Maningrida’s (First) Day in Court

I received the following press release today from Ian Munro, CEO of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) in Maningrida, which has mounted what I understand to be the first legal challenge to aspects of the Intervention in the Northern Territory. There will be a directed hearing on Thursday, so watch the newspapers for more information. Some reporting has appeared recently in The Age (“Aboriginal Group Fights Canberra’s ‘land grab,'” October 27, 2007), The Australian (“High Court test for takeover“, October 27) and on the ABC. Last Friday, on PM, Anne Barker interviewed Munro and lawyer St John Frawley.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that BAC is the lifeblood of enterprise in Maningrida, and represents the kind of economic engine that can offer real hope for Indigenous people, rather than the vague and ill-defined promises that government has on offer. The following description of BAC’s scope of operations is quoted from Bill Fogarty and Matthew Ryan’s essay, “Monday in Maningrida,” published in Coercive Reconciliation (Arena Publications, 2007).

At the forefront of this development model [a cultural alignment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous governance] is an institution named the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation. The Corporation runs twenty separate businesses and last year had a turnover of $26 million. Of this figure, 55 per cent was contributed directly from enterprise and trading activities. The most successful of these enterprise, Maningrida Arts and Culture, returned $1.1 million directly to artists in the 2005-2006 financial year and purchased art and craft from over 700 producers. The corporation also runs, among other things, a mud brick factory, a ‘good food’ kitchen, housing, roads and building crews, an outstation supply service, a camping and gardening store, a supermarket, and a women’s centre that produces quality screenprinted fabric. The Corporation’s responsibilities are augmented by a range of human services that it auspices, including an aged care program, partnership with the Malabam Health Board, a disabilities service, and a program to tackle substance abuse. There is also the Maningrida Progress Association, which runs a take-away, another large supermarket, an airline charter service and a ten-room motel, while the local Maningrida Council provides a range of municipal services. Training for the labour force is also provided locally through the Maningrida Jobs Education Training Centre, which has links to registered training organisations across the North Territory (p. 265).

The Djelk Rangers, another important operation of the Corporation, has received attention in the press lately as a prime example of how the abolition of CDEP will threaten not only Indigenous livelihood, but the natural heritage of Australia’s northern coasts. The Rangers provide essential services in controlling feral animals and invasive weeds, and support quarantine activities along the coast. They are working with other Indigenous groups in the area of wildfire control, and working with the CSIRO to monitor the after-effects of Cyclone Monica. A Junior Ranger program offers promising and meaningful activities for Year 11 and 12 students. There was a minor hubbub a few months ago when some of these students identified several new species of spiders.

All of this is threatened by the Intervention.

With best wishes for their success, here is the text of the press release.

CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGE TO THE ACQUISITION OF PROPERTY IN NT

A case has been commenced in the High Court of Australia challenging the Constitutional validity of certain sections of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (Cth) and the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures Act 2007 (Cth).

The case is concerned solely with the Constitutional validity of the provisions that:

    1. grant to the Commonwealth a 5 year lease over the Aboriginal land in and around the townships in the Northern Territory;
    1. grant to the Commonwealth the power to acquire all of the moveable assets of Aboriginal corporations conducting business, enterprises or activities in the townships;
    1. abolish the permit system.

The case has been brought by:

    1. Reggie Wurridjal, a traditional Aboriginal owner of land in the Northern Territory known as the Maningrida land; and
    1. the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, a substantial Aboriginal community services organisation which owns and operates businesses and community services on the Maningrida land for the benefit of the Aboriginal community.

The precise basis of the claims of Reggie Wurridjal and Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation is set out in the Statement of Claim filed late yesterday in the High Court. In the Statement of Claim the Plaintiffs are seeking declarations that the relevant provisions of the legislation are invalid, and orders restraining the Commonwealth from relying on those provisions to occupy the Maningrida land or to acquire Bawinanga’s assets.

The High Court has listed the matter for directions on Thursday 1 November 2007.

Further information:

St John Frawley (Partner, Holding Redlich) (03) 9321 9809

Addendum:
Just in from The Age: Justice Kenneth Hayne has granted BAS time to file an amended statement of claim. Next court date is December 3, and the case may go beofre the High Court in March.

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