Plea to drive indigenous business from Richie Ahmat

17 Jun 2015 12:00 AM - Publication: The Australian - Michael McKenna

Aboriginal leaders are calling for a new wave of land rights reform to boost economic development in indigenous communities and build on the native title legislation they say has been undermined by bureaucracy.

In the opening address to the National Native Title Conference last night, Cape York Land Council chairman Richie Ahmat said indigenous leaders needed to push for a strengthening of property rights and changes to government policy that focused on economic development rather than welfare.

Speaking to 700 delegates at the conference in Port Douglas, Mr Ahmat said Cape York communities, despite having native title or Aboriginal freehold over large tracts of the peninsula, were limited in what they could do on the land.

He said while recognition of native title more than two decades ago had ensured access to ­traditional lands, it was no longer enough.

“The main drawback is that ­native title is not land ownership in a modern sense,’’ he said.

“Native title is not registered on states’ land title registers, so it restricts mainstream economic activity. The main economic benefit of native title is if other parties want to do something economic on the land. So land reform, ­including so-called property rights, is important.’’

The speech came just a month after a meeting of 40 indigenous leaders in Broome that canvassed the need to put property rights at the centre of the indigenous ­agenda.

The meeting heard excessive regulation, crippling development costs, inequitable systems of compensation and legislative amendments introduced by successive governments had undermined land rights and native title, denying Aborigines the ability to exercise their property rights.

Mr Ahmat said leaders would be pushing for land reform on a “Cape York-wide basis’’ where freehold land tenure was only just being trialled in several Aboriginal communities. But Mr Ahmat said the necessary reforms might differ from region to region.

“In our region, we’d like to see land reform achieved on a Cape York-wide basis and negotiated with the land council, Balkanu (corporation) and the shires,’’ he said. “This ­reform would be part of a wider settlement that will empower our communities, provide us with control over our lands, and ensure we can use our land for economic development — just like everyone else in Australia.’’

Cape York leader Noel Pearson is expected to announce more details of the proposed reforms ­tomorrow at the conference.

In recent months, traditional owners have refused to agree to a state proposal to turn large tracts of former pastoral land into ­national parks. The traditional owners have argued that it should join other land that is being turned into Aboriginal freehold and can be used for development.

“We believe emphatically that we should decide if our lands are to be developed or conserved, and we utterly oppose governments making those decisions without our consent,’’ Mr Ahmat said.

He also said the $30 billion in taxpayer funds spent annually on indigenous services could be better used and directed at empowering communities.

Government needed to engage companies and overhaul policy that helped enshrine welfare ­dependency. “We believe things must change, or the slow pace of progress will continue to hold back aspirations for land and ­enterprise,’’ Mr Ahmat said.

“To achieve this, we must be empowered. There is no point pouring endless amounts of money into programs that do not allow indigenous peoples to control our own lives, property and destinies.’’

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