The dominant discourse in native title amendments is that of … coal?
In June 2015, the Australian Law Reform Commission handed down its final report into the Native Title Act. Amongst its recommendations was the amendment of provisions for the process of authorising Indigenous land use agreements (‘ILUAs’).
Coinciding with the ALRC Report, the Northern Development White Paper proposed a fund to settle all native title claims within a decade.
There has been no response to either the Report and the White Paper that might indicate just how native title processes might be improved, let alone settled, in the short or medium term. All of a sudden however, native title reform is back in vogue. But the heat of debate over proposed changes to ILUA authorisation masks what is at stake.
I have just spent a stimulating and inspiring two days at ANU College of Law in a consultation workshop as part of an important research project into Indigenous cultural competency for legal academics led by Marcelle Burns of UNE. The project is funded by the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Office of Learning and Teaching. This is a project of substance, and of national importance. The standing of the project leaders and those who participated in the workshop is testament to this.
I emerged from this overall positive discourse to news that former Prime Minister John Howard found ‘appalling’ the idea of a treaty with Indigenous Australians, and that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed a treaty out of hand. In the first place, Mr Abbott said, a treaty is entered into between two nations – I suppose he means that as a definitional question this is a logical impossibility, for Indigenous Australians hold no seat at the UN (incidentally an institution of which Mr Abbott does not approve). In the second place, Mr Abbott said that going down the path of treaty would spoil the chance for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
These two comments offer a case study in the very issues that occupied our thinking in the workshop. How could it be that two men could rise to be Prime Minister of Australia, senior lawmakers, with such an abject lack of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that sound in inter-cultural competence – a necessity for all professionals but in particular for lawyers.