Comment on the Proposed Changes to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 Print

There is legislation proposed for tomorrow (Tuesday 2 December 2014) in the South Australian Parliament to make major changes to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (APY Land Rights Act). This Act is the legacy of the Don Dunstan reformist government.

The effect of these changes is that the Minister will be able to suspend the democratically elected APY Executive Board for ‘any reason, he or she thinks fit’ and appoint an Administrator. It means that the state government can seize control of the APY Lands at any time and without regard to the wishes of Anangu, who own the land. These changes will reduce the self-determination for Anangu embedded in the original Act, to a toothless tiger, effectively turning the clock back 30 years to the days of “…the Aboriginal Superintendent.”

 A cynical view is that the government wants to get rid of the current barriers to decisions over major infrastructure projects including roads and mining. Notably there are major government funded road developments and mining negotiations waiting in the wings. The government is clearly frustrated by the so called lack of ‘progress’. However hidden in this frustration is their convenient blind spot to their own protracted bureaucratic processes and delays and the tiresome tendency to push through jobs at the last minute with the ‘gun against the head approach’ amounting to a threat that if traditional owners don’t respond immediately, they will lose funding and associated opportunities. This clumsy and repetitious government model is impervious to the cultural sensitivities of working in the context of classical Anangu traditions; where English is the second language and adequate time and resources for decision making is mandatory to the process of strong governance and informed consent (endorsed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous).

Over the years the SA Government has starved APY of the staffing resources required to uphold and support stable governance and the adequate mechanism that enable informed consent to its constituents. APY has some minimal drip feed funding that keeps the lights on. Currently there is no legal division, community development, cultural liaison, Anangu project or field officers. These roles are assumed to be the basic infrastructure needed to operate in comparable Aboriginal corporations just over the border in WA and the NT such as Ngaanyatjarra Council, Central Desert Native Title Services and Central Land Council. By comparison these corporations have well-resourced legal and administrative units. It is notable that APY has not had a legal section for several years and yet it is expected to respond to external stakeholders and mining agreements.

The SA Labor Government pours staggering amounts of Federal and State funds in to SA Government positions supposedly servicing the APY Lands. From the perspective of those living on the lands there appears to be an abundance of SA Government service providers many of whom regularly travel at great expense to and from the lands in their well equipped cars (or chartered aeroplanes), to their nicely catered accommodation, to and from their well-equipped air-conditioned public service offices. While APY is the main stay of local governance, it struggles to get offices and housing for local staff up to a basic safety standard.

Notably SA Government representatives from numerous departments frequently undermine APY governance by ignoring the processes set out for external stakeholders and acting as if they already have a mandate to control the provision of information and decisions. They often seem oblivious to the difference between government decision making and Aboriginal self-determination blurring the distinctions and presenting their interests as one and the same. In contrast industries such as mineral exploration companies engage in governance processes through negotiations with Anangu. They understand that gaining informed consent is the best way to achieve good outcomes, rather than engaging in 'backdoor conversations' that undermine informed consent and local decision making. Locals in the APY Lands are often confused, worn out and tired of battling this arrogant onslaught on a daily basis year in year out.

We are told that the changes to the Land Rights Act to be rushed through SA Parliament tomorrow are in response to alleged corruption of the APY Executive. If these allegations have a basis and there have been breaches of criminal or corporations law, why haven’t relevant authorities briefed on the matter announced investigations or prosecutions? Just because something is written in The Australian doesn’t mean it is so. Why is the SA Government trying to change laws when it has not exhausted existing laws to address their concerns about APY? The actions of the SA Government reveal its primary aim: Not to address corruption by using existing law, but to seize control of the APY Lands by changing the law.

The SA Government is deciding to appoint an Administrator on yet to be substantiated corruption allegations. At the same time they are going to enact changes to the Land Rights Act that have to date been rejected by the yet to be ‘suspended’ Anangu elected mandate. It could be viewed that they are deliberately conflating and thereby confusing corruption allegations with proposed reforms to the APY Act so as to create a smoke screen to push through legislation that gives them greater power over APY freehold land. By default this would include the final say over decisions concerning major development projects, notably including the recently announced 106 million dollar road upgrade and pending mining negotiations.

This cloak and dagger manoeuvre has been greatly facilitated by negative reporting on the APY Chairman by the journalist, Michael Owen in The Australian (monopoly Murdoch Press). There has been no media reporting to date on the possible underhandedness of the SA Government. Nor that their neglect over the years has led to an eroded organisation that lacks resources.

By way of comparison the current clash between the Barnett government and Aboriginal Corporations in WA over the closure of remote communities, has been given significant airplay due to Aboriginal organisations in the west having legal and media officers that ensure another version of events reaches the press. In South Australia (and ironically under the SA Australian Labor Government) there is to date no balanced air play of the above pertinent Aboriginal land rights issue. Instead it appears to be a covert and strategically underhanded attack by State government on a people who have few resources to fight back and staggeringly little access to media coverage which is an essential part of democracy. It is a silent killing of rights hard won by Anangu in the 70’s and extremely sad to witness for anybody who still cares about a vision of Aboriginal self-determination.

What is happening in the APY lands and has been happening for some time is retrograde and morally reprehensible.