traditional connection that north Australian Indigenous people have with their country should be seen as an asset for this nation and to northern development, not as a problem. The role of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, Native title Act and the NT Sacred Sites Act must be strengthened and not weakened.

Attacks on these important pieces of legislation remain short-sighted and lack imagination because the next step is to mobilise these hard-won rights into commercial outcomes maintaining Traditional Owners control over consent. Removing property rights held by the poorest of people to facilitate third party interests represents a major threat to the north’s true potential. It is in fact lazy policy bordering on racist conduct.

I state that Indigenous people want development, on terms that meet their aspirations and needs as well as that of the nation. Aboriginal people want to drive the emerging buffalo industry and have in fact done so to date, through the Gulin Gulin Buffalo Company. Meeting further demand to Asia will require a comprehensive strategy to ensure that the demand can be met, and that benefits flow back to traditional owners whose country the majority of the industry relies upon.

The evidence is clear:
• Indigenous people have ownership and property rights and interests to the vast majority of the north Australian land mass. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people hold title to almost 50% of the land and 87% of the coastline and have co-existing rights and interests in the remainder;
• Outside a handful of cities and towns in northern Australia, Indigenous people are forecast to become the majority of the population in the north well into the future; and,
• Indigenous people in the north have repeatedly called for inclusion in development – we want development of our lands and waters on our terms.


Therefore, Indigenous people must be seen as fundamental drivers for any success in northern development. In the long term, the White Paper will be assessed on what it says about placing Indigenous people and their country within a northern Australian development paradigm.

In the Northern Territory town of Mataranka, where Indigenous people own and have legally-recognised interests in almost 70% of the water district, traditional owners cannot develop their lands due to adverse policy positions adopted by the current NT government to not grant a Strategic Indigenous Reserve so that we can catch-up to the rapid development agenda by big business. The policy disconnect with everyday reality is stark, and if this kind of approach with development and social need continues then northern Australia will remain in a state of underdevelopment.

Focusing on the Green Paper that was recently released gives Indigenous people serious concerns. The whole thrust of the paper diminishes the importance of Indigenous people.

When Indigenous people are mentioned it focuses on socio/economic deficits and points to employment prospects supported by education and training as solutions. This is also lazy thinking and is entrenched in a contemporary ideological straight-jacket that will not benefit northern development.

What is missing in the Green Paper is the language of strengthening existing rights and interests through new models of partnerships. This represents the greatest challenge for northern development and the Green Paper fails to embrace this aspect. It focuses on a lack of private investment, lack of community and institutional capacity and suggests removal of statutory regimes that protect Indigenous interests in lands and provides for the prior informed consent instead of handing control over to bureaucrats.

The Green Paper is replete with the language and ideas of old extractive development and assimilation.
There is also a subtext of inevitable community conflict. By ignoring the position of Indigenous people or not taking our rights seriously there will be inevitable conflict between Indigenous people and developers and that is a bad thing for northern Australia’s development future.

A good example of this is the Green Paper’s view that resource development in the north will be easier under current policy proposals to deregulate environmental assessments.

This is a facile approach and ignores the importance of establishing sound processes so that development occurs with the informed consent of traditional owners.

Some of you may have recently heard about the NLC’s settlement of the Muckaty court case – this is an instructive example of what not to let happen. The influence of external parties with pre-conceived interests muddies the waters of decision-making. This nation must invest in good process that brings Indigenous people on board as partners in development with unambiguous informed consent through decision-making. Muckaty reminds me that the influence of third parties will play a profound role in northern development and we must get on top of this most polarising issue.

Other precedents such as Blue Mud Bay, providing property rights and control of access over the intertidal waters that abut Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, are enormous opportunities for future development potential. If only we are able to unshackle our collective creativity to embrace the little enterprises that Indigenous people may desire, instead of just marvelling at large scale development, perhaps we can start to overcome disadvantage.

Leaving people out or cutting corners inevitably leads to resentment and opposition. Political alliances are formed between Indigenous people, environmentalists and human rights activists and suddenly there is conflict that manifests in legal action, direct action on the ground and national and international media campaigns.

I repeat, this is a recipe for underdevelopment not development. Global capital investment will be deterred if there is risk of serious conflict and unethical processes that further marginalise Australia’s first people.

Partnerships to develop a prospectus for development on Indigenous lands
IF we are going to avoid more scenarios such as Muckaty, or disputes such as Jabiluka, or Browse near Broome, or future disputes that could occur with developments such as the Ord River expansion into the Northern Territory, Australia must invest in enduring partnerships between Indigenous people, government and industry. Changing the NT Sacred Sites legislation is not the solution.

Processes based on free, prior and informed consent must be seriously supported. For this to happen there must be investment in Indigenous capacity – that is social, economic and cultural capacity through statutory institutions and localised governance structures. The two cannot be seen to be exclusive of each other but have a focus on lessening the role of government.

This means comprehensively supporting Indigenous governance, investing in technology such as GIS mapping and demonstrating clear benefits to Indigenous people for development beyond the prospect of jobs. Land use planning, agreement making and development of an Indigenous prospectus for investment into northern Indigenous lands to articulate the kinds of development Indigenous people want should be a focus going forward.

Investing in the things that also matter to indigenous people – living on country, language and culture – are just as important in northern development as gas plants in Darwin harbour, roads and ports.

In addition, policy and institutional reform must be about spreading the wealth that is extracted from Indigenous lands in northern Australia to Indigenous people.

The people of northern Australia, particularly the most marginalised, are severely disadvantaged in Australia’s public funding system. This problem becomes exacerbated when impoverished traditional owners are pressured to agree to development proposals to secure benefits that should be provided as citizenship entitlements.

The prospectus could provide the blueprint for the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund for northern Australian Indigenous people from the wealth that is extracted from their lands.

Such a fund should not replace citizenship entitlements but be available for long term development of indigenous people to fulfil their aspirations and the nation’s potential.
This fund could be administered under a revenue formula and institutional arrangements that are negotiated between governments, statutory bodies and Indigenous people. It could provide enormous commercial grunt to existing property rights held and those that are yet to be granted.

Conclusion
In conclusion, I believe that it is important to dispel the myth that there is entrenched conflict between Indigenous people and development.

Indigenous people have and will continue to support development proposals if the development can be shown to be culturally, environmentally and economically sustainable, not socially destructive and where clear benefits can be achieved.

There are some examples where resource development and indigenous aspirations can be aligned. Take Conoco Phillips’ gas processing where their investment in Carbon abatement and partnership with the NT Government and Northern Land Council have created an economy of work and income generation around abating fire in West Arnhem Land. Recognising the important role of senior custodianship, knowledge and practice is fundamental in this partnership, while creating jobs and importantly reducing greenhouse gas pollution through a reduction in wildfires are also delivered. Unfortunately, Inpex, the Japanese gas giant, does not share this approach or view but there is time to rectify the situation.

There are many other examples of unorthodox development that could suit Indigenous and other remote residents of the north including pastoralists, tour operators and fishing interests, to name but a few.

The Northern Land Council has canvassed both the Chief Minister Adam Giles, and Minister Nigel Scullion about an Indigenous economic development framework, creating what I have alluded to above – a prospectus for development by Indigenous people and we look forward to a positive response and Indigenous led partnership from them. We need to have Indigenous people manifest their own futures.

At a critical time when we have a Prime Minister for Indigenous Australia, with the push for constitutional recognition, proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act s18(c) and attacks on the NT Land Rights and Sacred Sites Acts, we must rise above the ideologies and malaise that have crippled Indigenous affairs for the past decade to consolidate the enormous wins to benefit the poorest and most disadvantaged people in this nation.

Critical ingredients here are respect and partnerships. I strongly urge all interested parties to invest in Indigenous partnership building as a critical foundation for northern Australia’s future development – the Northern Land Council remains open for business through informed consent of traditional owners.

The time is upon the nation to embrace the difference presented by Indigenous people and build a north that all Australians can be proud of for generations ahead.