‘Sea-country’ alliance could push traditional owners closer to mining industry, critics say

Article by Tory Shepherd for The Guardian

National Sea Country Alliance Summit told that the agendas of environmental groups do not always align with First Nations priorities

Tiwi elder Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa’s lawyers argued Santos was required to consult traditional owners because of their spiritual connection to land and sea. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

An alliance formed by traditional owners to fight for their “sea-country” rights after court wins against Santos’s $5bn Barossa offshore gas project is set to sideline environmental groups, critics say.

More than 100 First Nations people met in Darwin for a two-day summit this week so traditional owner groups with responsibility for sea-country – particularly country that intersects with proposed offshore oil and gas projects – could discuss their rights and responsibilities “in the face of increased offshore energy proposals”.

The summit heard that the agendas of some environmental groups – often allies in the fight against mining and other industries – are not always aligned with First Nations priorities.

Critics within the environment and native title legal sector, speaking on background, questioned whether this pushed traditional owners closer to the industry – particularly because the industry paid for the National Sea Country Alliance Summit. They also questioned the apparent need for swift action outlined in some circulated documents.

Santos won approval to build a pipeline from a gas field in the Timor Sea to Darwin, but the Tiwi people questioned their claim that “no specific underwater cultural heritage places” would be affected.

In September last year, Tiwi elder and senior Munupi lawman Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa won a case against the permit for Santos’s project after his lawyers argued Santos was required to consult the traditional owners because of their spiritual connection to land and sea.

Banned from drilling, Santos planned to get started laying the pipeline instead.

Last week, another Tiwi traditional owner – Jikilaruwu man Simon Munkara – won a federal court injunction to stop Santos, which was set to start work within hours. The pipeline would damage “sea-country, dreaming tracks, songlines and areas of cultural significance”, the Environmental Defenders’ Office, acting for Munkara, said.

Plans for the Darwin summit were already in place.

The summit, organised by the National Native Title Council (NNTC) included sessions on how traditional owners could benefit from resources extraction, and what best-practice consultation would look like.

Jamie Lowe, Gundjitmara Djabwurrung man and chief executive officer of the NNTC, said some groups come in with resources, expertise, and knowledge, and “pick people off” to work with. The alliance would help overcome that, he said, and the various traditional owners and representatives had unanimously chosen to work together.

Lowe said that whenever First Nations people wanted to see their rights advance, it went to the courts.

“There’s been no greater example than the Mabo decision. We continue to fight and usually we have to take that to the courts,” he said.

And that has often not been a coordinated approach, he said, adding that a well-resourced alliance would change that, as would working as a collective and reducing dependence on environmental groups.

“They’ve got a single purpose, and that’s good, and they’re playing their role but as First Nations people … we’re always walking that fine line of protecting country, the environment, economic self determination, social determinants of health,” he said.

“We need to consider all of that when we’re making decisions.”

The alliance will have another meeting before the end of the year to determine the next steps and consider governance and what regulatory change might be needed.

As for the industry paying for the event, Lowe said it was First Nations people only for the critical discussions.

“Someone needs to pay for it,” he said.

“It might be perceived as some sort of conflict [but] industry weren’t in the room, it was First Nations only.”

It was the only way to organise all those people to be in the same room, he said

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Now, the alliance wants proper resourcing to be able to fight its own battles.

A spokesperson for resources minister Madeleine King said the government “expects Australia’s resources sector to engage in good faith with First Nations people” and that the regulatory system “must ensure world-class consultation outcomes occur”.

“The Australian government has invested $12m in the 2023/24 federal budget for a review of the environmental management regime for offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas storage activities, with a particular focus on consultation, including with First Nations Australians. This work is under way,” the spokesperson said.

Industry body Australian Energy Producers supported the summit as part of its “longstanding commitment to meaningful consultation with traditional owners”, chief executive Samantha McCulloch said.

She said the industry had worked closely with traditional owners for 60 years in a “culturally respectful manner” and that the summit allowed traditional owners, industry, government and agency representatives to meet, while also enabling traditional owners to “get together for the first time for private conversations and presentations”.

“Regulations that provide clarity and certainty for industry and traditional owners while maintaining comprehensive and meaningful consultation with stakeholders are urgently needed,” McCulloch said.

An information pack circulated to traditional owners after the 2022 Tipakalippa case said “burdensome” numbers of offshore proponents were trying to engage with land councils and native title representative bodies, hence the need for a coordinated approach.

It said that “extraordinary amounts of money” involved in offshore projects could be an opportunity for traditional owner groups to get funding to participate in decision making, but that there was a possibility that “sectional interest groups keen on pursuing an agenda not centred on advancing traditional owner interests as a whole” could undermine institutions.

The court will sit again on 13 November to consider whether to extend the interim injunction.

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