Go out on country and get the consent of traditional owners is the message government sends companies on major projects — but the government is not doing the same on the Voice.
On Warranangku country in the gas-rich Beetaloo Sub-Basin of the Northern Territory, Jingili Elder and Native Title holder Pompey Raymond is concerned the debate on gas exploration there has been hijacked by those who shouldn’t be speaking for his country. He has spoken out through the National Indigenous Times and Land Rights News, and in conversations with those prepared to listen.
Mr Raymond wants to see jobs, education and infrastructure in his community. He also sees a pathway to protect his country from climate change by displacing coal-fired power in Australia and Asia with some of the cleanest gas in the world — with gas producing half the emissions of coal and Beetaloo gas having far lower carbon content again than the industry averages for gas.
A Senate inquiry into activities in the Beetaloo Basin has been prolonged by six months, with the final report due February 2023. This delay has held back the approval of projects Mr Raymond and other traditional owners want to go ahead on their lands.
Mr Raymond said those who rightfully speak for country have been clear in their support. However, the Senate inquiry has so far been dominated by the misconception that all traditional owners are opposed to gas extraction in the Northern Territory.
This idea has been spread by a breakaway Indigenous group and individuals who don’t have the authority to speak for native title holders. But that didn’t stop them being invited to provide evidence at the Senate hearings. Nor did it stop the committee from casting aspersions on the agreements and permits — which had been properly authorised by the rightful traditional owner groups to allow access and use of their land — because it suited an ideological agenda against gas.
This inability to trust traditional owners in their decision-making about country, through the recognised and legal way, concerns me. We’ve seen this before. The agreement between the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr people and Woodside to allow a gas hub at James Price Point was overwhelmingly approved by the traditional owners. Activists enlisted a minority group of local Aboriginal people who opposed the project, holding them out as proof of ‘traditional owner opposition’. It helped destroy the project. A few years later the Federal Court ruled the minority group weren’t traditional owners there at all.
Adani negotiated agreements with four traditional owner groups to deliver jobs and economic opportunities from the Carmichael mine. The Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) agreement was approved by a 294-1 vote. Foreign funded activists leveraged opposition from a small group of W&J individuals in a campaign to crush the project and override the W&J native title holders.
It will be much easier for activists to crush projects enlisting a constitutional Voice against them, even if the Voice is at odds with the traditional owners. The Voice will enable people to speak for country who don’t have genuine authority to speak for it, and will elevate minority opinions above decisions of a group through their proper processes.
Governments and activists respect traditional owner consent when it suits them, but ignore it when it doesn’t. With the 2020 final report of the parliamentary inquiry into the Juukan Gorge destruction, the politicians told us that both corporations and lawmakers must consider the relevance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), stating that: “Legislative change must be based on the UNDRIP principles of free, prior and informed consent.”
Well, UNDRIP applies to any and all government activities and legislation affecting traditional owners — not just protecting cultural heritage. What consent has the government sought or obtained from traditional owners on the Voice?
This was the true topic of a meeting I had with Lidia Thorpe and other parliamentarians interested in supporting the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples on country. Senator Thorpe and I may disagree on many things but we both believe that traditional owners should be able to speak for their own country and that no country can speak for any other.
The Indigenous Voice Co-design Process report of 2021 rejected UNDRIP as a framework for triggering the Voice’s consultation requirements stating: “It would create a complex system requiring specialist legal and expert advice on every proposed law, creating Whole of Government processes with the potential to slow down the legislative development process and passage through Parliament.”
No doubt that’s true. But it shows why the Voice is so flawed. Major projects like Beetaloo, James Price Point and the Carmichael mine already go through a detailed consultation process with traditional owners who have the benefit of specialist legal and expert advice in seeking their consent.
It’s not too hard because it’s done on the ground with the traditional owners who speak for that country, not through some national overarching body chatting with people who are not. The Voice could therefore undermine this fundamental principle of consent, if it is not central to its design.
The federal budget gave $16.1 million to enrol Indigenous people to vote, when there is only a gap of 101,473 eligible Indigenous voters, with 86 per cent already registered. That money would be better spent by funding prescribed body corporates and registered native title bodies to organise their own community meetings with the government to have a say on the Voice.
Increasing the Indigenous vote has never been about enrolment; it’s about participation. If Indigenous people feel like they’ve had a say in the question being put to referendum on a Voice, they will show up to vote on it.
The Voice should not be shoved down the throats of Indigenous people. The government should go out and listen to traditional owners like Pompey Raymond before putting up a referendum bill in parliament.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is Director of the Indigenous Forum at the Centre for Independent Studies.