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Aboriginal landowners clash with government over outback dish

Aboriginal landowners who signed an agreement to host a powerful radio-telescope site three years ago are still fighting for the promised assistance to their community, writes Kerry Faulkner from Perth.

More than $8 million paid to a native title group for remote grazing land in West Australia to house the world’s most powerful radio-telescope is trapped in a deadlock between Aboriginal traditional owners and consultants contracted by the state government to help them.

The money has been in limbo for three years, putting a halt to a range of important employment, training and education initiatives for Aboriginal people in regional Western Australia.

The state government blames factional fighting in the Aboriginal community for the stalemate. But Wajarri spokesman Anthony Dann is scathing in his criticism of Premier Colin Barnett’s government and its consultants RPM, claiming they have done insufficient community consultation around new trust accounts which need to be created to manage money paid to them as part of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) for the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) site.

The MRO mushrooms across 130 square kilometres of mulga shrub-land and red dust excised from Boolardy Station 600km north-east of Perth. Boolardy is one of about 29 pastoral stations in the 50,000 square kilometre Murchison Shire whose population is estimated at just 160 people when everyone is home.

The MRO is home to the Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio-telescope whose first three dishes were officially commissioned by WA Planning Minister John Day last week. But its jewel in the crown will be the Australian component of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) when it is built in 2016 and which has been welcomed by scientists internationally as a quantum leap in radio-astronomy. Australia shares the $2 billion project with South Africa.

The Wajarri Yamatji signed over their traditional land for the MRO as part of an $18 million deal in 2009; $8 million cash and $10 million in other benefits, including Aboriginal traineeships and cadetships.

Dann, who sits on the Wajarri ILUA working group, says RPM won a $200,000 tender in 2010 to help create the Wajarri Yamatji trusts but has refused to pay for a community meeting of the estimated 3000 affected Wajarri Yamatji people to finalise draft documents.

The Premier’s office refutes the claim, telling Crikey RPM has acted professionally under difficult circumstances. A spokesperson says distrust in the Aboriginal community had cause the deadlock, not RPM, and the organisation acting as solicitors for the traditional landowners, the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, has hindered progress by refusing to hand over vital information.

An angry Dann has hit back saying “factional in-fighting” is a convenient excuse for the state government failing to act on RPM’s breach of its tender conditions by failing to establish a body corporate within its budget. He says the Aboriginal people had the body corporate rules and constitutions ready but were waiting on the community meeting to finalise the document. RPM’s refusal to pick up the tab, estimated to be up to $400,000, is the sticking point.

RPM should be held responsible for failing to deliver and incur any further cost to resolve this matter,” he said. “There appears to be a gross breach of contract which would not be accepted in any other area of business, but seems to be accepted on this and other occasion when delivering services to Aboriginal people.

The disappointing part is that the powers to be who are making decisions for us are throwing up all these excuses as to why it’s all locked up and in doing that basically painting a picture of traditional owners as not being able to manage their affairs as they should, which is not correct.”

RPM has presented two options to the government to resolve the impasse; one is believed to be an appeal to the state and Commonwealth for extra funds for the community meeting. The Premier’s office isn’t commenting on what on what steps it will take to resolve the three-year impasse.

This latest stalemate follows a Parliamentary Standing Committee investigation earlier this year into a 2004 Wajarri People’s trust. prompted by a petition of 170 signatures complaining about the way the trust is run. Among concerns are that payments are approved at the sole discretion of the trustee, Geraldton lawyer Abul Shahid. Objections included payments of $1500 each to 20 people to attend a funeral in Darwin.

Former attorney-general Christian Porter advised the Standing Committee in May he had no power to remove the trustee; this could only be done with agreement from three quarters of the trust’s advisory committee members or the Supreme Court.

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