New Internationalist

Breathing again

Issue 416

Aboriginal sea rights a landmark victory

Photo: Todd Condie – courtesy of NLC
Wali Wunungmurra (second from right) and other traditional owners of Blue Mud Bay celebrate their win in Australia’s High Court. Photo: Todd Condie – courtesy of NLC

In 1963 a sheet of bark was presented in the Australian Federal Parliament. On it, 12 signatories from Australia’s Northern Territory objected to a number of pieces of paper that would have a great impact on indigenous lands – leases granting a giant bauxite company power to mine. The bark petition asked Parliamentarians to recognize what the mining leases did not – that the affected land and seas belonged to Aboriginal people: the Yirrkala clans. Wali Wunungmurra was one of those signatories.

Thirteen years later – following legal battles, an inquiry and a Royal Commission – Federal Parliament handed Aboriginal land reserves in the Northern Territory back to their traditional owners. But not their sea country. For decade after decade Wali and his people continued to frown as they watched the steady stream of recreational and commercial fishers in indigenous waterways rich in crab, shellfish, fish, turtle and dugong.

Until now. On 30 July this year, Wali Wunungmurra, now Chair of the Northern Land Council, walked into the High Court Registry in Darwin (Northern Territory’s capital) to collect a copy of the court judgment that returned the sea country to his people – the decision in the Blue Mud Bay case. He heard how, by a majority of five judges to two, the Australian High Court had finally recognized that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have exclusive rights to that column of sea between the high and low watermarks. ‘I felt that I could breathe again,’ he said.

The effect of this decision is massive. It applies to 5,670 kilometres of coastline – over 80 per cent of the total Northern Territory coast. While Aboriginal people have always fished these waters, this judgment delivers them control over whose boats come into their waters and what is taken out of the sea. Finally they will have a seat at the negotiating table on all coastal management issues affecting their sea country, from commercial deals on fishing rights to the coastal surveillance of refugees.

The judgment comes at a time when Australia’s new Labour Government is acknowledging what the conservative Howard Administration covered up for 12 years: that on almost every standard-of-living indicator – access to accommodation, health, education, security and income opportunities – Australian Aboriginal people fall tragically short of the national average. In health outcomes comparable to the poorest countries of the developing world, 45 per cent of indigenous males and 34 per cent of indigenous females die before the age of 45. Inquiry after inquiry and report after report have stressed that these appalling outcomes will only be reversed when Aboriginal rights and dignity are restored.

The Blue Mud Bay decision delivers a massive leap forward on that road to restoration. Even so, Wali Wunungmurra is looking forward to the next step. ‘To this day, indigenous people are not recognized in the Australian Constitution,’ he says. ‘Constitutional recognition will close the chapter in our struggle that was opened when we petitioned the Government back in 1963.’

Chris Richards

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