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Sustainability underpins WA's plan to boost Indigenous enterprise

David Prestipino -

Western Australia will take its time handing direct control of more than 20 million hectares of land to remote Indigenous communities to ensure the plan delivers sustainable economic opportunities.

The Western Australian Government confirmed it is drafting legislation to accelerate handover of the land from the Aboriginal Lands Trust to 142 remote communities, where 12,000 Indigenous people live.

The move would smooth the transition for Indigenous enterprise and home ownership and help avoid restrictive land tenure rules that have stymied their growth and blocked Aboriginal people from home ownership for more than 50 years.

Land tenure change for remote Aboriginal communities has been a long-standing bipartisan policy across successive governments since the 1990s, but WA wants to simplify the process to aid Indigenous people with home ownership, employment and enterprise.

WA Liberal MP Neil Thomson, who ran the Aboriginal Lands Trust when he was a public servant, told The Australian there were enough remote communities near mainstrean economies for the reforms to benefit Indigenous people.

But Traditional Owner groups would need to develop local economies, a labour force strategy, attract investment and enter home ownership agreements for the plan to be sustainable.

"What we have is a lot of ministers relying so heavily on public servants who are risk averse ... and unwilling to give things a go," Mr Thomson said.

"This is an environment in which we need to try different things and see what works."

Northern Australia Minister, Madeleine King recently urged a fund be established from mining and resources projects to invest in remote Indigenous housing, with residents making long-term lease payments that deliver a ­profit to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

Recent divestment of some ALT land to Traditional Owners in WA from both sides of government has greatly benefited Indigenous communities and businesses.

In 2022, the famous Kimberley tourism precinct at El Questro was returned to Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation, whose new Indigenous Land Use Agreement with the WA government secured it a nature reserve and freehold title over 165,000 hectares.

That allowed Traditional Owners to divest the station of cattle and lease the freehold portion for 99 years to the previous pastoral lessee, G'day Group, who bought the property in 2021 and said the new WAC lease would open more opportunities to expand and invest than the restrictive pastoral lease.

WAC chair, Arnold Sahanna said at the time the agreement would ensure a sustainable economic base for the Ngarinyin people.

"This is a solid achievement and we hope our young people will see it as a way forward for our community to regain a place at the table of decision making," he said.

Negotiations between WAC and the WA government to transfer the land had been "complex" and taken 18 months, a timeframe WA Labor wants shortened to help accelerate the "economic and social transformation of Aboriginal communities".

"We have seen the positive impacts of land tenure change in places like El Questro in the Kimberley, which has unlocked significant social and economic opportunities," a WA government spokesman told National Indigenous Times this week.

"It is an extremely complex process, and we expect that it will take a very long time to do this.

"No legislative change will happen this year. Consultation is ongoing, and we are looking forward to working closely with the community."

In 2014 the WA Liberal government handed 73 hectares of historically important land held under the ALT to the Bidan community in west Kimberley, with Traditional Owners using the land for tourism and other business ventures.

The WA Government is also considering how other trust lands could be transferred via existing laws, so other Indigenous communities across the state can develop business ventures and attract economic investment.

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