WA Liberals grab Aboriginal land for Woodside

While Liberal leader Tony Abbott postures as the champion of Aboriginal land rights (see Wild Rivers article), Western Australian Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has begun proceedings to compulsorily acquire James Price Point—7457 hectares of pristine coastline in the Western Australian Kimberleys. The land will be used by Woodside Petroleum to build a $30 billion gas processing plant.

Technically “Vacant Crown Land”, the area is the subject of yet to be determined Native Title claim. Negotiations over the plant have­­, until now, included the Kimberley Land Council (KLC).
Under Native Title law, Traditional Owners do not have the right to block development of the gas plant, only to negotiate crumbs from Woodside’s table (see here). The acquisition would take the KLC out of negotiations completely.

The proposed gas field lies 400km off the coast. It is possible to pipe the gas to existing processing plants in the Pilbara, but this would cost more

Throughout negotiations, both business and government have shamefully linked the “viability” of Aboriginal communities in the region to the project.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin routinely supports the Intervention’s attacks on Aboriginal rights in the NT with the excuse that they are in the interests of Aboriginal children. Barnett sings from the same songsheet in justifying his landgrab in WA:

“I know people will see this interview and say, you know, he’s only after development, he doesn’t care about the environment, doesn’t care about the Aborigines. Well, I’d say to people away from Western Australia, you go up there and look in the face of those little children and you tell them what you can offer them”.

According to Woodside boss Don Voelte this potentially $50 billion dollar project is “not about the dollars”:

“That’s not the point. The point is what are you doing to the community? What are you doing to healthcare in the area? What are we doing with education in the area?”

Former Federal Court Judge Murray Wilcox asked the obvious question: “Why aren’t the Aborigines of the Kimberley entitled to have their health and education needs met from taxpayer funds the same way as we in other parts of Australia expect to have those needs met?” Of the $50 billion on offer for Woodside, only $1 billion over the 30-year life of the project has ever been offered for Aboriginal communities.

Divide and rule
Negotiations over the gas plant have bitterly divided Aboriginal people in the Kimberley. Already among Australia’s poorest people, the same pressures facing Aboriginal communities across Australia are also biting hard in WA, such as the closure of Community Development Employment Projects, the attempt to “mainstream” Aboriginal organisations and the concentration of resources into “hub towns”.

Pro-business leaders of the KLC have been negotiating with Woodside and the state government for two years, trying to get reassurances about a compensation package to fund Aboriginal job creation and much-needed training and services.

Despite there being no right to veto under Native Title, other Traditional Owners such as Joseph Roe are mounting a fight to stop this project going ahead. Senior Aboriginal lawmen met in 2005 and agreed that there was no site that could host a gas plant without disturbing the song-lines that connect sites of cultural significance across the coast. Despite this, the KLC invited Woodside back to the table in 2007.

They then tried to discredit Roe’s Native Title claim (lodged with the assistance of the KLC 15 years earlier) in an attempt to rush through a deal in April 2009. These sorts of divisions are fostered by the operations of the Native Title system. They have now become Barnett’s excuse for seizing the land.

But Barnett’s takeover has, temporarily at least, thrown the KLC and opponents of the project back into the same camp. National public opposition to the takeover has swelled with musicians Missy Higgins and John Butler, as well as Getup! joining the Greens and environmental groups opposing the James Price project. Six unions including the AMWU, ETU and MUA have banned any involvement in the project until it has Aboriginal approval.

The risk is that under pressure from Barnett the KLC will roll over and sign an agreement, allowing development to go ahead. But any agreement signed under these conditions would be a joke.

Barnett and the Kimberley gas plant should be opposed unequivocally. And we need to demand fully funded services, housing and jobs under Aboriginal control so the Liberals and the bosses can’t hold Aboriginal communities to ransom.

By Jean Parker


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