A new era is dawning in the Noongar nation.
At the South-West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council in Western Australia they are pressing ahead with the massive job of preparing for the biggest native title settlement in Australian history — a life-changing $1.3 billion.
The council’s chief executive Wayne Nannup says the settlement — which has still to be ratified by the courts — will breathe new life into Noongar communities of the region.
“I think it’s just incredible,” he says. “It’s been a long time coming to be honest and some talk about being a once in a lifetime opportunity, well, we’ll treat it as such.
“We’ll take the opportunity and we’ll do the best we can.”
Nannup is at the helm of setting up six regional corporations for each of the Noongar groups — the Yued mob from the Jurien, Moora, Lancelin and Gingin areas; the Gnaala Karla Boodja, from Mandurah, Bunbury and Donnybrook; the South West Boojarah, from the Busselton, Dunsborough, Margaret River, Pemberton and Nannup areas; the Wagyl Kaip, of Katanning, Gnowangerup and Albany; the Ballardong, from York, Northam, Hyden and Kondinin; and the Whadjuk, from the Perth Metropolitan area.
In total about 30,000 Noongar people are affected. The agreement covers a giant 200,000 square kilometres of WA.
A central Noongar Boodja Trust, managed by an independent trustee, will control the funds.
Within a decade Nannup, a lawyer himself, hopes to see big changes for his people.
“What we hope to see in 10 years’ time — because this is a 20, 50-year vision for Noongars — we want to see a reduction in recidivism and incarceration of our kids and adults, improved housing, improved education and improved health,” he says.
“They are very much things that are at the front of everyone’s mind, but we see this as an opportunity to actually tackle some of those concerns we have in our community and actually reduce those impacts.”
Nannup says it’s also an opportunity for Noongar people to take control of their own destinies.
“It’s a huge shift,” he says. “We want to take ownership of the good and bad. And I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that.
“We understand what’s going on in our community and we think this is an opportunity to front-end some of that stuff.
“There are some cultural shifts in our mental thinking. It’s not just the Noongar community that have to make that shift, government has to make that shift, service providers have to make that shift.
“It’s about how they start thinking about working, in our case, in Noongar country, for Noongars. But Noongars want to be a part of that decision-making process. I think this is going to go a long way to doing that.”
The historic agreement, to resolve all native title claims in WA’s south-west, was reached between the Barnett Government and the Noongar groups in June last year.
It provides for $50 million of funding for the Trust each year for 12 years and the transfer of up to 320,000 hectares of Crown land.
Providing it clears all legal obstacles in the Federal court and National Native Title Tribunal, the Trust could be up and running by December and the regional corporations, by early next year.
Nannup says they need to be ready.
“If we get a favorable result in the courts then we’ve got that green light to go ahead,” he says. “If we don’t get a favorable result in the courts then we need to look at the different options around that.
“But essentially we’re planning as if this thing is going to go through and we’ll be setting up six regional corporations, including a central services corporation.”
Nannup says the corporations will aim to get Noongars back out on country — language, culture, land management and heritage will be priorities.
The corporations will develop their own business plans and apply for funding through the Trust.
“It’s about our community going back and identifying, particularly for our young kids, making sure they understand their responsibilities to land and who they are and who their families are and really assuming that rightful identity again as Noongar people because I think we’ve been very visible for the wrong things in community at times and really we need to put our culture and language in front of everybody and that’s really a part of that process now,” Nannup says.
“There are opportunities in employment. There will be business opportunities once these corporations are set up. There’s a community development framework which is going to assist us in looking at some of the issues we have in some of our communities. We also want to be front and centre of those issues. We want to have influence over how things are done in our communities and this is a part of that whole process.”
The WA Government and the Noongar people were in negotiations for the agreement from 2009, but the first native title claim in the areas dates back to 1998.
Over the years there were wins and losses.
In 2006 the Federal Court ruled in favour of the Noongar people, recognising that native title existed in Perth, but an appeal by the then Carpenter Labor government overturned the decision. Talks with the Barnett Government began the following year and the eventual offer was negotiated at more than 300 Noongar community meetings. Objectors claimed the groups were selling out.
“I have to say we’re in a good space with the government both Commonwealth and State,” Nannup says now. “We all have obligations — particularly with the State — and essentially we have to work together to make this work.”
Indigenous West Australians became officially recognised in the State’s Constitution in September last year.