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Enough to make Mabo turn in his grave

By Stephen Hagan - posted Friday, 23 October 2009

The recent decision by the Western Australian government to emphatically dismiss an application by a Goldfield’s Indigenous traditional owner group to prevent BHP Billiton from clearing land for potential uranium extraction, does not surprise me.

After all, successive federal governments have been complicit in perpetuating the implausible myth that Australia was terra nullius (empty land) at the time of settlement and maintained that intransigent position until High Court Justice Gerard Brennan’s ruling in Mabo v Queensland. “Whatever the justification advanced in earlier days for refusing to recognise the rights and interests in the land of the Indigenous inhabitants of settled colonies, an unjust and discriminatory doctrine of that kind can no longer be accepted,” the ruling stated.

But the loud applause from traditional owners and their supporters for the eminent judge’s ruling was sadly short lived.


Since that historic Mabo judgment was made on June 3, 1992, and enshrined in legislation with the introduction of the Native Title Act in 1993, Indigenous people have had to watch in dismay as their hard-fought native title rights have been slowly stripped of their potency by subsequent amendments through the Wik decision 1996, Howard’s 10 Point Plan 1997, Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 and more recently the Native Title Amendment Bill 2009.

Western Australia’s environment minister, Donna Faragher, dismissed the appeal of the Ngalia people when granting a mining permit to BHP Billiton to clear 10 hectares of native vegetation to drill bores and conduct geological exploration at the proposed Yeelirrie uranium mine site near Wiluna.

Kado Muir, the chairman of the Ngalia Foundation, was reported in ABC Online on September 22 saying the minister’s decision was disappointing but not unexpected.

Faragher, quoted in the same article, recommended that BHP Billiton engage in more consultation with the land’s traditional owners.

Such additional consultations are part of standardised community engagement modelling - an approach governments and business use when dealing with fractured traditional owner groups with the expectation that one group will eventually side with them by offering an opposing view.

Government gives the impression, through ambiguous media releases, that it has the traditional owners’ best interests at heart when it comes to mining activities. In reality it’s the other mob from the smarter end of town they’re out to impress.


They are patently aware of the palpable divisions that exist in discrete Indigenous communities. In most cases they were the architects in designing that marginalised aspect of Indigenous communities, as we know them to be today.

A bit like watching wild animals fighting over the crumbs swept off the table, so can it be said that some Indigenous people, in impoverished circumstances created by the government, do fight between themselves over money offered by third party interests.

Divide and conquer, used to great advantage in colonial conquests, is still the most proven and preferred strategy employed by multinational corporations in securing their rights to limitless access to the traditional lands of the first Australians.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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