NSW Land Rights Fight Heads To The Beaches

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If you happened to be around Hyde Park in Sydney this morning there is a fair chance you may have seen and heard a crowd of banner waving blackfellas and their supporters chanting a bunch of land rights slogans.

A fair proportion would have been members from the 120 Local Aboriginal Land Councils around the State.

The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, the state’s peak representative body, last week called for their attendance and committed up to $240,000 to underwrite the costs of transporting them to Sydney.

Its call to action, which was first initiated by Local Aboriginal Land Councils in the Sydney Newcastle region, followed the introduction by the Baird Government to the State Parliament on October 21 of a bill which, it claims, will ensure the “certainty and consistency” of continued access to the State’s beaches for all citizens of NSW and their ongoing environmental management.

The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) says, if passed by the Parliament, the bill will effectively extinguish hundreds of undetermined Aboriginal land claims and undermine the intent of the State’s 30-year-old lands rights legislation – laws which seeks to compensate Aboriginal people for the historical dispossession of their land through the right to claim vacant crown land.

The touchstone for the land rights fight heading to the beaches is a 57-page judgment handed down by Justice Malcolm Craig in the NSW Land and Environment Court on Christmas Eve last year.

After a 20-year battle, he granted an Aboriginal land claim over an area known as Red Rock.

The decision meant the land, which included a significant stretch of beach and foredune, was transferred under freehold title to the Coffs Harbour District Local Aboriginal Land Council, subject to easements for public access.

The State Government had the right to appeal the decision until early this year.

It chose not to.

Instead, according to the NSWALC, it set about secretly drafting the Crown Lands Amendment (Public Ownership of Beaches and Coastal Lands) Bill to legislate out of existence the legal ramifications of Justice Craig’s decision.

The current Chairperson of the NSWALC, Craig Cromelin, says the State Government made no attempt to consult with the peak body over the bill before its surprise introduction in State Parliament by the Minister for Crown Lands, Kevin Humphries.

The peak body, which is charged under the State’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act with advising the Government on land rights, was also given no warning of its introduction into the Parliament by Humphries.

In a public statement issued on October 24 Cromelin all but claimed the peak body had been politically mugged by Humphries, and the parliament deliberately misled by him.

Cromelin said Humphries told Parliament the Bill was necessary to “ensure certainty and consistency in beach access and environmental management”.

Minister Humphries, Cromelin said, had neglected to inform Parliament the Red Rock land was only returned to Aboriginal people subject to public access in perpetuity.

“I think the lack of consultation and the misleading nature of Minister Humphries speech was deliberate,” he added.

“There is not a single example in NSW of an Aboriginal land claim preventing public access to a beach and Minister Humphries knows that.”

Cromelin went on to say the peak body had told the NSW Government it “is always keen to discuss mechanisms to address any concerns the Government may have had as a result of rulings like the one on Red Rock.”

How this message was communicated to the Government, by whom, when, and to whom, is not outlined in Cromelin’s statement.

The statement is also silent on whether the peak body had sought any specific assurances from Premier Mike Baird, Minister Humphries, or any other Cabinet Ministers, that they would not be seeking to draft legislation to override the decision by Justice Craig when it became clear at the beginning of this year the Crown did not intend to exercise its rights to appeal in the face of his detailed and complex judgment.

The Crown’s decision not to do so, and its subsequent public silence on the landmark decision, should have set loud alarm bells ringing for the political and administrative leadership at the NSWALC.

The fact that the NSWALC has been politically blind-sided raises important questions for LALC members in the run up to NSWALC’s own elections in August next year.

New Matilda formally asked the NSWALC last week if it had sought any such assurances and, if so when.

NSWALC did not respond by the time of publication.

Its silence strongly suggests it did not.

Demonstrators protest the new bill in Sydney today. Photo: Amy McQuire.

Cromelin’s public statement was also curiously silent on another salient fact.

Immediately after Humphries sat down, having just tossed his political hand grenade into the Parliament, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Victor Dominello got to his feet.

He did so to deliver a second reading speech to introduce the Aboriginal Land Rights Amendment Bill 2014.

This must have left casual observers in the Parliament scratching their heads.

Dominello told the Parliament his bill, if passed, would result in a number of significant and important amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 which flowed from an exhaustive statutory review of the Act.

Dominello said he was proud say the review and the bill were a “true demonstration of this Government’s commitment to working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal people.”

He continued to pile on the rhetoric and wax lyrical about the “extensive” consultation which had been undertaken by the government with Aboriginal people inside and outside the land rights network and about the role NSWALC, and others, had played with government in the drafting of the bill.

The Government, he continued, was committed to a vision of “equal partnership” between it and Aboriginal people.

If he was aware of the intent and implications of what had just gone down in the Humphries speech, it is nowhere reflected in the Hansard.

If you happened to miss the Humphries speech but heard Dominello’s you’d swear the Government, the land rights movement and its peak body, were just one big happy family.

It’s hard to believe both bills could have been produced out of the same State Cabinet.

And here’s the rub.

Cromelin, his Council, and the NSWALC’s senior bureaucrats have spent the best part of this year cosying up to Dominello, a junior Minister.

It has decried “activism” and adopted a policy of appeasement towards the Baird and Abbott Governments.

To what end?

As a member of Cabinet, Dominello must have known about the existence of the Humphries Bill.

Cromelin’s public statements make it abundantly clear, without saying so, that Dominello failed to give the peak body and the land rights movement any prior warning of the Humphries Bill.

Well-placed sources have told New Matilda serious questions are now being asked within the land rights movement about the political acumen of Cromelin and his Council.

Cromelin’s public statements on the Humphries Bill will do little to allay their fears.

Those statements have called on LALC members and supporters to take action by attending today’s demonstration and by lobbying all parties in both Houses of Parliament to oppose the Bill.

They’d be wasting their time talking to members of the LNP Government.

Cromelin has also sought a public commitment from Premier Baird that the Humphries Bill will not “prevent or reduce,” unused Crown Land that is available for claim under the Land Rights Act.

Fat chance, Chairman. That’s what the Bill is all about.

Minister Humphries made this abundantly clear in his speech to the Parliament.

It’s all about stopping the ‘marauding blackfella’s’ laying claim to any more beaches.

Humphries told Parliament Aboriginal land claims now in existence placed in question “the ownership of more than 600 kilometres of beaches and coastline along New South Wales.”

The bill, if passed will knock them out, along with the Red Rock title.

Today’s public demonstration ahead of further debate in the Parliament should send a clear message to all politicians from the land rights movement if it is well attended.

However, Cromelin, his Council, and their advisers would far better serve that movement by advising LALC members to concentrate their post-demo protest efforts on the key Independents in the Legislative Council.

With only a couple of sitting weeks left before State parliament is due to rise on November 27 ahead of the State Election, the Government will seek to guillotine debate and rush through the Humphries Bill.

The Legislative Council will ultimately determine the future of the bill.

Realistically, that’s where the pre-election horse-trading over the future of the bill, and land rights, will begin and end… and the balance of power is held by the Shooters and Fishers party.

* Brian Johnstone was employed as a media and political strategist at the NSWALC for 11 years until April 2014.

New Matilda

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