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.