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May 6, 2011

Australia's trillion-dollar land swindle

Missing from the government's 96-page report into mining in the WPA is discussion of a potential windfall or special dividend for the original pre-1947 residents of the area, writes Luke Miller.

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In 1947, the Australian government, making “provision for the defence of Australia and the British Empire”, unapologetically alienated, by its own estimates, 3760 nomadic Aboriginal people from their land in Central Australia to create the weapons testing facility known today as the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA). Now the Australian government, the South Australian state government and various companies are set reap to a trillion dollar windfall after it was announced this week that miners would be allowed to “time-share” the area with Defence.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann lauded the new deal as “a guarantee of wealth for the future”, tweeting the extractable mineral wealth was worth “at least $35 billion” as the “area has 62% of nation’s copper and 78% of uranium deposits”.

While Rann limited his estimate of the mineral value of Woomera to $35 billion, other interested parties have thrown about much larger figures. South Australia Chamber of Mines and Energy chief executive Jason Kuchel told the Herald Sun the WPA “contained $35 billion worth of known deposits but its total mineral wealth had been estimated at more than $1 trillion”.

Missing from the government’s 96-page report into mining in the WPA is any discussion of a potential windfall or special dividend for the original pre-1947 residents of the area, stating only that indigenous groups will “continue to operate under current access arrangements … unless they choose to be administered under the proposed coexistence model”. Presumably, this will be a mishmash of the Defence Act (1903) and Defence Force Regulations (1952) and the Native Title Act, all three of which are designed to limit and restrict Aboriginal access to land they once unconditionally owned.

In its most crass form, if those 3960 people (or their children) had been able to inherit those mineral rights, each of them would now been looking at a $265,957,446 windfall per person. But while, for example, mining magnate Gina Rinehart was allowed to inherit billion dollar iron ore leases in the Pilbara from her white father, Aboriginal people in the region of Woomera will most likely be restricted to a package of negotiated scraps available to them under the Native Title Act.

Indeed, the two main Aboriginal respondents to the public submission period on the “Review of the Woomera Prohibited Area” that led to the new rules were both Native Title bodies. One, from the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Corporation, was broadly supportive of allowing miners into the WPA, stating “the claim group if it had to choose between defence and mining activities would as a preference choose mining, purely based on the tangible benefits …”.

The other group, the Kokatha Uwankara Native Title Claim Group, were much more critical, stating that a previous plan in place with the government had “not been followed and has been largely ignored by Defence …” and that “any proposal to open the areas of the WPA up to future mining and exploration are of great concern … traditional owners will not permit any damage to such sites of significance”.

When the land was original confiscated by the Commonwealth back in 1947, there was so much public concern about the poor treatment of the Aborigines in the area that the government was forced to address the concerns of Australia’s nascent civil rights movement.

When Doris Blackburn, a socialist MP and the second woman elected to the House of Representatives, moved a motion opposing the proposed testing range as “an act of injustice to a weaker people who have no voice in the ordering of their own lives”, John Dedman, the Minister for Defence, invoked the higher calling of international co-operation and world peace. He claimed that “anything that can be done to prevent harm coming to (the Aborigines) will be done”.

When Blackburn drolly interjected “We have writings to that effect dated as long ago as 1840”, Dedman took offence, protesting that he did “not agree that her concern is greater” than his own.

Considering that the land was only taken over by the government for the “higher purpose” of defence as recently as 1947,  this large transfer of wealth, without compensation, shows that the rights of its Aboriginal citizens are still literally second-class to other interests.

As Doris Black said in 1947 to the Australian parliament, “…when it suits us to use fine and fair words about trusteeship we do so; but we do not consider ourselves to be bound by those words when matters which, we think, are of greater interest take pride of place.”

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13 thoughts on “Australia’s trillion-dollar land swindle

  1. Rufus Marsh

    Of course we still find vengeance (or “justice”) being sought against alleged (war) crimes perpetrators, not just from 40 years ago in South America but 70 years ago in WW2 and even attempts to get a posthumous pardon of Breaker Morant but anyone familiar with attempts to discover the truth of contentious past events will know that even the factual determinations are fraught with difficulty. (If you have a backbench politician friend fired up on some crusade just ask him, or if/she is a novice, ask him/her to ask an oldtimer about the sad cases that have come along wanting some miscarriage of justice of 40 years before to be righted sometimes with complaints against a senior counsel, long dead, of high reputation and even a distinguished counsel’s opinion of 10 years before pointing out why there wasn’t a case).

    So, set aside discussion of Native Title and see some merit in Howard’s idea of practical reconciliation. What should be done to help disadvantaged people live in the modern world as employable citizens?

    The big figures thrown into the article serve only to obfuscate the issues. They invite several responses.

    One is the sensible enough one of asking what some people would have received as compensation for compulsory acquisition if the rewriting of native title law by Mabo had already occurred. It is curious that the article doesn’t actually touch on, let alone answer, the (surely) fundamental question of whether compensation as required by Sec 51 of the Constitution was paid on a compulsory acquisition (termed “confiscation” by the presumably non-lawyer author). If it wasn’t one might at least toy with the idea that some sort of figure could be put on the value of the land at the time which would have nothing to do with the minerals except perhaps for some minimal amounts related to what someone might have been willing then to pay for the right to explore. Compound interest on the amounts divided by the number of adults, factor in some taxes including death duties, don’t allow for squandering money as one would expect of people with no education or background in commerce, and one doesn’t get any impressively big figures and one might then turn more sensibly to what the situation of the survivors and descendants of the 3-4000 people now is and what, if it is an identifiable body of underclass people can be done about it now that no one is likely to avoid the first importance of child health, getting them to school (including illiterate adults back to school) and introducing them to the mainstream economy.

    Before bandying round huge figures as though they were relevant one might also consider what the average Australian, whether a taxpayer or a competing welfare dependant, feels and should feel about even thinking about what the author calls “crass”, namely ” a $265,957,446 windfall per person”. The true figures for the dependancy costs of the one quarter of Australians who choose to identify as Aborigines who live in outback settlements with no prospects of integration into the mainstream economy are themselves outrageous if one considers one’s farmer brother with cancer living on a farm 500k from the state capital and how little is done to make his life easier, or one’s child, mentally disabled in a car accident for whom adequate care is an appalling burden. And the particular aspect of their being outrageous which makes them truly so is that most of the money is spent on and in the interests of white public servants who or whose predecessors have devised ignorant and damaging policies.

  2. Flower

    Good news – at least for about 120 multi-national plunderers since those who crow over “tangible benefits” for the indigenous folk have no doubt excluded the environmental externalities which will be perpetrated by the miners.

    One example could be the Canadian miner, Cameco’s Kintyre open-pit uranium project on the edge of a Pilbara national park in WA. This company plans to draw five million litres of water a day – two olympic sized pools.

    WA’s Sunday Times wrote that Cameco’s Kintyre Uranium Project report details risks to mine workers from radiation exposure, the potential for groundwater contamination and the spread of radioactive dust and its potential to affect endangered flora and fauna.

    The report states that mine workers are at risk of: “direct irradiation by gamma radiation; inhalation of airborne dust containing long-lived alpha-emitting radionuclides of the uranium and thorium series; ingestion of radioactive contamination transferred from hands to mouth when eating or smoking; and inhalation of radon progeny”.

    Cameco’s project will eventually process up to 24 million tonnes a year of ore and will also create up to three million tonnes a year of radioactive tailings waste, yet another legacy for present and future generations.

    The Woomera Prohibited Area’s annual rainfall is around 155 millimetres and how many interested miners did I say had their eyes on the booty? Around 120? That’s a mere peccadillo for “savvy” chimps like Mike Rann and Martin Ferguson.

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