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.

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. stephen martin

    There are all sorts of moral arguments here no doubt; but the Native Title Act only allows for Native Title claims over un-alienated Crown Land doesn’t it?
    The Woomera land was surely well and truly alienated before the Native Title Act came into being.
    Looks like you are flogging a dead horse here, Luke.

  2. Mark Duffett

    Indeed, Stephen Martin, but another fundamental problem with this piece is that it completely ignores the stake rightfully conferred by the risk and skill involved in actually finding the minerals. It’s long past time that the trivialising of the discovery and development of mineral resources as ‘windfall’ ended. Its distorting effects are very clearly demonstrated here.

  3. Greg Angelo

    Could somebody explain to me why any section of the Australian community not responsible for the actual exploration and discovery of mineral resources has any greater rights than any other section of the Australian community. Whether we like it or not mineral resources are reserved to the Crown, and so-called landowners have no rights to the benefit of the minerals themselves. There are land owners in the Latrobe Valley who are struggling with the problem of the mineral rights to the coal under their land, and I understand they have no redress at law other than compensation for the alienation of their land should it be compulsorily acquired for its mineral resources.

    Whatever the issues of so-called dispossession of original people from the area used for testing purposes, I would see these issues is entirely separate. Gina Reinhard’s wealth is a direct consequence of the exploration activities undertaken by her fatherand her inheritance has nothing to do with native title or any other issue other than the direct inheritance by her in accordance with Australian law.

    According to my understanding of the legal situation, the nomadic occupants of this area had no greater right to inherit mineral wealth than any other Australian, and I would be happy to be enlightened otherwise.

  4. stephen martin

    @ Greg Angelo, as I understand it mineral royalties in the NT are paid to the indigenous owners of land acquired through the Native Title Act. And I think that the law regarding minerals rights in Western Australia are different to the situation that applies in Victoria and the other eastern states.

  5. drsmithy

    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.

    This figure does not seem to take into account the minor problem that, were it not for “the white man”, there wouldn’t be any mineral wealth at all because none of the “traditional owners” would even know it was there, let alone have the ability to extract it.

  6. Rufus Marsh

    Good for all the bloggers! Let’s think about trying to rewrite all sorts of petty histories and keep a lot of useless busybodies working out the details. There should perhaps be a cut off point somewhere about the Norman invasion in the Anglosphere but in more recent times it might be possible to provide redress to those whose seriously useful ancestors made a well earned pile of money, died (possibly from war causes as a result of defending this country) and then died at an inconvenient time so the extremely ill-framed death duties (abolished in the late 1970s) operated to wipe out their estates. I haven’t noticed anyone working out what death duties might properly be factored into the calculations of a proper fee to be paid to Aborigines whose ancestors never even knew they were living near unexploited mineral wealth.

  7. Luke Miller

    This isn’t about Native Title. We are not talking mass alienation of land in the distant past like the 1850s, 1788 or even 1066, where the lines of responsibility are too murky to unravel.

    This started in 1947 (!!!) and the main entity involved (the federal government) is still around. That was only 64 years ago. There are plenty of people alive today over that age … so this isn’t some mythical land theft that occurred in the ancient past … this is happening in our life times.

    As for the argument that “why should Aborigines get special treatment?” … well, it looks to me like the government and the miners are the ones giving themselves special treatment. Afterall, it took special laws in 1947 to take the land (and plenty of bluster), and now it is requiring special laws to hand the land over to the miners. The WPA is a special case. If there was an existing legal basis for what they’re doing, they wouldn’t need to write new laws.

    Since this is a special case, with government writing new laws, it could easily have set up an Aboriginal Future Fund or something at the same time as opening up the WPA and put a special dividend into it.

    And finally, as for the exploration risk, the WPA has already been surveyed (probably by government surveyors working for Defence).

  8. 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.

  9. Karen

    Hear, hear Luke. If the government can , by statute, allow miners to profit from extracting mineral wealth from the WPA, then it can allow for the redistribution of some of that mineral wealth to the original aboriginal landowners who have never been compensated for their dispossession following the creation of the WPA in 1947. I agree that a future fund could be created with the money to address the health, educational, employment and housing needs of the aboriginal people in this area. Miners might grizzle initially but I think will ultimately agree to a negotiated outcome.

  10. nuytsia

    While I deplore this situation, the bigger issue here is not racial at all. As alluded to by Greg Angelo, very few land “owners” in Australia have any control over mining activities on their own land. I am not, as Mark Duffett fears, ignoring the risk and expertise associated with mineral exploration, and I am not opposed to mining for private profit. However, there seems to me to be a denial of natural justice in allowing someone to buy land, only to force them to sell it (or apparently just give it away in this case?) for the private gain of a third party.

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