Disputation threatens to bring misery to the West

Opinion Article

2010 December, 11

Wayne Bergmann must defend his people against activists, authorities and developers.

There are few places harder in the world to stand than in the shoes of Wayne Bergmann, the young Aboriginal director of the Kimberley Land Council. 

Like all leaders of native people who stand at the crossroads of ancient traditions and modern development, the labourer turned lawyer carries the weight of leadership at a time when the fate of his people is caught on the sharp horns of a dilemma. 

The responsibility is excruciating, and there is every temptation to capitulate in one easy direction or another. 

Bergmann and the Kimberley Land Council have sought to perform their function as the representative body for the traditional landowners affected by Woodside's liquefied natural gas project proposed for James Price Point, 60km north of Broome. The project involves the piping of gas from the Browse Basin offshore to a proposed LNG precinct on the Kimberley coast. In a state with stupendously large resource projects, the Woodside LNG project is considerable. The controversies that have surrounded the project have been no less considerable.

The first controversy has been the one between environmentalists and the developers. The Save the Kimberley campaign is utterly opposed to the project and has been driven by organisations such as The Wilderness Society and a large cast of celebrities, including musician Missy Higgins and journalists George Negus and Kirsty Cockburn. They are pitched against Woodside, the West Australian government, and any Aboriginal people and organisations that do not support their opposition to the project.

They have cast Bergmann and the KLC as the enemy of the environment and what they regard as true Aboriginal culture, and have subjected them to a campaign of disinformation and vilification that organisations such as TWS have no inhibitions about engaging in where indigenous people's rights impede their agenda. The deliberate creation and exploitation of fractures within Aboriginal communities is fair game for TWS. The divide-and-rule approach of the extreme greens is as colonial as anything in history. 

When you see TWS using Aboriginal people resplendent in their ranger uniforms in support of their campaign to over-ride indigenous land rights, you can't help but think that the history of the Native Police is being repeated. In the mid-19th century the Native Police were issued horses, saddles, rations, uniforms and guns; in the 21st century they are issued with ranger uniforms. Marshalling them around the corridors and press conferences is invariably a sergeant from TWS or Australia Zoo. 

You don't know who is more to be pitied. The indigenes who allow themselves to be used like this or the environmentalists who have no sense of history.

The second controversy is between the West Australian government and the traditional owners, when Premier Colin Barnett decided to begin the process of compulsory acquisition of the proposed LNG precinct. This was a dumb move. 

Bergmann and the KLC had showed great courage in the position they had taken to uphold the interests of the traditional owners in looking seriously at how the project could deliver economic benefits to the Aborigines of the Kimberley, while ensuring that the social, cultural and environmental effects are properly minimised and managed. 

Bergmann had withstood great pressure to capitulate from the anti-development interests, so why did Barnett think it wise to pull the carpet out from under him and the traditional owners whom he represents? It just did not make sense. If the Premier's action was supported by Woodside, then the company and the West Australian government ought to reconsider the wisdom of their move because they may well come to regret it. 

The failure of the West Australian government to demonstrate an equal concern for the traditional owners as for the resource developers sent precisely the wrong message. 

Why should indigenous leaders such as Bergmann show courage when governments behave dishonourably and provide confirmation to critics that they only deal with Aborigines under duress and are always on the side of the big resource companies?

The third controversy is within the Aboriginal community of the Kimberley itself. There have been court challenges and much media coverage. It is not my place to say what should happen in the Kimberley, it is up to the traditional owners. 

The Native Title Act establishes the legal framework for recognising and affording traditional owners their right to make decisions affecting their lands. It is not a perfect law, but it is the best available. Bergmann and the KLC are obliged to follow the Native Title Act. If anyone believes they are not complying with the law, then they are able to take legal proceedings. There have been legal challenges already, but they have not been upheld. 

However genuine are the arguments of Bergmann and the KLC's opponents, and I offer no opinion one way or the other, there is no doubt that non-Aboriginal interests have contributed to and exploited the divisions between Aborigines. It is not just anti-development interests that drive wedges between Aborigines but indeed development interests (not the least governments) were the pioneers of these tactics.

It is just that the environmentalists have caught up with these same tactics and they don't care if they exacerbate divisions within the Aboriginal community. They just want the division so they can win their own cause. 

This week the Kimberley Land Council released a six-volume Aboriginal Social Impact Assessment of the LNG project. 

This study says "the LNG precinct can either make a significant contribution to Aboriginal social and economic development, or can actually leave Aboriginal people much worse off". It also says: "Which of these happens depends on whether effective policy, funding and management responses are in place to ensure that traditional owners and other affected Aboriginal people can take advantage of opportunities created by the LNG precinct, and to minimise negative impacts." 

The future path is dependent on the position that will be taken by the federal Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, when he grants approval for the LNG precinct. The conditions attached to his approval "will play a key role in determining whether the effects of the LNG precinct on Aboriginal people will be positive or negative". 

The study's conclusion is that "long-term policy and funding commitments by the commonwealth and state governments designed to bring about radical change in current indigenous social conditions are essential if a positive outcome is to be achieved".

Bergmann's people are squeezed between governments, resource companies and environmentalists. If he chose to abandon his responsibility to forge a sustainable path forward for his people and their country, his people will face a future where they live as paupers in the shadows of extraordinary wealth, a wealth that even Australian environmentalists share in. 

The default position if there is an abandonment of leadership is for Aboriginal people to lose.

Disputation threatens to bring misery to the West