STORY BY SEBASTIAN NEUWEILER AND TYNE LOGAN
Although Premier Colin Barnett and representatives of the Noongar community this week signed off on a $1.3 billion native title settlement for Perth and the state’s Southwest, there is still a mountain of work to do before Noongar people can benefit.
In 2013, the Western Australian Government presented what it called a “final offer” to the Noongar people to resolve several decade-long native title claims over south-western Australia, including Perth.
Noongar people are the traditional custodians of, and have lived for at least 40,000 years in, the region which is roughly the size of New Zealand.
A vote that had been occurring at meetings conducted in six regional centres since late last year culminated in a poll of the Whadjuk Noongar people in the eastern Perth suburb of Cannington in March.
With all six claimant groups agreeing to the Government’s offer, the Noongar people have – as of this week’s agreement-signing with the government – exchanged their native title rights for formal recognition as the traditional owners of Noongar country and a $1.3 billion package to be put toward land and investments.
In return, the State is slated to make 12 annual payments of $50 million to an independent trust fund from where the money will be distributed to six Noongar corporations to be established to represent the six claim groups – Yued, Gnaala Karla Boodja, South West Boojarah, Wagyl Kaip, Ballardong and Whadjuk.
The votes for each group were held in Gingin, Bunbury, Busselton, Katanning, Northam and Cannington respectively.
The final ‘yes’ vote from the Whadjuk claimant group, representing Noongar people from around the Perth area, means the settlement is now in full swing, with planning for the six new corporations well underway.
Each claimant region will have its own corporation that will run its own agenda, which may include culture, language and re-connection to country.
But South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council operations director Wayne Nannup said the Noongar people could not expect to see any of the money or corporations until “best-case” mid next year.
“Worst case scenario nothing happens for three years,” he said.
“We envision we can have the corporations ready to go early next year.
“From there we start engagement with the communities.
“That will be hard work but that’s the next phase – implementation.”
Mr Nannup said it was insulting for an Aboriginal person to be rejected when bringing a native title claim to court, as has often been the case.
Native title is a form of land title that recognises the unique ties Aboriginal people have to land and, if proven, allows the Aboriginal community a say in what happens on the land.
“To be told ‘you’re not here from sovereignty, you haven’t proven that connection’ is offensive, it’s absolutely offensive,” Mr Nannup said.
Mr Nannup’s passion was echoed on the day of the final meeting by those who voted.
Of an estimated 20,000 eligible voters across the state aged over 18, 1578 votes were cast in total.
This has become an area of concern to some Noongar people, who say this number does not represent a majority vote.
The decision to compress 14 original Noongar clans into six major claimant regions is another area of concern for some Noongar people, particularly those who belong to a clan that is outside of the six suggested claim groups.
This includes Noongar man George Hayden.
Mr Hayden is from the Njakinjaki Noongar group, but under the settlement his group has been included in the Ballardong claimant group.
He said under Article Eight of the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous people, Aboriginal people have “the right to not to be subjected or forced into assimilation”.
He said compressing the claims was denying Noongar people this right and merging the clan groups would see knowledge of the traditional clans become lost.
“I’m not going to sell out my grandkids’ rights, because they have a right to know who they are and where they come from,” he said.
For others, a ‘yes’ vote was the only option.
Whadjuk Noongar Leon Wynne said he was voting ‘yes’ “simply because native title doesn’t work”, referring to lengthy native title processes and limited claim areas.
“It’s not a happy ‘yes’, no one wants to sell their birth rights,” he said, standing beside a group of ‘no’ voters as they held up red, yellow and black signs.
“But we’re colonised and this is the best deal we can get as traditional owners.”
Before voting, Noongar people had to register and prove their connection to the claimant group, which could be done through photo ID or through a panel of elders.
The Noongar elders were able to determine the voter’s connection to the claimant group through their knowledge of Noongar family connections and family names.
If a Noongar person identified with multiple claim groups they were entitled to vote multiple times.
SWALSC administration co-ordinator Tahn Donovan said it was the right to choose that mattered.
“Yes or no, we have a choice – which we haven’t had in a long time,” she said
The result of the votes is now in a three-month objection period where Noongar people can voice any concerns about the voting process and outcomes.
Photos: Sebastian Neuweiler and Tyne Logan