Lessons from the Kimberley on developing Northern Australia

Indigenous land owners weren’t consulted in the past about the creation of Western Australia’s huge Ord River irrigation scheme – but a recent agreement offers a more positive example for developing other parts of northern Australia. Pete Hill/Flickr, CC BY-NC

We are very happy to have got this far. We have had our disagreements but we have managed to work through them and now we are all getting on with the job. We have learnt a lot through the process.

Standing on the banks of Kununurra’s Lily Creek Lagoon, Miriwoong woman Helen Gerrard spoke those words at a community celebration in July 2006, dubbed “Satisfaction Day”, which marked the end of one Australia’s largest and most complex native title negotiations.

An agreement had finally been struck between the Western Australian government, the local Miriwoong Gajerrong Traditional Owners and private investors, giving everyone greater certainty about the way that 1450 square kilometres of land in the Kimberley could be developed – an area roughly 40 times bigger than Melbourne’s central business district.

Now the federal government is asking for community feedback on its draft plan on how to develop all of Northern Australia – an area covering much of Australia’s mainland, as shown below. You can read the Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, which is open for public comment until Friday 8 August.

So what could we learn from the negotiating of a development plan between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the east Kimberley?

Northern Australia is broadly defined as the parts of Australia north of the Tropic of Capricorn, spanning northern Western Australia, the Northern Territory and northern Queensland. (This is the best resolution available for this map.) Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, p.3, CC BY

Recognising the first Kimberley custodians

For generations, colonisation in the Kimberley expanded through graziers and then irrigators, who made unilateral decisions about how to transform the Ord. The dams on the Ord River that made Lake Kununurra and Lake Argyle were not built in consultation with Indigenous traditional owners. Not surprisingly, the local Indigenous people did not benefit and were not initially compensated for the losses that came with the flooding of their country.

The one-way decision making that changed waterways and landscapes in the Ord has started to shift, partly through the Ord Final Indigenous Land Use Agreement. Signed in 2005 and officially registered in the weeks after the 2006 Satisfaction Day celebration, the agreement lasts for 10 years. It’s still too early to fully assess its success or failure. But its potential lies in the extensive negotiation that took place before the agreement was made.

Negotiated over eighteen months, the agreement aims to work through disputes over land and waters that the Federal and High Courts of Australia could not settle over the decade beforehand.

It is worth approximately A$57 million in community-development oriented initiatives, including shared management of new conservation areas, a stake in future development in the Ord, and the return of parcels of Indigenous community land.

Big plans for Australia’s north

Unlike too many past government policy papers on developing northern Australia, the current Green Paper includes some recognition of Indigenous peoples’ priorities. It states that “the Government’s new approach to Indigenous policy is focussed on creating opportunities through education and economic development.”

That pledge is a good start – but it is not enough. If we want to be serious about securing economic development for everyone, then a more collaborative approach with Indigenous Traditional Owners right across northern Australia is needed.

So what if we took a different approach, which listened to, and learned more from, the people who have lived in northern Australia for thousands of years? Could we create a northern Australian plan that was more sustainable for all, with longer time horizons?

View of the Ord River, some of the township of Kununurra and the irrigation area that surrounds it. Jessica McLean

As Samantha Muller explains, the “two-way approach” to resource management is based on greater discussion and collaboration between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.

In this case, I would argue that if the federal government wants this northern Australia plan to succeed where so many past plans have failed, the best way to start is with greater talks right from the very start with Indigenous land owners – even before policy papers are written and distributed.

A two-way approach is based in a belief in the value of mutual learning. The federal government might learn how and for what ends Indigenous people engage with country, while Indigenous people would learn what hopes policy makers hold for the north.

With this recent round of planning for expanding development in the north, we still have an opportunity to do better negotiations, and on a larger scale, than what’s happened in the Ord.

Let’s not repeat previous mistakes in leaving negotiations with Indigenous peoples to the last minute. Instead, let’s ask the federal government to start on two-way talks to seek greater direction from those that know their patch of northern Australia best.

Miriwoong woman Helen Gerrard speaking at Satisfaction Day, July 2006. Jessica McLean, CC BY

Helen Gerrard should have the last words here, taken from that sunny day in 2006, so full of possibility.

We have surrendered our Native Title and that has been very hard for us; that is our major contribution to the Agreement. We now need to have the ongoing commitment from the State to ensure that all parties implement the letter and the spirit of the Agreement, and especially to make us a true partner in the development of the region.