The Black Prince of north east Arnhem Land, long time chairman of the Northern Land Council Galarrwuy Yunupingu, has set himself up at loggerheads with Aboriginal leaders throughout Australia with the signing yesterday of a memorandum of understanding with Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough.

Brough will countersign the agreement in Canberra today, and claim it as a major victory under his National Emergency intervention.

The deal—predicted by Crikey a month ago—has been massaged through a series of high level meetings by Queensland Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson and secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, who visited Yunupingu at the end of last month. Four weeks ago, Crikey reported:

… rumours have been circulating amongst the close knit communities of north east Arnhem Land about “deals” having been done to either swing or neutralise the former NLC boss.

It commenced with a secret meeting between Brough, Pearson, Yunupingu and the latter two’s respective minders, Llew Griffiths and Sean Bowdon.

And now it has resulted in Yunupingu agreeing to lease parts of his traditional lands at Gunyangara — known in English as Ski Beach — for 99 years in return for “millions of dollars” in infrastructure to the community. All this flies in the face of statements at the Garma Festival in the first weekend of August when Yunupingu described the Brough led intervention as “sickening, rotten and worrying”.

It’s just an MOU at this stage—and it will be some time before a final lease is signed off on—so details of the agreement are still sketchy. While the role of the Northern Land Council (NLC) in negotiating and signing off on any lease is to be upheld under the Land Rights Act, it was not a signatory to the MOU—unlike the Tiwi Land Council, which was up to its armpits in dealings with Brough over a 99 year lease over Nguiu on Bathurst Island last month.

However, it is understood that the agreement will differ significantly from the Nguiu deal. It is unclear whether the lease will be under s.19, or s.19A, of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The latter was created by Brough, and entails the leasing of entire townships and the holding of the lease by a “government entity” – for which read a Canberra bureaucrat.

It is understood that – unlike Nguiu and Brough’s proposal to lease entire townships – Gunyangara will be limited to “blocks” of residential and infrastructure assets – with some exclusions, including cemeteries and commercial assets. Furthermore, a head lease will be held by a new Aboriginal corporation rather than by the Canberra’s “government entity”.

But Yunupingu is not called the Black Prince for nothing – he would have made Machiavelli proud.

And the rumours continue. It would appear he has staved off compulsory acquisition in exchange for the lease; and at the same time appears to have avoided the kinds of external controls Brough initially demanded.

Yunupingu has wanted to build a resort near the sailing club on Melville Bay, on the road out to Gunyangara. There have been lengthy delays to the lease deal — allegedly due to the NLC dragging its feet. Ironic, given that Yunupingu ran the show for more than two decades. It is said that Yunupingu sees the Brough deal as breaking this deadlock, giving him and the Gumatj Association access to government funds and commercial loans to construct the resort.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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