Joel Gibson Indigenous Affairs Reporter, smh
December 28, 2008
ABORIGINES and the NSW Government are at war in the courts over the fate of unused crown land worth billions.
The Government has lost 11 out of 13 appeals against rejected land claims in the past 18 months as Aborigines fight to take back land the Government wants to sell to close its billion-dollar budget black hole.
Land rights officials are accusing the Government of racial discrimination because of the hard line it is taking against Aboriginal groups.
But it will not let up, with two crucial new cases due to come before the Land and Environment Court next year. Neither side would reveal the legal cost of the war, which went to the High Court for the first time in October, but it is understood to be in the millions.
Under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, Aboriginal land councils in NSW are able to claim unused Crown land on behalf of their members as compensation for their dispossession two centuries ago. But the state's economic woes have forced the Government to adopt a policy, since 2003, of selling it.
A game of real estate cat and mouse has developed, where Aboriginal land councils scour parish maps in search of claimable Crown land. When land is listed in the real estate pages or the Government Gazette, they have until a sale is made to lodge a claim.
The High Court found in October that a disused Wagga Wagga motor registry could be claimed, even though it was for sale.
Two cases in the Land and Environment Court early next year - over blocks in East Lindfield and North Kempsey - will determine whether a notice must appear in the Government Gazette before land is sold, which would make it almost impossible to list it for sale without attracting a land claim.
Other claims to be decided include a section of North Head and a Kiama courthouse. There were just 358 claims before 2000 but there are more than 16,000 now. A quarter have been refused but more than half await assessment.
Meanwhile, the Government has processed successful claims so slowly a 2007 report said it would take more than 20 years to transfer title to more than $1 billion of land already granted to Aborigines.
Geoff Scott, chief executive of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, said his organisation was considering mounting a racial discrimination case against the Government.
"The Department of Lands policy is to protect the state's assets against marauding blacks. It's as simple as that," he said.
He said land councils wanted to be joint venture partners with the Government, so that both parties reaped the benefits of development.
But the Government says its hands are tied. A Department of Lands spokesman said the Land Rights Act did not give the minister discretion in deciding land claims.
"Lands [Department] will be talking to Aboriginal land council groups and other stakeholders to explore other courses of action. However, there are strong legislative requirements imposed on the minister," he said.
But Steve Wright, the registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, said claims had been decided by mediation in the past. "There are ways to negotiate this."
IN ABORIGINAL HANDS
Wagga Wagga A motor registry not used since the 1980s. Warringah Shire Most of Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council's estimated $60 million estate. Kellyville Deerubbin Land Council planning the development of 158 residential blocks on a parcel of claimed land. North Entrance A 101-hectare claim was sold to Mirvac, which built the Magenta Shores golf course and resort. Byron Bay 24 blocks, valued at $100 million, granted to settle a native title claim in 2007. Menai 750 hectares granted to Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council in 1999. Morisset 1146 hectares near Morisset Hospital granted in 1995. Stockton Beach Eight parcels of land (total of about 750 hectares) granted in 2002.
TO BE DECIDED
Former government facility at North Head; old courthouse at Kiama; unused public tennis courts at Yanco; land at East Lindfield and North Kempsey.