I can’t see George “Soapy” Brandis’ name against any of the bids at the Northern Territory Environmental Defenders Office art auction site, but for someone with such a strong self-expressed regard for the “arts”, Soapy should get his arse — and his chequebook — along to the Gilbert + Tobin offices in Sydney on Wednesday night this week and splash some cash. I’m sure that if he looks long and hard enough he’ll find something to match his famous bookshelves

But this is serious, folks.

Earlier this year the NT EDO was told that, despite a backflip on federal funding cuts to other community-based legal centres, the network of EDOs around the country would not be funded. That followed on from budget cuts in 2014 by the Northern Territory government that gutted the capacity of the local Environment Centre NT, an NGO whose work NT Environment Minister Gary Higgins reckoned could be done by his government’s own Environment Protection Authority.

Both the NT EDO and the Environment Centre have run successful campaigns that have shown up the parlous record of successive NT governments, mining companies and others happy to play fast and loose with the NT’s fragile environment.

Just last week, the EDO NT gave NT Land Resource Management Minister Willem Westra van Holthe a very bloody nose when Justice Graham Hiley of the NT Supreme Court found that Westra van Holthe erred in the way he reviewed applications for a series of massive water extraction licences. As NT EDO principal lawyer David Morris told the local ABC:

“The awarding of the licenses is of great concern because it occurred outside of the nationally accepted national water initiative, which sets out the correct water planning process … Importantly that takes into account things like strategic indigenous reserves, which this minister has allocated water outside of.”

Now the EDO is fighting back, in the nicest possible way.

Earlier this year, it launched an online auction of work donated to the EDO by local artists, many highly valued indigenous painters and artists from the front lines of the many quiet battles being run across the vastness of the NT, including areas where the EDO hasn’t been able to reach with the limited resources it had before the cuts. Morris again:

“It’s been an incredible outpouring. Particularly, I’m astounded at the response by places where we haven’t worked that have heard about this and have said, we want to support this because there’s a real potential that our community might need this service in the future.”

As of this morning the bids for the 40 or so items had reached over $27,000, but that is expected to rise dramatically once word gets out that there are some real bargains on offer from the some of the country’s best artists. Works from the Borroloola region of the NT are prominent, and there have been seen some of the toughest legal clashes between big money and local Aboriginal interests in the Gulf country, which continue to this day. Morris credits the Borroloola mob as being responsible for the auction idea, noting that very collectable local artists from that small Gulf region town — like Jacky Green and Stuart Hoosan of Waralungku Arts, based at Borroloola — have very strong works in the auction.

The auction has caught the attention of many of the great and good from the legal profession, hopefully with a keen eye for a bargain, short pockets and long arms. As The Australian Financial Review‘s Hearsay reported last Friday, Federal Court judge Melissa Perry, Australian Bar Association president Fiona McLeod and former NSW Bar Association president Phillip Boulten SC have all coughed up bids. Others from the profession who have tipped in their readies include Sydney criminal silk Mal Ramage QC, of Forbes Chambers, and Sturt Glacken QC, of Melbourne’s Owen Dixon Chambers West.

Final submissions are due at Gilbert + Tobin’s offices at Park Street, Sydney tomorrow evening, June 3 2015.

I’m sure they’ll reserve a seat in the front row for Soapy …

You can see the works on offer — and make your own bid — at the NT EDO art auction website. You can also follow the action on the EDO’s Facebook page. You can read more about the essential work of the NT EDO at its website.

Peter Fray

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