NSW Postpones Land Rights Amendments But Victory Cries Premature


The NSW government has advised Aboriginal Land Councils it does not intend to proceed with a controversial bill to extinguish Aboriginal land claims over the state’s beaches during the final sittings of the NSW Parliament before the state election in March next year.

New Matilda has been informed the Crown Lands Minister Kevin Humphries phoned the Chief Executive Officer of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, Sean Gordon last night to inform him the government would not be proceeding with the bill during the current sittings of the Parliament subject to consultations with Aboriginal leaders.

The embarrassing capitulation by Humphries came only hours after he met with a group of leaders from Local Aboriginal Land Councils, their peak body New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), 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 NSWALC, 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.

Last night the NSW Aboriginal Land Council posted on its Facebook page the Baird government was withdrawing the bill.

“Respect to NSW Premier Mike Baird for your leadership in withdrawing the Crown Lands Amendment Bill today. People power achieved this successful outcome and so enormous gratitude to all the Local Aboriginal Land Council representatives who travelled near and far to oppose the Bill," it said.

The post has been shared almost 100 times and notched up nearly 300 likes. However, the political battle is far from over.

In the absence of any formal public announcement from Humphries and public claims within the land council movement the Bill had been “withdrawn” in a victory for “people power” New Matilda sought a statement from the Minister’s office today on the future of the bill. It has received a carefully crafted three paragraph statement which reads:

“The NSW Government has postponed debate in the NSW Parliament on the Crown Lands Amendment (Public Ownership of Beaches and Coastal Lands) Bill 2014.

The NSW Government will conduct further consultation with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) and other Aboriginal.

The Government remains firmly committed to the notion that the State’s beaches belongs to every resident of NSW and should not be privatised.”

This simply means the bill has not been “withdrawn”. It means the Government will not proceed with the second reading debate on the bill in the current session of the Parliament.

It’s a strategic, although embarrassing, withdrawal by Humphries 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 on October 21.

Those include the possibility the provisions of the bill could breach the Racial Discrimination Act and could, if passed by State Parliament in its current from, trigger a High Court challenge.

New Matilda has sighted a number of briefing papers which were provided to a number of Opposition MPs yesterday, which 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 reading speech introducing the Bill, Minister Humphries said the legislation was necessary to "ensure certainty and consistency in beach access and environmental management".

Humphries, who was still publicly defending the Bill yesterday 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 “postponement” of the bill is a quick and early “victory" for those opposed to the Humphries bill it is clear from his statement to New Matilda that the horse trading on the Red Rock decision has only just begun….. in the shadow of an election campaign.

*Brian Johnstone and Amy McQuire were former employees of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC).

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