Activists undermine principles of self-determination: Mundine

Warren Mundine
Nyunggai Warren Stephen Mundine AO.

OPINION: By Warren Mundine

Self-determination. Making your own decisions and controlling your own destiny. It is something for which Indigenous people long campaigned.

When I was born, Indigenous people lived under segregation. Laws like NSW’s Aborigines Protection Act controlled all aspects of our lives. Back then welfare boards and protectors told us what we could and could not do. These systems were dismantled after the 1967 referendum. And we turned our sights to other sources of self-determination, like land rights. Eddie Mabo campaigned for recognition of his people’s fundamental and original right to the land and seas on which they’d lived and subsisted since time immemorial. In 1992 he succeeded, the High Court recognising native title.

It changed everything. ­Argu­ably the most significant turning point for Indigenous self-­deter­mination in Australia’s history.

Now, 25 years on, native title fosters Indigenous economic participation by allowing traditional owners to use land as an economic asset. Far from the days of the scare campaign featuring a black hand snatching away Australian land, businesses now work productively with traditional owners to reach Indigenous Land Use Agreements that provide benefits and opportunities in return for ­access to land and waters.

Native title recognition requires traditional owners to prove a continuous connection with the land. So a claimant group is chosen comprising people who will best meet the legal hurdles. They spearhead the claim and represent the traditional owner group as a whole.

All large groups need a structure to make decisions on their ­behalf. Governments represent nations and states. Local councils represent local areas. Companies and boards represent shareholders. Even local sporting clubs have member boards. Representative bodies make decisions on ­behalf of the group. And there are rules to determine how. Citizens vote to elect their representatives. Shareholders and club members elect the board and vote on some decisions. Elected boards or governments are empowered to make decisions on behalf of those they represent. The principle of “majority rules” is essential to this process.

But not for native title claimants. Technicalities in the Native Title Act required that every single claimant group member sign an ILUA. The majority wishes could be stymied if one person disagreed, if someone was coerced to oppose the decision, even if someone died.

Activists had a way to attack mining and infrastructure projects. By getting even one claimant on side they could obstruct the wishes of the majority and campaign against the project under the pretence of Indigenous objections. Native title peak bodies tried to get the law fixed — to no avail. But a 2010 Federal Court decision provided reprieve, saying unanimous signatures weren’t required if the ILUA was properly authorised by the claimant group. This case ­empowered traditional owners to enter into ILUAs and to make ­decisions affecting their interests.

This was reversed by the recent McGlade decision, disempowering Indigenous people again. ­Existing ILUAs are in jeopardy, ­including the $1.3 billion agreement between the West Australian government and the Noongar people. The McGlade decision means that any agreement without the signed ­approval of every desig­nated applicant in the clan’s native title claim is ­invalid, despite majority decisions being accepted for many years.

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis has pledged to rectify this situation.

Indigenous people talk about a treaty. Well, there’s little difference in substance between a treaty and an ILUA entered into with a government. Without fanfare, scare campaigns or referendums, traditional owner groups have been effectively negotiating treaties with state governments. McGlade jeopardises this.

Make no mistake. It’s the greatest threat to Indigenous self-determination in a very long time.

The Adani project has attracted anti-coal activists who are running roughshod over Indigenous self-determination. Adani negotiated ILUAs with half a dozen traditional owner groups, including with the Wangan and Jagalingou people native title claim group, which voted 294 to one in favour of the ILUA permitting construction of the Carmichael rail project. A resounding approval.

But one individual, holding himself out as ­representing the group, challenged the ILUA, demanding unanimous approval. It’s been ­reported the challenge has been ­financially supported by an activist group partly funded out of the US.

Recently on ABC’s The Drum I condemned this disrespect for ­traditional owner decisions. I’d say the same about a decision 294 to one against the ILUA. This isn’t about being pro or anti-coal. It’s about traditional owners making decisions about their own country without meddling by special interests.

I received a barrage of abuse from anti-coal activists on social media, including being called an “Uncle Tom” for being “excessively obedient to whites”. Adani is an Indian company. The traditional owner groups are Aboriginal. The only white people in this scenario are the activists.

These activists are no better than the protectors who told us what to do during the days of segregation. The real colonial ­oppressors are the activists, supported by European and American funders, who have all the privileges of the modern world but would deny Indigenous people using their land as an economic asset, and who expect hundreds of millions of Indians to live without electricity, cooking on dung stoves and dying of respiratory illnesses.

Let Indigenous people exercise the self-determination so many people claim they support.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine chairs the Yaabubiin Institute for Disruptive Thinking. This article first appeared in The Australian.


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7 Comments on Activists undermine principles of self-determination: Mundine

  1. Every organisation has rules, sporting clubs organisation bodies and all members have the right to appeal to any decisions , before a final decision is made of the outcome or taken to an independent jury all objections must be properly and fairly dealt -to do other
    wise is a miscarriage of justice

  2. Rubbish the Gubberment has never really given back any land that is actually of value, they have virtually only given back land they can’t use as a tokenistic gesture.
    Even when the Gubberment does give our mob land back they still stipulate what we can and can’t do in it.
    The only people to have benefited so far are the Gubberrigines that do the Gubberments bidding, and try to mislead our mob to follow Gubberment policies and initiatives…!

    This doesn’t appear to be one person. Now I don’t know who or what to believe. I’m a white activist who totally believes in Indigenous self-determination. I’ve been supporting the Wangan & Jagalingou People in their fight against the Adani mining corporation and now you’re telling me this is only one person?

    • The Wangan and Jagalingou people are fighting to protect what is sacred. They have said no to Adani 3 times already. There are 9 families fighting for their rights against this abhorrent destruction. They are being undermined by people who either want to sell out their land and water for a few lousy low paid jobs, or they are just people who are not really connected, but are claiming just to get the benefits of signing agreements with this mining company. Warren Mundine has never spoken to the tribal council, which comprises of elders and primary traditional owners. If you have questions, ask via their Facebook page or email.

  4. Activists are not trying to undermine Aboriginal rights to negotiate regarding uses of their land. They are concerned about severe damage to the environment.

  5. Funny how people like him (and Trump) use vague phrases like ‘It’s been reported ..’ to support their ridiculous, unsubstantiated opinions. In other words ‘Hey I’m not saying it [was funded by a US activist group], just telling you what someone else said.’

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