Last Friday in the Darwin Magistrates Court, Ross Pearce, Marc Renshaw and S & R Building & Construction all appeared in relation to offences under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act.

Each was listed for mention in relation to charges of entering, carrying out work and desecrating a sacred site. Renshaw is understood to be a principal of S & R Building & Construction; an Alice Springs-based building business.

As the ABC’s Phoebe Stewart reported on Friday of last week:

A construction company that allegedly built a toilet on Aboriginal land while working on the Northern Territory Emergency Response is expected to plead guilty to charges of desecrating a sacred site.

… the Darwin Magistrates Court heard that charges against individuals would likely be dropped and the company would plead guilty in February. Prosecutor Georgia McMaster says community members may want to come to court to hear the plea and she was collecting victim impact statements. Together the charges carry a maximum penalty of more than $500,000.”

My involvement in this matter goes back to a fine November morning just over two years ago.

I was sitting at my desk in the legal branch of the Northern Land Council in Darwin talking on the phone to an outraged traditional owner of Numbulwar, in south-eastern Arnhem Land. He told me that he believed that a contractor to the NT Intervention had “built a toilet on a sacred site” at a ceremony-ground outside of town.

A couple of phone calls later I’d confirmed a lot more about the background of my client’s story.

A firm that had been contracted to deliver and install the shipping containers that would make up the barbed-wired compound used to house the local agents of the Howard/Brough NT Intervention had apparently, for reasons not then clear, decided to place their long-drop toilet on sandy ground across the road from the building site.

The big problem for the locals, the contractors and the intervention administrators was that the site where the long-drop had allegedly been put was one of the most important ceremonial grounds in that part of Arnhem Land and was registered as a Sacred Site with the NT’s Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority — the body charged with the administration of the Sacred Sites Act.

Over the previous months I’d followed and recorded the many stuff-ups by those charged with implementing the early stages of the NT intervention and had collected a thick folder of examples of the waste, mismanagement and maladministration that has characterised the administration of the NT intervention from day one.

But this was by far the most serious allegation of egregious conduct on behalf of that flawed enterprise that had come to my attention to date.

Two days later I was sitting in a plane headed for Numbulwar.

Murray McLaughlin, from the ABC’s Darwin bureau, reported on the incident for the ABC’s 7.30 Report and revealed that the shipment of the shipping containers and construction of the intervention compound had been an expensive cock-up from day one:

Getting the containers here was too much for the Defence Force. An army barge carried them by sea more than 1000 kilometres from Darwin but had to turn back because the channel into Numbulwar was too shallow.

MAJOR GENERAL DAVE CHALMERS, INTERVENTION COMMANDER: And I don’t know the details. A landing craft may well have had problems getting into Numbulwar. As it happens we trucked the demountables into the community, so …

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: This isn’t a foreign land. I mean, this is a charted channel. That sounds like it, to be blunt about it, a cock-up?

MAJOR GENERAL DAVE CHALMERS: Well, I don’t know that’s the case at all, Murray. I don’t know if that’s the case at all.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: A gang of five workers arrived late last month to put the container complex together. They were told by council staff to use toilet and shower facilities at a nearby training centre. But the workers dug a long drop toilet slap bang in the middle of the most important ceremonial ground in this region. It was not discovered until after they had left town.

Bobby Nunggamajbarr told McLaughlin about the importance of the site for Aboriginal people and the interconnectedness of religious and ceremonial obligations and interests across the NT’s Top End and beyond.

“For other communities elsewhere this is very important too, because they are part of this community and people living at Ngukurr, at Borroloola, Groote Eylandt and Lake Evella and Hodgson Downs are associated with this because they are all family and we are all connected. They won’t know about it yet … but they’ll be asking a lot of questions.”

The prosecutors may have to cast a very wide net to gather victim impact statements.

And, in an indication of just how seriously the matter is viewed by Aboriginal people, McLaughlin asked Nunggamajbarr what would happen to an Aboriginal person that had desecrated such an important ceremonial ground in the manner alleged:

“Well, there is a penalty for doing that. That person, who done it … would go six foot down. That’s how strong our ceremony line is. The leaders of the community have said that they want a payment to be made to the two groups, and they want to see these people prosecuted through the court.”

The court case will resume in the Darwin Magistrates Court in February 2010.

Bob Gosford was most recently employed as a legal adviser by the Northern Land Council from September 2007 to September 2008.

Peter Fray

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