The NSW government has formally withdrawn a controversial bill which sought to extinguish Aboriginal land claims over the state’s beaches and coastline.
The Leader of the National Party and Deputy Premier Troy Grant moved a motion in State Parliament yesterday to formally withdraw the Crown Lands Amendment (Public Ownership of Beaches and CoastalLands) Bill 2014. and have it discharged.
The Bill had been introduced less than two weeks ago by the Crown Lands Minister Kevin Humphries without any consultation with Aboriginal land Councils.
New Matilda reported yesterday Humphries had phoned the Chief Executive Officer of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, Sean Gordon on Monday night to inform him the government would not be proceeding with the bill at this time.
The embarrassing capitulation by Humphries came only hours after he met with a group of leaders from Local Aboriginal Land Councils, their peak body, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, and their legal advisors in his Parliament House office.
That meeting followed a land rights rally, organised by LALCs from the Sydney Newcastle region, and financially unwritten by the peak body, which shut down Macquarie Street a few hours earlier.
The rally was called last week after Humphries introduced the controversial bill without any prior consultation with Aboriginal people, or others outside government and signalled the Baird Government’s intention to rush it through the last scheduled sitting weeks of the Parliament before the State election in March.
Despite formally discharging the Bill, which had been approved by State Cabinet, Humphries has clearly signalled the government’s intention to seek to block Aboriginal and claims over beaches and coastline.
In the absence of any formal public announcement before yesterday’s parliamentary sittings from Humphries and public claims within the land council movement the Bill had been “withdrawn,” in a victory for “people power” New Matilda sought a statement from the Minister’s office on the future of the bill.
It received a three paragraph statement which read: “The NSW Government has postponed debate in the NSW Parliament on “The NSW Government will conduct further consultation with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) and other Aboriginal land councils.
“The Government remains firmly committed to the notion that the State’s beaches belongs to every resident of NSW and should not be privatised.”
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council yesterday released a statement saying it was still concerned and would keep the land rights network informed.
"We call on the Government to respectfully deal with Land Rights and start from scratch by genuinely consulting with Aboriginal people before any changes are made to the way crown lands in NSW are managed" NSWALC Chair Craig Cromelin said.
It’s a strategic, although embarrassing, withdrawal by Humphries and the government in the face of mounting anger within the land rights movement, and growing concerns about the possible legal implications of the bill which have become increasingly apparent since its proposed provisions were first publicly revealed by Humphries in the Parliament on October 21.
Those implications include the possibility the provisions of the bill, as drafted, could have breached the Racial Discrimination Act and could – if passed by State Parliament in its current form – trigger a potential High Court challenge.
New Matilda has sighted a number of briefing papers which were provided to opposition MPs. They draw on legal advice raising the potential violation of the RDA and the possibility of a challenge in the High Court.
The catalyst for the Humphries bill was the settlement of a 20-year land claim over Red Rock beach by Coffs Harbour LALC.
The claim was first knocked back by the Lands Minister in 2009, nearly two decades after it was first lodged in 1993. The LALC appealed and won in the Land and Environment Court last year.
The land, of deep cultural significance to blackfellas, was only returned on the basis it be subject to public access to perpetuity.
The government chose not to appeal the decision at the time, and instead is now seeking to extinguish land claims over all coast areas, not just Red Rock. In his second reading speech introducing the Bill, Minister Humphries said the legislation was necessary to "ensure certainty and consistency in beach access and environmental management."
Humphries failed to tell the Parliament the Coffs Harbour LALC could not restrict public access to the beach.
There is no case in the state where a land council is able to restrict public access to coastal areas.
While the discharge of the original Humphries Bill is a quick and early victory for those opposed to it, it would appear the political horse trading on the Red Rock decision has only just begun… in the shadow of an election campaign.
* Brian Johnstone and Amy McQuire are both former employees of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
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