An Aboriginal group that became the public face of a celebrity-backed fight against Woodside Petroleum’s now-abandoned $45 billion plan to build a gas hub at James Price Point near Broome have been found not to be traditional owners.
High-profile members of the Goolarabooloo people commanded headlines in a do-or-die battle with the oil and gas company that divided the WA town, led to long-running protests, made national news and sparked anti-protest concerts.
The anti-hub campaign was backed by musicians such as John Butler and Missy Higgins.
But in a Federal Court judgement handed down in Perth today, Justice Anthony North found the Goolarabooloo people were not traditional owners of the land.
He said their connection to the area did not go back far enough and only began with the arrival of their ancestors “Mr P Roe” and his wife “MP” in the area in the 1930s.
“The Goolarabooloo applicants have not succeeded to land and waters … because the original inhabitants did not become extinct,” Justice North said.
Instead he said the traditional owners were the Jabirr Jabirr people, who came under fire from anti-hub campaigners when they voted in favour of the industrial precinct and an Aboriginal benefits package worth more than $1.5 billion.
One of the Jabirr Jabirr people who negotiated the deal, Frank Parriman, told NIT today that the scuttling of the gas hub had left a generation of Aboriginal people in the north-west town without an economic base.
“I’m not going to get into ‘I told you so’,” Mr Parriman said.
“We’d just like to move on and look after our country.”
He said the Jabirr Jabirr people’s claim on the land began more than 20 years ago.
Justice North’s ruling came as he considered a complicated patchwork of three applications for a determination of Native Title in the mid-Dampier Peninsula in WA from the Jabirr Jabirr, Bindunbur and Goolarabooloo claim groups.
He said under the traditional laws and customs of the Bindunbur and Jabirr Jabirr people, descent – including by adoption – was the only way of acquiring rights and interests in land and water.
“That descent must go back to time immemorial,” he said.
“A limited exception to the descent rule is succession, whereby a neighbouring or closely related group may succeed to the local estate of a group that has become extinct.
“The Goolarabooloo have not acquired rights and interests in land and waters by descent, because their connection to the Goolarabooloo application area goes only as far as the arrival of Mr P Roe and his wife MP in the area in the 1930s.
“The Goolarabooloo applicants have not succeeded to land and waters in the Goolarabooloo application area because the original inhabitants did not become extinct.”
He said the Native Title Act required that the traditional laws and customs of a group had to pre-date sovereignty.
Woodside’s gas hub project dated back to 2008 when the Federal and WA governments signed an agreement with the company to assess locations for a natural gas processing facility for the Browse Basin off the Kimberley coast.
The following year “traditional owners” through the Kimberley Land Council were reported to have agreed in principle to a deal with the WA Government and Woodside Energy to allow the construction of a gas processing hub.
But in December 2009 another group of “traditional owners” opposed the development.
Native Title claimants willing to sign a deal for the gas hub construction were unable to do so because Mr J Roe, the grandson of Mr P Roe, who opposed the deal, was one of the people named in a Native Title application in the area, Justice North said in his decision today.
Woodside abandoned the project in 2013, saying it would not deliver the necessary returns.
A spokesman for the Goolarabooloo people could not be reached today.
The Kimberley Land Council, which represented the Nyul Nyul, Nimanbur and Jabirr Jabirr/Ngumbarl people in the Bindunbur claim, said today’s decision recognised the Bindunbur and Jabirr Jabirr Native Title claim groups as the Native Title holders over the area covered by their claims.
The KLC said that meant the Nyul Nyul, Nimanbur and Jabirr Jabirr/Ngumbarl people would be recognised as the Native Title holders.
The Bindunbur and Jabirr Jabirr claims covered about 12,000 sq km of land and sea country.
The unsuccessful Goolarabooloo claim overlapped the Jabirr Jabirr claim.
Kimberley Land Council chief executive officer Nolan Hunter said the decision was momentous for Nyul Nyul, Nimanbur and Jabirr Jabirr/Ngumbarl people.
“Today marks the start of a new beginning for the traditional owners, who will be able to use Native Title to make positive change in their communities,” he said.
Mr Hunter said the Bindunbur and Jabirr Jabirr claims were the first Kimberley Native Title cases to be forced to go through litigation in the past decade.
Other recent determinations were delivered via consent of all the parties rather than a litigated process.
He said 80 percent of the Kimberley was now determined as Native Title land.
Mr Hunter said the KLC would now work with the WA Government and other parties to finalise the terms of a Native Title determination.
Kimberley Land Council chairman Anthony Watson said they were looking forward to the future.
“We’ve got further work to do in nutting out the minor pieces and hopefully have a consent determination,” he said.
“Once all the matters are settled then we’ll have a big celebration.”