Tiwi traditional owner, Adam Kerinaiua, was not willing to sit back while his land was signed away to the Government for 99 years without proper consultation of his people.

When Adam filed an application for an injunction in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, he knew he would be taking on much bigger opponents. Minister Mal Brough and his Government are determined to introduce 99-year leasing on aboriginal land. They found a willing partner in Tiwi Land Council Executive Secretary, John Hicks. Neither of these powerful men would give up their vision for the Tiwi islands simply because of the opposition of a few Tiwis.

However, the injunction was not granted, as Bob Gosford noted in Crikey yesterday, and the judge rejected arguments that the traditional owners did not know what they were signing or that signatures were falsely added to the document which affirms the traditional owners’ support for the leasing of Nguiu.

Adam claimed that he did not attend the meeting where the document was signed, despite the minutes (recorded by the Land Council) noting him as being present. The judge also rejected the affidavit of Jeffrey Simon, Aboriginal Community Police Officer at Nguiu, in which he asserts that his signature (or what purports to be so) appears on the document even though he did not sign it. He also stated that he was told he would receive $50 if he signed it. Jeffrey is a well respected Tiwi and one whose word carries weight in his community. But the judge was not convinced.

Last year almost 500 Tiwi islanders (Nguiu residents mostly) signed a petition calling for the resignation of John Hicks and for an investigation to be held into the practices of the Tiwi Land Council. No “sitting fees” or other payments were given to those who signed. Names and addresses are clearly printed next to each signature. The petition was tabled in parliament. But Minister Brough rejected it on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to carry out an investigation.

In contrast, the Land Council’s document — which forms the basis for showing that Nguiu traditional owners agreed to 99-year leasing — contains fewer than 100 signatures. Two of those signatures are questioned by Adam and Jeffrey’s affidavits. Furthermore, the document contains signatures of some people who are not traditional owners of Nguiu.

The Land Council was not able to verify who signed as “A Kerinaiua” (which Adam asserted was a forgery of his own) admitting that they did not have a process in place to record who was in fact signing. Names are not printed next to signatures, and there has been no process of verifying whose signatures are contained in the document. There is also the issue of the $50 payment. Tiwi Islands Local Government CEO Lawrence Costa remarked that many people believed they were signing the document to receive sitting fees.

Nevertheless this document has been accepted as a legitimate record of support for 99-year leasing.
The judge accepted the Tiwi Land Council and Commonwealth Government’s claims that proper consultations took place and that numerous meetings were held. Those who reside in Nguiu will be aware of the way these meetings were really conducted.

The complex nature of the leasing proposal requires clear explanation of the issues, which was not done. This is all the more important given that the audience speaks English as a second language and most have not completed secondary schooling.

During several of these meetings, discussions took place on various issues not related to 99 year leasing at all. On the few occasions when someone attempted to film the meeting in order to have a proper record of events, Land Council Executive Secretary John Hicks halted the proceedings to question the motives of the person filming. Adam Kerinaiua was told to put the camera down at one of the more recent meetings. The efforts to stop others producing an account of the meetings extended to this reporter receiving a cautionary letter from John Hicks. He questioned an article published in the Tiwi News which reported on a 99-year lease meeting.

There is a climate of fear in Nguiu. Many Tiwis are afraid to speak out against the handful of elders who have been sold on 99-year leasing. The two Land Council members who did speak out against leasing, Adam Kerinaiua and Gawin Tipiloura, were both sacked from the Land Council. Non-Tiwis are afraid to say anything in case their permits are cancelled and they are asked to leave for “interfering”. And the large majority of residents know little about 99-year leasing and leave it to those in charge to handle it.

Given such an environment, it is quite a feat for Adam Kerinaiua to have stood up and taken on these powerful opponents in court.

A costs hearing will follow, and it is expected that costs will be awarded against Adam Kerinaiua which may run in to tens of thousands of dollars. While Adam obtained pro bono legal representation, the two defendants, the Tiwi Land Council and the Commonwealth Government, are expected to present a hefty bill for their legal teams.