Warring clans accused of spending too much on litigation in NLC battle


A multimillion-dollar feud involving the powerful Northern Land Council and warring Aboriginal  shows no sign of abating even though the High Court today refused to hear an important case about disputed traditional ownership rights and mining royalties. 

All sides have already expended vast sums on legal fees, and criticism is mounting that key Aboriginal leaders may be neglecting the interests of their impoverished brethren by investing so much money in litigation.

The dispute also threatens township leasing plans intended to support economic development.

But influential members of the powerful Rirratjingu clan remain determined to reshape the way land rights laws operate, claiming the current model severely disadvantaged them in their lengthy battle with Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s rival Gumatj clan.

“The fight has just begun,” Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation Chairman, Bakamumu Marika said after hearing yesterday’s High Court decision.

“We will never give up fighting to secure our self-determination or our rights over our land.

“These are our land rights, not the Northern Land Council’s land rights.”

The battle is over traditional ownership rights to parts of northeast Arnhem Land and royalties flowing from Rio Tinto’s alumina mine on the Gove Peninsula.

Members of the Rirratjingu clan siding with the RAC have for years disputed the roughly one-third royalty allocation their group gets compared to the approximately two-thirds given to the Gumatj.

Marika and others believe the Northern Land Council, the federal agency responsible for implementing land rights on behalf of traditional owners, acted unfairly towards them in deciding how the royalties should be carved up and is no longer impartial.

The RAC lost a crucial case in the Federal Court and also lost a full bench appeal. At today’s High Court hearing, special leave to appeal there was denied.

The NLC’s CEO, Joe Morrison, welcomed the High Court’s decision, which he said meant the “protracted and expensive legal action against the NLC is finally settled.”

“The High Court has effectively confirmed the decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court that the NLC acted lawfully under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the way it has disbursed mining royalties under the Gove Agreement,” Mr Morrison said.

“It would now be a wise course by the RAC leaders to seek to resolve their differences with their Aboriginal neighbours by sitting down together and shifting their focus to servicing the needs and aspirations of their members.

“Also, we note that the High Court has awarded costs against the RAC.”

But Mr Marika dismissed the remarks, saying the Australian National Audit Office had shown the NLC to be “a basket case that is mismanaged, ineffective and can’t even manage itself or its own finances, let alone make decisions about Aboriginal people and their income from land.”

“The land is ours not the NLCs, and if they have the audacity to try and take our land, we will hold them to account through the court and any legal means possible,” he continued.

“Traditional Owners have the right to instruct the Northern Land Council on land and property matters, and they should do as they are told.”

Former Yothu Yindi band member Wityana Marika said his family had been “fighting for our land rights for decades.”

“Our previous generation, our generation and our next generation will continue to fight for our rights to our land. They are our land rights, not the NLC’s land rights,” he said.

“If we keep up this fight, we might be able to ensure the next generation does not have the same problems with the Northern Land Council.”

The RAC had hoped to persuade the High Court to remove the NLC from the decision-making process about royalties and traditional ownership rights and instead make a ruling itself.

With that avenue now closed, the RAC will pursue a claim for judicial review of the NLC’s royalty allocation. The RAC is also seeking damages from the NLC and, in a separate case, frustrating the Gumatj Corporation’s attempts to sign a township lease over the Yunupingu family’s home community of Gunyangara.

A Gumatj clan spokesman declined to comment.

Yothu Yindi man vows land rights fight will go on

AMOS AIKMAN  |  The Australian

 Yothu Yindi member Witiyana Marika, of the Rirratjingu clan group, says the land rights fight will go on. Picture: Michael Franchi

Yothu Yindi member Witiyana Marika, of the Rirratjingu clan group, says the land rights fight will go on. Picture: Michael Franchi

A former band member of Yothu Yindi has vowed to fight on ­despite another defeat for members of his clan in a multi-­million-dollar land rights battle.

Key figures in Arnhem Land’s powerful Rirratjingu clan group have been in dispute for years with the Gumatj clan, the region’s predominant traditional Aboriginal force, and the Northern Land Council.

Those Rirratjingu members say they have lost faith in the council and want a court to make a new decision on rights to country and royalties flowing from it.

Yesterday, the Federal Court, which previously threw out their arguments, rejected an appeal.

Second appeal rejected in battle over Arnhem Land bauxite royalties

Helen Davidson  |  The Guardian

 The Gove bauxite mine and alumina processing plant in the Northern Territory. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

The Gove bauxite mine and alumina processing plant in the Northern Territory. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

A long-running court battle involving two powerful Indigenous clans and the Northern Land Council is set to continue after the federal court again rejected an appeal by one group seeking a better split of mining royalties.

The Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, of north-east Arnhem Land, has vowed to continue its fight after the setback. It first launched legal action against the Northern Land Council (NLC) in 2014 after a dispute between RAC and the rival Gumatj clan over royalties from the Gove bauxite mine and refinery failed to reach a resolution.

Rirratjingu’s Anti-Family Violence Partnership Acknowledged in Closing The Gap Report

The Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation (RAC) has welcomed the release of the ninth Closing the Gap report and renewed its call for more action on reducing the horrific rates of family violence.

The report acknowledges Charlie King’s anti-family violence initiative, the NO MORE Campaign, and the recent visit to Parliament House by Rirratjingu elders in support of the campaign. 

As the largest non-government financial supporter of the NO MORE Campaign, the Rirratjingu are working to stop the scourge of family violence in the community.

“Family violence tears communities apart and we must be doing all we can to eradicate it,” said RAC Chairman, Bakamumu Marika.

“The latest Closing the Gap report is the next reminder in a long list that more must be done to address the disgusting rates of family violence in the community.”

According to the report, in 2014-15, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence related assaults than other women.

“While symbolism is important, and reports are important, what we need now is action to drive down these shocking rates. That’s the most important thing,” said Bakamumu.

“We now urge real action, like what we have seen locally, to address the horrifying reality facing too many families right throughout Australia.”

After initiatives were put in place by the local community and Northern Territory Police Commissioner, Reece Kershaw the incidences of family violence in Yirrkala dropped by 27 per cent.

“We would also like to see a requirement for domestic violence action plans in government tender documents – if you don’t have a good plan, you don’t get a government contract,” said Bakamumu.

“Actions like this have the potential to drive the necessary change and ensure we stand up and put a stop to family violence.”

RAC Vice-Chair, Wanyubi Marika also said that respect and power were major factors that need to be at the heart of all responses to family violence.

“Family violence is fundamentally about disrespect. Addressing family violence is about addressing the abuse of power within a relationship,” said Wanyubi.

“It’s also overwhelmingly a men’s issue, and we all have a responsibility to stop family violence in our community by setting the right examples for young men and calling other men out if they disrespect women.”

To find out more about the NO MORE campaign visit: http://www.nomore.org.au/

'The unacceptable has become acceptable': NT domestic violence campaign reaches Parliament House

A Northern Territory grassroots domestic violence campaign has won the support of the nation's top political leaders who put on a historic show of solidarity with the cause at Parliament House in Canberra.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stood arm in arm with No More campaigner Charlie King outside the building.

 Politicians and indigenous leaders link arms for the No More anti-domestic violence campaign at Parliament House in Canberra.

"The unacceptable has become acceptable; this is unacceptable, the levels of domestic violence in this country," Mr King said.
"Why should we live with that?"

The linking of arms has become the symbol of the No More campaign, seen on sporting fields and at community events around the NT.

Mr King urged action by men and women in communities, as well as political and business leaders and even sponsors and sporting clubs to get behind the cause and say "no more" to domestic violence.

He said the campaign was about letting the community take control and responsibility.

"Building their own campaign about: 'What do we stand for in this community? Do we want to leave in peace and harmony or are we happy to have chaos that destroys and makes families dysfunctional?' They choose the former."

More people understand that 'violence is not love'

NT Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the importance of the campaign could not be overstated in the Territory.

In the last five years there has been a 38 per cent increase in domestic violence, and a 48 per cent increase in domestic violence orders issued by police officers, he said.

There have been 75,000 incidents of family violence in the NT in the past three years.

But Commissioner Kershaw said it was a national issue and that every jurisdiction was experiencing an increase.

"Part of that is probably confidence in the system: more victims are coming forward now. More people are understanding, especially in our Indigenous communities, that violence is not love."
There is a requirement for mandatory reporting of domestic violence in the NT, and Commissioner Kershaw said preventative measures like this campaign, and working with the community, were the key to addressing the problem.

A grassroots Indigenous movement

The No More campaign began in 2006 and has gained momentum in recent years, driven by Indigenous leader Mr King with the support of elders from communities across the Territory.

An important part of the campaign is engaging with community groups, especially sporting clubs which are often the centre of activity in communities.

 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the No More anti-domestic violence campaign in Canberra 

In recent years national clubs like the NRL's Parramatta Eels have got on board and developed a domestic violence action plan.

Commissioner Kershaw said the campaign had seen great success in some communities like Nhulunbuy, in the Territory's northeast, where domestic violence had dropped by over a quarter in the past year.

"We do need to celebrate these successes, but it's a long way to go — this is generational change," he said. 

Action 'more important than symbolism'

Rirratjingu dancers from the Territory's northeast performed a Djan'kawu Ceremony outside Parliament House in Canberra, and Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation (RAC) Chairman Bakamumu Marika praised the event but said more needed to be done.

"Symbolism is important, now we need action — that's more important," he said.

"What we would like to see is a requirement for domestic violence action plans in government tender documents — if you don't have a good plan, you don't get a government contract."

Leaders Link Arms Against Family Violence

"No more" was the cry as both sides of politics came together in a rare display of unity.

Putting aside the argy-bargy of the final sitting week for the year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten joined dozens of MPs and senators in an event to combat domestic violence in indigenous communities.

The leaders linked arms with 'No more' campaign founder and ABC sports commentator Charlie King on the forecourt of Parliament House on Monday.

"Family violence is unacceptable, there is no room for it," he said.

"We don't need to march one day of the year, we need to march all the time."

King called for a new chapter on how Australia deals with family violence, including by businesses and sporting clubs.

He acknowledged members of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation from Arnhem Land who performed a ceremonial dance at the gathering.

Without any financial help, they had been able to reduce family violence by 27.9 per cent in one year.

"That's extraordinary isn't it?" he said

Mr Turnbull later moved a motion in parliament to acknowledge that violence against women was a national issue.

He noted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were 34 times more likely to experience violence and called on all men to take action to stop it.

"We can and we must do better," the prime minister told the lower house.

"As a parliament and as a nation, we no longer avert our gaze from the horror and the shame that is domestic violence - we look clear-eyed at this appalling failure and we are resolved to stop it."

Mr Shorten said violence against women did not discriminate, yet the rates of family violence suffered by indigenous Australians were a "source of national shame".

"We owe it to ourselves, to the nation we imagine ourselves to be, the nation we want our children to see in the mirror, to right this wrong," he told MPs.

Last Friday, on White Ribbon Day, Mr Turnbull said there were 16 domestic violence incidents in the Northern Territory alone including one in which a woman's jaw was broken.

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten link arms to stand up to Family Violence in Indigenous Communities

In Rirratjingu culture, there is a sacred, rarely seen ceremony that honours the two Djan'kawu sisters who created life on earth. On Monday at Parliament House, it was the powerful opening scene of an event demanding an end to family violence in Indigenous communities.

Dancers came from North East Arnhem Land to join the biggest achievement so far of the No More campaign, a gathering that saw Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, dozens of other MPs and Gurindji journalist Charlie King link arms to call for change.

"They were holy and sacred," Rirratjingu elder Witiyana Marika said of the sisters. "Women are holy. Because they are creators, they bring life, our offspring."

The No More campaign, led by King, has taken hold amid the appalling rates of violence facing Indigenous communities, where women are 11 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be murdered as a result of family violence and 34 times more likely to be hospitalised.

The aim of the campaign - which has reduced violence in almost all the communities that have adopted it - is to stand up to offending men, imploring them to change, and encourage organisations to adopt domestic violence action plans.

It has been strongly backed by Northern Territory police, community leaders and prominent Aboriginal women Professor Marcia Langton and Josephine Cashman, a lawyer and member of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council.

The Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation praised the show of unity as a way of elevating the issue to the national stage.

"Symbolism is important. And now we need action. That's more important," chairman Bakamumu Marika said.

"What we would like to see is a requirement for domestic violence action plans in government tender documents – if you don't have a good plan, you don't get a government contract."

Some Indigenous and family violence policy observers have questioned the government's commitment to solving the issues, pointing to sweeping funding cuts for community legal centres, women's shelters and Indigenous programs since 2014.

The Turnbull government has unveiled a $100 million women's safety package, including $21 million for Indigenous-specific programs. Last month, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion outlined $25 million for therapy, diversion programs, case management and legal services in communities.

Professor Langton said the ceremony at Parliament House shows family violence is not cultural: "The Rirratjingu are saying it's exactly the opposite - we have to love and respect women because they created the world."

"That the Parliament, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, all these senators and members of the House here today have linked arms and with Charlie King...is profoundly important to Aboriginal women and children across the country and to all those Aboriginal men who do not commit to violence and who are opposed to violence."

King called on people and organisations across Australia to "march all the time" against these crimes and said the positive stories should be appreciated, observing the Rirratjingu community's success at reducing family violence by 27.9 per cent.

"That's extraordinary, isn't it?" he said.

Rirratjingu Announce Court Appeal with War Cry from Indigenous Forum in Canada

Witiyana Marika is a Senior Rirratjingu Traditional Owner, and is currently presenting to thousands of Indigenous leaders at the World Indigenous Business Forum in Saskatoon, Canada.

His speech today is on the creation of land rights in Australia by the Rirratjingu clan leaders, and on the Federal Court loss yesterday.

While the Rirratjingu did not win, Justice Mansfield rejected submissions by the Northern Land Council that the case should be struck out in its entirety, and made two important findings:

  • He found the Rirratjingu had demonstrated an arguable case that the decision-making of the NLC was flawed in relation to the distribution of mining royalties on the Gove Peninsula.
  • He rejected the Northern Land Council's attempt to seek indemnity costs from the Rirratjingu and found that the continuation of the proceedings was in the interests of justice.

Witiyana and his brothers Bakamumu and Wanyubi have confirmed that they will appeal.

"We have been left a clear path to appeal this decision, and we will take that path,” said Chairman of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, Bakamumu Marika. The Rirratjingu people will continue to fight, as our fathers did, for our land rights and for the land rights of all Aboriginal people. We will appeal this decision".

Wityana said this from Canada:

"I'm here in Canada as the representative chosen by my leader, the leader of the Rirratjingu people, Bakamumu Marika, and I'm here to talk about the land rights our fathers created and must be saved. My brothers and my family, we will fight with our leader Bakamumu Marika. We fight for our country. We will appeal this Court decision,” he said.

“Our law, and our land, and our people, and our song lines, and our language were created at Yallangbara, not in a computer by the Land Council in their office for lawyers. They will never change our land, or our boundaries or our ownership. They are trying to take our money and our equality and we will fight them.

"Who are they, the NLC? What claim do they have to Rirratjingu land? They didn't live here, we did. They don't speak for our country. They don't own our law, or our business, or our land, or our song lines, or our culture. The NLC has no anything. They won't push us around and laugh at us. We will fight them. We will appeal.

“This is no funny joke: this is land rights. We created land rights. The land rights are ours, not owned by bureaucrats in Darwin. We will fight and continue fighting for land rights for all Aboriginal people. Our children too will fight for land rights like us and our fathers.

“We have been polite to the NLC, the bureaucrats, the courts and everyone, and we asked for fairness, but there was none. Our fathers fought and created land rights and the Land Council. And we fight to get our rights back, and the next generation and their children will fight too, and then their children if they have to. We are warriors. The judge will understand us when he hears our case.”

Wanyubi Marika is the Vice-Chairman of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, and commented on the way forward.

“We were expecting to lose the case, and we were therefore expecting to appeal. This is proceeding as expected, we will take this to a higher court.” he said.

Yesterday Justice Mansfield delivered orders in the Federal Court concerning the ongoing matter of Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation and Others v Northern Land Council and Others. 

It is a technical legal case, where Justice Mansfield decided that proposed amendments to proceedings shouldn't be allowed as they were already dealt with.

The outcome is that the Court determined that Land Councils – which are essentially Commonwealth bureaucracies – decide border and royalty disputes, with no possibility of appeal to a Court.

The dispute is linked to the Northern Land Council’s division of royalties from a bauxite mine on the Gove Peninsula in North East Arnhem Land, but the implications are far wider.

It means there is a two-tier system in Australia, where traditional owners do not have the same rights to their land as other Australians do to theirs.

Traditional Owners are Wards of the State: Federal Court Threatens Land Rights. Appeal Pending

The Rirratjingu people of Arnhem Land have been devastated after the Federal Court has determined they themselves hold no land rights – which are instead deferred to a Land Council.

The implications of Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation v Northern Land Council [2015] FCA 36 are significant, with the Court ruling that Traditional Owners are the equivalent of a ward of the state.

The dispute is linked to the Northern Land Council’s division of royalties from a bauxite mine on the Gove Peninsula in North East Arnhem Land, but the implications are far wider.

Having disagreed with the NLC’s decision on royalties, the Rirratjingu asked the Federal Court to decide which land was theirs and what their fair share should be.

The Court determined that they cannot, and that Land Councils – which are essentially Commonwealth bureaucracies – decide borders and royalties.

Bakamumu Marika is Chairman of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, and explains the situation that this will put not just the Rirratjingu people, but all traditional owners in.

“What this means is that there is a two-tier system in Australia, where traditional owners do not have the same rights to their land as other Australians do to theirs,” he said.

“Traditional ownership is necessarily different in some parts, but unnecessarily different in others.

“In this case, most Australians can appeal to the courts, where traditional owners must appeal to Commonwealth bureaucracies – and our view is that this is not right.

“To put it another way, if a non-Indigenous person is owed rent, they can go to Court and get an order for payment, while a traditional owner must go to a Land Council and hope it agrees.

“The judgment says if you don’t agree with Land Council decisions, you’re pretty well stuck with them, which is a problem if you’re in legal conflict with the Land Council, as we are.

“The Rirratjingu have received final confirmation from the Federal Court that they have no land rights – which are instead deferred to the NLC. We are a ward of the state.”

Wanyubi Marika is the Vice-Chairman of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, and commented on the way forward.

“We were expecting to lose the case, and we are therefore expecting to appeal,” he said.