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Hearings into Darwin's Middle Arm development hears of economic benefits and cultural risks

Dechlan Brennan -

 

An inquiry into the Middle Arm development on Darwin harbour has seen NT Chief Minister Eva Lawler argue the development is a massive economic opportunity for the Territory, as Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe questioned her over the permission of the project from Traditional Owners. 

The Senate inquiry is looking to examine the proposed industrial development, as well as the process that led to the federal government’s decision to take $1.5 billion equity in the project.

Over two days, Senators are hearing from groups with an interest in the project, including the NT government, as well as the Larrakia Traditional Owners, health workers and scientists who are concerned about any resulting environmental and health impacts. 

Larrakia Elder Lorraine Williams, representing the Indigenous-owned organisation Uprising of the People raised concerns about the project, as well as the consultation processes with Traditional Owners. 

She noted some of the information presented was not always the easiest to understand. 

"They stand up and they give a quick presentation that's got lots of words on it and hardly any photos," she said, mirroring concerns from other Traditional Owners who have queried the environmental impacts as well as potential impacts on sacred sites.

However, Ms Lawler highlighted the economic benefits that would come to the NT, telling opponents of the project “you can’t complain about a wait time at a hospital or funding for education if you don’t support Middle Arm”.

Modelling by consulting firm EY has said the Middle Arm project would bring in $200-$700 million in annual taxes for the NT, as well as between $700 million and $2.4 billion for the federal government. 

The project will also create up to 20,000 jobs for Territorians, according to modelling. 

"So, when we're quibbling over a $1.5 billion investment by the federal government in equity into this project ... I think that's a pretty good damn investment," Ms Lawler said. 

"A good government works to be able to stand on its own two feet and that is the dream of the Northern Territory, that one day we won't be reliant on constant federal funding."

There has been controversy surrounding Middle Arm because it has been labelled a sustainable development despite being linked to new gas projects, with Ms Lawler declined to rule out if her government would support a petrochemicals industry.

She told the inquiry: “Middle Arm provides the opportunity for energy for industry…whether it’s renewables or it’s gas (LNG)”.

The chief minister said the proposed industrial site was a “change in direction” for the NT, and would lead to increased population, GST benefits and “ongoing secure jobs for Territorians”.

In a testy exchange with Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe, Ms Lawler was asked to clarify what steps had been taken to consult with the Larrakia people, in particular the government submission which stated they were taking a “a Larrakia led approach, adhering to the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent throughout the life of the project".

“Your government have said that you follow the principles of free prior and informed consent. You said that - so what does that mean? Tell me what it means? Explain that to me,” Senator Thorpe asked. 

In response, Ms Lawler said her government had strong relationships with the Larrakia people but noted she didn’t “see the relevance” on the question of free, prior and informed consent specifically as the Larrakia people don’t hold Native Title rights, and the project will be on crown land. 

"There is no Native Title on that site and so that land is crown land or land that's owned by the Land Development Corporation in Northern Territory," the chief minister said.

"Land for all Territorians."

She maintained the Middle Arm proposal was safe and its benefits outweigh risks, despite doctors against the proposal citing studies arguing petrochemical plants result in a 30 per cent increased risk of leukaemia for populations within 5km.

Paediatrician Dr Louise Woodward told the inquiry she had “major concerns” surrounding the health outcomes from the project. 

“The health impacts are serious to the surrounding populations, and my opinion is backed up with scientific evidence,” Dr Woodward said, arguing she needed to speak out as she hadn’t heard enough on the health impacts from the government. 

The National Land Council (NLC) also appeared at the inquiry, and said they were aware some members of the NLC were being paid by private companies in a private capacity, which hadn’t been declared. 

CLC chair Matthew Ryan said he wasn’t happy about this.

“There are some members that should be declaring…we are looking into it, and we are going to take it seriously,” he said. 

In their submission, the NLC said they had held meetings with the Larrakia people last year, who “expressed concerns about the impact that the Middle Arm Industrial Precinct would have on their spiritual and cultural interest in the area; as well as the potential impact to existing agreements entered into over the area".

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price was highly critical of the hearing taking place, and said the process gave a voice to “those who are hellbent on destroying the Northern Territory’s economy and opportunities for our most marginalised, Indigenous Australians”.

“The rest of the country somehow seem to think that we should be kept as museum pieces here in northern Australia, that we should not be allowed to progress and move forward with the rest of the world to create economic opportunities (and) economic independence," the NT Senator said. 

“This whole process so far has been more of a circus than I would suggest it has been a Senate inquiry.”

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