Indigenous Affairs Minister won’t grant NT Aboriginal river land until access terms are clear

Updated March 29, 2019 19:21:35

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has given amateur fishermen a guarantee that he will not grant long-running Aboriginal land claims until questions over how to ensure their continued fishing access are answered.

Key points:

  • Nigel Scullion says he won’t grant recommended land claims without more clarity for fishing and pastoral groups
  • The recreational fishers want all the best possible access deal options put on the table for traditional owners
  • Senator Scullion says he’s confident whoever replaces him at the federal election will take the same stand

Mr Scullion addressed the annual general meeting of the Amateur Fishermen’s Association NT (AFANT) in Darwin on Thursday night.

He told the group he disagreed with the Federal Aboriginal Land commissioner on how he should proceed in granting the claims.

Commissioner John Mansfield has recommended the Minister grant the 16 claims on the basis of assurances from the Northern Land Council (NLC) that a permit and licence system would ensure continued access for anglers, commercial fishermen and pastoralists.

But Senator Scullion told the association’s meeting that he would not approve the claims until he is clear that any permit system would not unfairly disadvantage the recreational fishing community.

“I can make a commitment that I will not be granting Aboriginal land unless these detriment issues are resolved,” he said.

“That should be unsurprising.”

With the federal election fast approaching, Senator Scullion said he was “sure” any other decision-maker taking up the position after him would also not grant the land before there was clarity that fishers would still get access to prime spots.

Minister ‘differs with the commissioner’

The long-running claims, some of them lodged almost two decades ago, are over the beds and banks and pastoral land surrounding parts of some of the Northern Territory’s most popular fishing rivers.

Aboriginal ownership of the land under all the claims has been established and traditional owners will have control over who accesses the land and waters if the Minister signs off on their granting.

Senator Scullion told Thursday night’s meeting he needed more confidence that pastoralists would be able to continue to operate cattle stations on affected land before he granted the claims.

“There is a notion that there is a document that would rent or lease to pastoralists in perpetuity to remove any doubt about their capacity to continue to work, and the commissioner recommended that I go ahead with the grant on the basis of that,” he said.

“Where I differ from the [land] commissioner is that the Land Council at this stage aren’t able to have an agreement of all those traditional owners in all of those areas.

“Any decision-maker will have to have that document in hand, and those processes in hand, before a decision is made.”

He said a third condition before he granted any land claims was clarity from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority about the impact sacred sites in the claim areas may have over access agreements.

‘Is that the best deal that can be offered?’

AFANT’s chief executive David Ciaravolo said there must be much more discussion with Indigenous traditional owners and governments before any permit scheme was settled.

He said traditional owners should be presented with all of the best mutually beneficial options to consider.

“Is a trickle of permit revenue, that gets absorbed into administration and other costs, the only way forward?” he said.

“We’re not saying it’s not a way forward, but some of these areas — the Roper, the Daly, the McArthur — these are recreational fishing meccas in the Northern Territory, in the world.

“People travel to come fishing here, they have a value — is that the best deal that can be offered?”

Mr Ciaravolo said the NLC had not yet given enough detail about its plans for a permit scheme and proof that it was acceptable to all traditional owners.

‘Long way to go’ on Blue Mud Bay negotiations

NT Primary Industries Minister Paul Kirby told the meeting there was still no certainty about when a deal on fishing access to Indigenous-owned coastal waters under the Blue Mud Bay High Court decision, after more than a decade of negotiations.

The NLC extended permission for open access to the affected waters until June.

AFANT president Warren de With said he “very much doubted” the access issues could be resolved before the federal election, after which Senator Scullion will retire from the federal Parliament.

Mr de With said he expected there would have to be much more negotiation, on both access to Blue Mud Bay waters and the river regions beds and banks.

“There’s a long way to go before we have any outcomes,” he said.

Mr de With said it was possible an agreement on access under Blue Mud Bay could also be the basis for access to the river regions.

He said AFANT was “very pleased” with the negotiations progress.

Permit system consultations still to be held

The Northern Land Council’s interim chief executive Jak Ah Kit said the body has yet to consult traditional owners over what kind of permit and licence systems they would want for the river regions.

“In regards to those permits and licences we have a responsibility to consult with our traditional owners,” he said.

Mr Ah Kit said it was “a possibility” that a common access regime could be agreed for use, for both coastal waters under Blue Mud Bay, and the river beds and banks.

“There’s no rush for the permit system, there’s no rush for licences,” he said.

“If we can get this and put this to bed by the end of the year we’ve done well.”

Mr Ah Kit said he was hopeful he would be able to report good progress to traditional owners when the full Land Council meets again in June.

Topics: fishing-aquaculture, land-rights, darwin-0800, katherine-0850, nhulunbuy-0880, wadeye-0822

First posted March 29, 2019 12:49:54

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