30th September 2019

By Katherine Everest

Aboriginal community members and organisations across Central West NSW have called for an increase in consultation between local government councils, and Aboriginal organisations and community members living and operating within their council regions, after a considerable lack of consultative efforts by councils was found across the region. The hope is, with greater consultation councils will be better equipped to meet the specific needs of Aboriginal community members, as well as achieve greater representation of Aboriginal Peoples’ voice within council.

Cr Leeanne Hampton, a Wiradjuri/Ngiyampaa woman who is currently serving as the NSW Aboriginal Land Council Councillor for the Wiradjuri Region, believes Local Aboriginal Land Councils can, and should play a major role in improving future relations between local government councils, and Aboriginal community members living within their respective council regions. 

Cr Leeanne consulted with Local Aboriginal Land Councils across Wiradjuri Country, and reported majority of land councils described their relationship with corresponding local government councils as ‘strained’. 

A major theme reported by land councils was ongoing difficulty in building and maintaining relationships with local government councils as a result of a high turnover of council staff, and the low prioritisation within local government councils to revitalise, and continue relationships when staff are replaced.

“There are some land councils that have a good relationship with their local government council, but not many of them. In the consultation that I’ve had with some of them prior to this interview, the feeling was that there actually wasn’t a very good relationship between the two at all. They felt like it was of no fault of their own that there wasn’t any relationship because they’ve actually tried to develop that relationship, and they’ve found it hard with changes of staff. They’d have maybe a good relationship with a staff member- that staff member moves on, they’ve then got to develop that relationship again with someone new who has different values, and different ideas,” said Cr Leeanne.

Image: A map of Local Aboriginal Land Councils situated within Wiradjuri Country. Courtesy of Katherine Everest

In the past, this has made it difficult to have the needs of Aboriginal community members clearly communicated and met that require collaboration between land councils, and local government councils. These needs include adequate representation, land management, and socioeconomic development. This is then compounded by what Cr Leeanne believes to be local government councils’, and the broader communities’ lack of understanding of the role Local Aboriginal Land Councils play in their communities.  

“I think in communities in general, land councils are viewed just as a charity place, like the Salvation Army. They don’t consider them an important part of the larger scheme of things when it comes to land and development.” 

Under the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) are considered the peak representative body in charge of making land claims on behalf of Aboriginal Peoples and organisations. Local Aboriginal Land Councils are tasked with managing land claims encompassed within their local land council areas, as well as forging economic and social development for Aboriginal communities in the form of business development grants and investment loans, and coordinating Aboriginal employment programs and community benefit schemes. 

More often than not, social and economic development projects driven by Local Aboriginal Land Councils require some level of collaboration with the corresponding local government council operating within the land council area. 

Jamie Newman is the CEO of Orange Aboriginal Medical Service, Chair of the Orange Local Aboriginal Land Council, and has previously run for council in Orange City. He is again considering running for council in upcoming local government elections to be held in September 2021. Advocating for greater representation of Aboriginal Peoples’ voice on council is an extremely important priority to Jamie, however is not his only one. He wishes to be inclusive in his aspirations as a councillor, and emphasised his desire to bring about improvements for the entire community of Orange. 

Image: Jamie Newman, CEO of Orange Aboriginal Medical Service, and Chair of the Orange Local Aboriginal Land Council

“When I first raised the issue of probably running for council, my family, friends and colleagues said, ‘Oh great, you’re going to be able to raise all these Aboriginal issues’. But no, I’ll be raising issues to do with the development of Orange. You know, where there’s disparity with a lot of investment here, about our water, our housing development, our health precincts, our rates. All the things that a local council should be involved in, and is involved in. So, you want to have a voice around that because you’ll show the other councillors of your leadership qualities as an Aboriginal person. One person doing that can change the mindset of 11 other councillors.”

In relation to advocating for greater representation of Aboriginal Peoples’ voice on council, he believes collaboration between land councils, and local government councils is essential when one considers the role land has to play in contributing to the economic and social development of Aboriginal Peoples. 

“Look at the number one change that’s happening with Local Aboriginal Land Councils. There’s the Land Agreement Negotiation process, which facilitates discussion between the Aboriginal Land Council and the local council on particular parcels of crown land in our catchment. This new process on land negotiation can, and will be, the most effective weapon for us to be negotiating who gets what lands. And for us, it needs to be economically viable and prosperous [land] for us as an Aboriginal community.” 

As well as nurturing the spiritual and cultural significance of land, Jamie believes Local Aboriginal Land Councils, and Aboriginal communities must look to land for the economic and social benefits it can have for Aboriginal Peoples. He challenges that in doing so, Aboriginal communities can not only develop their communities, but also the wider community, leading to better collaboration, better understanding, and a reduction in negative racial attitudes.

“We’ve got to be smarter than forty, sixty years ago. We’ve got to utilise our land to our advantage so that we not only influence, but drive change. So that we can get a block of land in town where we can put units on, and house our people so they can buy those houses. Get them off the waiting list for public housing. Get them out of the areas in town that have been targeted, or identified as low socioeconomic, or problem areas in our town. We all know those areas, right? And majority of our people are there,” said Jamie. 

“We’ve got to be smarter than forty, sixty years ago. We’ve got to utilise out land to our advantage so that we can not only influence, but drive change. So that we can get a block of land in town where we can put units on, and house our people so they can buy those houses. Get them off the waiting list for public housing. Get them out of the areas in town that have been targeted, or identified as low socioeconomic, or problem areas in our town. We all know those areas right? And majority of our people are there.”

Both Cr Leeanne and Jamie believe an acceptance of the diversity that exists within Aboriginal communities is a factor that must be achieved before Aboriginal communities and organisations can hope to further boost relationships with local government councils.

Cr Leeanne acknowledges there is much improvement to be made amongst Local Aboriginal Land Councils in relation to communication, and engagement of members within their local land council area. Aboriginal community members have expressed, at times, they feel information does not filter from Local Aboriginal Land Councils to members, and the wider Aboriginal community as effectively as it could.

“During my term, one of the things I would like to explore and improve upon is membership engagement, and youth engagement. How we get our message across more broadly to not just the land council members, but to the rest of the Aboriginal community,” said Cr Leeanne. 

Similarly, Jamie believes that collaboration within the Aboriginal community is essential to achieving successful collaboration with local government councils and the wider community, and working together towards social and economic development for Aboriginal communities. 

“We can’t expect that there’s going to be integration, respect, and acknowledgement on any level, and with the broader community until we as Aboriginal people embrace the diversity that exists within our own Aboriginal culture. That’s our first hurdle. Now that’s going to challenge a lot of people, but that’s the reality of it. A perfect example of this, years ago, a lot of our communities established their organisations and they were competing for the similar type of funding, or competing to be the voice of the community, or leaders in the community. This created more dysfunction than it was worth. Unless you overcome the division, and create a strong Aboriginal collaborative approach to it, no council, government department, state or commonwealth agency is going to respond to you,” said Jamie.

To root out the issue of disrupted and discontinued relationships between land councils and local government councils, Cr Leeanne views the development of relationships with members of council who are more likely to be long-term, such as councillors and general managers, as essential. This is opposed to, for example, engagement officers where high turnover is more likely. 

She also believes cultural awareness training for local government council staff, particularly in top-level and management roles, would help create a better understanding of the legislation land councils have to abide by, and the reasoning behind decisions made by land councils. 

Greater party engagement and participation in each other’s activities and functioning is another action Cr Leeanne feels could help build the relationship between land councils and local government councils. She feels land councils could be more involved in local government councils’ Local Environmental Plans, as well as the strategic plan of the town. In addition, the attendance of representatives of local government councils at land council meetings would allow councils to gain a greater understanding of where Aboriginal community members’ needs and requests are coming from. 

“There needs to be some sort of direct dialogue with Aboriginal communities. Whether it be bi-monthly or monthly meetings, to share information, so Aboriginal people can appreciate where council are coming from, but also so council can appreciate where Aboriginal peoples’ interests lie, and why they lie a certain way.”

“Because at the moment I think a lot of shire councils just simply say, ‘We need to consult with Aboriginal communities about a particular topic’, and then they don’t actually unpack that further to find appropriate solutions, and it’s simply like ticking a box. The priorities of the community need to be taken into account, and they’re just not at this point in time through a lot of shire councils. They’ll have specific meetings for the museum group, or they’ll have the emergency services groups and things like that, but they don’t have a sit-down meeting with the Aboriginal community to see what their needs and priorities are,” Cr Leeanne added.

A promising venture entered into by the NSW State Government was the Land Negotiation Program pilot; a program designed to streamline the land claim process under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, and deal with the backlog of approximately 34, 891 unresolved land claims in NSW as of 31st March 2019. 

The pilot program was implemented in 2016 and is a partnership between the NSW Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment (DPIE), the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, local government councils, and NSW based Local Aboriginal Land Councils. 

However, Local Aboriginal Land Councils were not originally invited to participate in the program. 

“Obviously local government see the claims as an obstruction to what they want to do in the community. The NSW Government decided to develop this program where you would have crown lands sitting at the table, local governments sitting at the table, and they would discuss the divestment of Crown Land within the Shire’s boundary. NSWALC found out about this and realised that Land Councils weren’t involved in discussions, and they needed to be because we have claims over this land. Finally, they [NSW Government] decided we’ll have local government and Local Aboriginal Land Councils involved,” said Cr Leeanne. 

“Obviously local government see the claims as an obstruction to what they want to do in the community. The NSW Government decided to develop this program where you would have crown lands sitting at the table, local governments sitting at the table, and they would discuss the divestment of Crown Land within the Shire’s boundary. NSWALC found out about this and realised that Land Councils weren’t involved in discussions, and they needed to be because we have claims over this land. Finally, they [NSW Government] decided we’ll have local government and Local Aboriginal Land Councils involved.”

Once land councils were able to get involved, Cr Leeanne praised the program for the opportunity it provided for all parties to sit at the table, express their needs and values, and negotiate their goals. It also gave land councils a chance to discuss priorities for land within their community, what could be achieved by claiming land, and provided an opportunity to get local government councils thinking about more than just the cultural heritage aspect of land, but the significance of land for economic development within Aboriginal communities. 

However, the program is currently under review, meaning all current land negotiations have been put on hold. One of the main reasons for the review was a key limitation of the program that tried to put time restrictions upon Local Aboriginal Land Councils to claim land. 

Crown Lands tried to implement a clause enforcing that once a Land Council finalised a land claim or multiple land claims under the program, no other land claims were able to be placed within that land council area again. There have been complaints made by Local Aboriginal Land Councils, and community groups, that the proposed clause goes against the principles the land rights system stands for. 

Holding Redlich, a law firm that advises Indigenous organisations seeking to maintain their cultural heritage, recognised another limitation of the program as the voluntary basis for participation by local government councils in an article published on their website on 12th February 2020.

“The uptake and engagement from local councils has not, as yet, been across the board.”

A report of the review has recently been made available on the Crown Land website. The findings from the report suggest there is strong support from participants to continue the program, however with adjustments. 

Amongst the recommendations of the report was a proposal to rethink the time caps originally proposed under the pilot programme.

“This fiscal and time limitations on land transfers and the valuation process where no actual funds change hands needs to be re-evaluated… There is no statutory power under the ALR Act [Australian Land Rights Act 1983] for the State to refuse a land transfer because of the application of any cap on land value,” as stated under section 438 and 440 of the report.

The report also discussed the potential drawbacks of councils voluntarily participating in the program.

“Several Local Councils involved in an earlier version of the pilot program declined to participate for their local reasons. One Council ended its participation in November 2019 after several years and multiple negotiation meetings. None of these Councils contributed to the consultations, the latter because they failed to respond to various invitations to meet and discuss their experiences,” as stated under section 15 of the report.

Further Reading:

Aboriginal Peoples Under-Represented on Local Government Councils Central West NSW

Aboriginal Community Members and Groups Call for Greater Consultation from Local Government Councils in Central West NSW

2 replies on “Improved Relations between Local Government Councils and Local Aboriginal Land Councils Crucial for Progress

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