‘Land rich, dirt poor’: Price calls for native title reforms

Article by Ronald Mizen for the Australian Financial Review

Opposition spokeswoman on Indigenous affairs Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says 30 years of native title has left Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “land rich, but dirt poor”, and the system needs to be overhauled.

Senator Price – a prominent leader of the successful No campaign during last year’s referendum for a Voice to parliament – said while well-meaning, laws needed to change to encourage private home ownership on native title land, as well as more business creation, including Aboriginal-owned mines.

Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price: “There is racism of low expectations when it comes to Indigenous Australians.” Alex Ellinghausen

She also said there should be more transparency around the management and distribution of funds being managed under trust for traditional owners to ensure the money was being fairly distributed and put to best use.

“[Native title] was established some years ago now, circumstances have changed, we’re dealing with a modern Australia,” Senator Price told The Australian Financial Review.

“It’s a lovely notion for Aboriginal people to be connected to land spiritually and utilise it for hunting and fishing … which is wonderful, but I think it provided for a very limited scope.

“It would have been more effective if there was more direction in terms of utilising land for economic development purposes, and I think that’s where it’s failed, looking 30 years now down the track.

“[Traditional owners] can live off their land, but they can’t be wealth creators or job creators, and so I think there is a double standard. There is racism of low expectations when it comes to Indigenous Australians, to live in this noble, savage-type existence [when] the rest of Australia has moved forward”

Native title groups hosting Australia’s iron ore industry are holding more than $1billion of net assets in trusts, but after more than three decades of native title, there is little to show for the majority of Indigenous Australians.

An investigation by the Financial Review found 45 per cent of Australia’s land mass is now covered by a native title determination, and the regime has generated billions of dollars in income for a few groups, particularly those in the nation’s north-west.

But less than 9 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are members of a native title corporation, and only half of the 268 registered native title corporations reported any income in 2022.

Senator Price said she welcomed $500,000 allocated in the 2024-25 federal budget for the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct a review into native title laws, but more needed to be done.

In the iron-ore rich Pilbara, for example, between 70 per cent and 88 per cent of Indigenous people live in rental homes; well above the national average of 30.6 percent, which Senator Price said needed to change.

“Home ownership is different in those [remote] communities than it is for those living in major centres. People don’t own their homes, the mind frame is that the government owns our home,” she said.

“When you own something you’ll want to keep it maintained, you’ll want to look after it, you’ve got that for life, and you can pass it down to your kids. There isn’t that sort of thing in remote communities. Again, there’s that double standard at play.”

Senator Price also said establishing private enterprises on native title land, even small businesses such as bakeries or mechanic workshops, was often a complicated process and subject to feuding between traditional owners.

“Affected groups can make an application or submission of their own, and they might be our traditional enemies or environmentalists who are saying, ‘you’re damaging your own land’, or just find some excuse to play lawfare and hinder the process, then we can very well be stopped.”

She also questioned why traditional owners on mineral-rich lands were not encouraged and supported to start their own mining operations to harness the economic benefits largely going to major corporations.

“A great example of how that’s been successful is up in Yirrkala community, up near Nhulunbuy, in the Northern Territory, where the Gumatj people have been able to do that.

“They have their own mining company well established. Their families, their groups, their clans have that source of income coming through, and the local people are employed in jobs.

“But that is [because of] a lot of involvement of the former chairman, who has passed away now, Mr Yunupingu, and him making those determinations; but that has not been available to all groups and traditional owners.”

On how money managed in trusts for traditional owners was managed and distributed, Senator Price said there needed to be a greater balance of investing for the future while also meeting the needs of communities today.

She also wants a more transparent and equitable approach to how money is distributed among traditional owners, claiming that the current system would not be acceptable in any other circumstance.

“If you had to divvy up $300,000 between a family group, you would do it around a board room table, and you would have legal representation, and you would make those determinations,” she said.

Instead, Senator Price described a system of patriarchal dominance that people just dismiss as “traditional culture”.

“This recent phone call I got was to say, ‘you need to fight for us’ – this is the younger generation speaking now – [they’re saying] ‘we’re sick of seeing people getting this money as individuals and spending it on ganja and alcohol and pissing it up against the wall basically’,” she said.

“We want lease money to sit in trust and, as a community, we can determine how it’s invested in the community so we can create opportunities for our kids. We want our youth program back, we want this, that and the other.

“They’re the sorts of things that they’re asking for, but to turn that around under the way the act dictates, is that the majority have to make those determinations, and you’re going to get people who aren’t happy for that to take place.”