Native title is again in the news in Western Australia. The wrangling over Woodside’s proposed liquefied natural gas processing facility at James Price Point in the Kimberley has generated a variety of arguments about economic development, the environment, and Indigenous property rights.
Negotiations regarding the gas hub have taken place over several years; although a deal was reached in April 2009, there has since been bitter and well-publicised intra-Indigenous conflict regarding the validity of the decision to enter into the agreement. Premier Colin Barnett cited the resulting delays to justify his decision last September — over the protests of Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley — to compulsorily acquire the relevant land, thus extinguishing native title rights. Barnett’s decision was condemned by many commentators, including Cape York Institute director Noel Pearson.
These events have pitted interest groups against each other. Serious concerns have been expressed about the gas hub’s possible social impact, and environmental groups and the Greens have argued that the proposed site is "pristine" and should not be disturbed.
Save the Kimberley, an organisation with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal supporters, maintains that it is not opposed to development per se, but that the "Kimberley coast … is one of the great natural environments on earth" as well as being a place of great cultural significance.
The Kimberley Land Council, which opposes the compulsory acquisition but supports its clients’ rights to enter into agreements in respect of the project, has met environmentalists’ opposition head-on. Last year, CEO Wayne Bergmann argued that "Aboriginal people were conservationists well before the green movement" and that "we are taking command and managing our own futures".
For its part, although the state government has initiated a compulsory acquisition process against strong opposition from Aboriginal groups, it uses the language of black economic empowerment to defend its decision.
The arguments summarised above typify some key features in current debates about native title.
Firstly, as I’ve previously argued in New Matilda, native title is increasingly — and unhelpfully — conflated with social welfare. At the same time, there has also been much coverage of clashes between environmental organisations and Indigenous groups. One reading of these conflicts, most prominently articulated by The Australian, concludes that Indigenous groups and environmentalists were previously natural allies, but that there has been a fundamental rift due to the greenies’ inability to accept Indigenous peoples’ wish to integrate into the market economy. This approach sees the Native Title Act as a vehicle by which Indigenous people can distance themselves from patronising inner-suburbanites and seek economic empowerment.
But this conclusion does not withstand close examination: was there ever really a "green/black alliance"? Temporary marriages of convenience are common among activist and lobby groups; there will be occasions when the interests of an Indigenous and an environmental group will coincide, and times when they will not. There are obvious tensions between conservationists’ desires to "preserve wilderness" and the fact of prior Indigenous possession and, in a native title context, the interests of claimants often sit uneasily with those of environmentalists.
It should also be noted that the trope of the "green/black rift" is convenient for many on the political right: it assists in framing market capitalism as a liberating force and environmentalists as misanthropic reactionaries. Similar arguments, of course, are made on a global scale to criticise efforts to reduce carbon emissions on the grounds that this will impact on poor and developing countries.
However, the "green/black rift" narrative is not unfounded in fact. From a native title perspective, environmentalists’ contributions can be unhelpful. Bergmann has accused groups such as the Wilderness Society and Save the Kimberley of "dirty politics", suggesting the environmental movement needed to "understand the dishonesty of arguing against traditional owners’ informed consent on the basis that the decision to develop the Kimberley will destroy Aboriginal culture". Bergmann uses the pragmatic rights-based argument familiar to native title claimants and their supporters: Aboriginal people are entitled to use their (limited) property rights as they see fit.
It is not uncommon for well-meaning third parties to comment unfavourably on the seeming willingness of claim groups to enter into agreements with developers, thus bolstering stereotypical depictions of native title claimants as opportunistic or greedy. It is not at all well understood that there is no right of veto under the Native Title Act and that native title claimants and holders therefore have little choice other than to support projects in the interests of obtaining concessions such as heritage protection provisions and compensation.
Notwithstanding the odd rare exception (pdf), flat-out opposition to a development will likely result in a thankless struggle. In effect, the system coerces native title claimants into doing deals; to then be derided for "selling out their heritage" is galling. Opponents of the Kimberley gas hub have occasionally insulted claimants’ agency — witness the singer Missy Higgins’ conclusion that "the only people supporting this have dollar signs in their eyes".
However, the sense of conservative triumphalism at the "rift" between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups and environmentalists has a sour aftertaste. It is concerning that so much of the commentary regarding the gas hub presupposes that its construction is the ‘only hope’ for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley. Premier Colin Barnett has used this argument to great rhetorical effect. Last year, in responding on the ABC’s Q&A program to a question about the compulsory acquisition, Barnett said:
"this is the opportunity for Aboriginal people in that area. This is real jobs, real improvements in housing, education and health. Now, it’s all very well to say you shouldn’t do it. I cannot look a young Aboriginal boy or girl in the eyes and say, ‘I can offer you something better.’"
The premier’s implication that failure to construct the gas hub would cruel the future of Aboriginal children is symptomatic of the manipulative binary of "development" vs poverty.
Those who argue that environmentalists deny Indigenous people their agency should surely be equally concerned about the restrictions within which the "choice" to engage with developers is exercised. If Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia really face a stark choice between a narrow and rigid view of development and "further generations on welfare dependency", this is no cause for celebration. Bergmann states frankly: "Governments should ensure all Australians are provided with equal opportunities but history shows they have failed us". This conclusion is not a happy one.
In any case, there are real questions regarding the assumption that mining and similar industries have benefited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in remote and regional areas. Public discourse on the gas hub has largely ignored the "hybrid economy" identified by researchers such as Professor Jon Altman in favour of rhetorically pushing people into opposing corners: Are you for environmental protection or not? In favour of economic development or against? Pro- or anti-Aboriginal self-determination?
The simplistic debates on the Kimberley gas hub have tended to reduce a variety of complex issues to pre-digested positions, to the detriment of native title claimants and other interests.
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