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Breakaway land council application fatally flawed

Posted: Tue, November 01, 2011

NLC Chairman Wali Wunungmurra told information meetings “United we stand - divided we fall”.

Soon after fifteen Aboriginal people from around the Katherine region lodged their application for a new land council in January 2011, the Northern Land Council swung into action to provide traditional owners and community members with information and the chance to make their views known.

The application for a breakaway land council was made under the provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth).

Those provisions allow for separate land councils for regional cultural groupings, but only where capacity and good governance is demonstrated and where it is otherwise appropriate.

The qualifying area specified in the application covers almost 80 per cent of the NLC region - and is thus aimed at replacing the NLC, rather than representing a region associated with a cultural grouping.

Over the next few months, the NLC Executive and staff conducted nearly 20 meetings across the area proposed for their new land council.

Traditional owners and community members gave two very strong messages - firstly, they did not support the proposal for a new land council, and secondly, they strongly supported the NLC.

Some of the problems with the application included;

  • the application contains fundamental errors. One basic factual error relates to the number of Aboriginal people in the area applied for. The list of communities listed as supporting the breakaway includes three communities, Beswick-Wugularr, Eva Valley-Manyallaluk and Rittarangu-Urapunga - all were listed twice.
  • It is clear that the broad support for a breakaway land council claimed in the application is an illusion.
  • everywhere the NLC Executive and staff went they were told that there was little or no local support for the breakaway proposal and that they had been provided with little information about the proposal - which was seen by many as a "land grab" by the Jawoyn Association.
  • an aspect of serious concern was just how the proposed land council would provide efficient and effective service to traditional owners. It is proposed that the new land council, in relation to 80 per cent of the NLC's area, would employ only 10 staff, including a Chief Executive Officer, one financial management officer, one legal officer and one anthropologist. This approximates to the seven staff originally provided to the NLC as an interim arrangement in 1977. This figure substantially increased after a review in the early 1980s because that number was recognised as manifestly insufficient for the proper performance of complex statutory functions.

There are many other aspects of the breakaway application that give rise to serious concerns.

But the final words belong to the strong views expressed by traditional owners and community members who stated their concerns regarding the ability of the Jawoyn Association and the applicants for the breakaway land council to provide them with the high level of advice, assistance and services that the NLC has done for more than 35 years.

At one meeting in Katherine, senior Jawoyn traditional owner and then member of the Jawoyn Association, Lisa Mumbin, outlined serious recent divisions within the Jawoyn Association.

The representative noted that two large groups of Jawoyn traditional owners from clan groups in the northern and southern Jawoyn lands had "broken away" from the Jawoyn Association to form their own Aboriginal corporation to better represent their interests, which they considered were being ill-served by the current administration of the Jawoyn Association.

At a meeting in Ngukurr, 146 members of the Yugul-Mangi Development Aboriginal Corporation (YMDAC), which provides representative and administrative services to the Ngukurr community, signed a petition that, under the letterhead of the YMDAC, noted that;

"The seven clans represented by the Yugal-Mangi Development Aboriginal Corporation of the south-east Arnhem region do not support the breakaway land council proposed by the Jawoyn Association of the Katherine area."

NLC staff were invited to a general meeting of the Ngalalek Aboriginal Corporation that represents the members of seven clan groups from the northern part of the Jawoyn lands and of which the majority are traditional owners of Jawoyn country and remain as members of the Jawoyn Association.

At the meeting, members and directors of Ngalalek AC raised a number of concerns about the current administration of the Jawoyn Association and stated that they considered they had no influence in the Jawoyn Association to effectively represent their interests.

At a community meeting held at Barunga, one senior traditional owner stated that the first she had heard of the proposal for a new land council was when she read about it in the Katherine Times, a weekly newspaper in the region.

She said Barunga was the "heartland" of the Jawoyn people and that only very few individuals had anything positive to say about the proposal for a new land council.

It is the NLC's view that the application should be refused by Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin because the Minister could not be satisfied that the proposed entity can satisfactorily perform a land council's functions regarding the qualifying area as required by s21B (2) (b).


  • It is clear