Marcia Langton’s ‘quiet revolution’ and what you don’t hear about James Price Point

Successful negotiations at James Price Point have been drowned out by the voices of protest. AAP/Cortlan Bennett

Professor Marcia Langton opened this year’s Boyer Lectures with an observation that William Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures had “given credence, perhaps inadvertently” to the idea that Aboriginal people could not lead a modern economic life.

Her central theme, that participation in the modern economy is essential to strong Indigenous communities, and that Indigenous people are riding the resource boom to the middle classes, is probably news to many people used to tales of multinational resource companies running roughshod over Indigenous groups. Langton calls it the “quiet revolution”.

I believe that an example of this quiet revolution can be seen taking place in northern Western Australia. But it is barely registering a whisper in the national press, drowned out by two deafening and opposing voices: the chants of a national environmental campaign versus the siren call of resource development.

I speak of the three agreements reached between the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr registered native title claimants, the state of Western Australia and Woodside Petroleum to process gas from the Browse Basin at an LNG Precinct at James Price Point.

The contents of these agreements have been largely unnoticed amid the clamour of the anti-gas campaign, and the intra-Indigenous dispute about whether or not to sign them. But these agreements are far better than those most Traditional Owners are negotiating in Australia, and contain better compensation than Traditional Owners are entitled to under compulsory acquisition provisions. It’s therefore worth examining them and asking how they came to be.

A starting point is the law governing negotiations between Traditional Owners and resource companies, widely acknowledged to create an uneven playing field.

First, almost no land owners in Australia own the minerals that are beneath the surface of their land, including native title holders, whose ownership of minerals was extinguished by legislation vesting mineral ownership in the Crown. In addition, no individual or community group, with perhaps the exception of those holding Aboriginal Land Rights Act land, have the legal right to stop mining activities going ahead on their land.

When mining or petroleum companies want to access native title land, they must follow the procedures set out in the Native Title Act. This says that the native title party has the “right to negotiate” an agreement with the resource company. That’s not a right to stop the development, nor the right to reach an agreement, just the right to negotiate. It is better than what was there previously – limited rights under Aboriginal heritage legislation – but there is still plenty that is disempowering about these “right to negotiate” provisions.

So, with this legislative backdrop, how do native title parties ever get a good deal? Langton gave us some answers to this question in her lectures, including the advent of the requirement that mining companies obtain a “social licence to operate”. And yet, Traditional Owner groups all around Australia still get steamrolled, and are still forced to accept inadequate compensation.

As the former ATSIC deputy chair Ray Robinson said, Indigenous landowners are sometimes still “ripped off by mining companies … [who] are getting billions and billions of dollars and they are offering Indigenous people a pittance”.

In contrast, and whatever you might think of the proposed LNG Precinct, the agreements are worth a lot of money. They are also comprehensive agreements, and include significant grants of freehold land, as well as employment, training, environmental and cultural protections. They contain very substantial regional benefits for all Kimberley Aboriginal people in areas such as education, health and housing.

Most intriguingly, they bind the state, through an Act of Parliament, not to process LNG anywhere else on the Kimberley coastline. How did this come to pass, given the sometimes skewed results of the Native Title Act, as well as the threat of compulsory acquisition?

Certainly, the project lent itself to a good deal: it is the first large industrial project proposed for the Kimberley coastline, and was a priority for successive state governments. It was also a project swamped in rhetorical goodwill towards Traditional Owners – for example, Don Voelte, the former CEO of Woodside, said that for him: “It’s not about the dollars … the point is what are you doing to the community?”

But I would like to suggest another reason behind the success of the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr, and detour to Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures to provide an explanation. He spoke of the effects of European colonisation on the Indigenous psyche, saying that “a long humiliation can dull the vision, narrow the spirit, and contract the heart towards new things”.

Certainly the history of the Kimberley is full of humiliation, and much worse, for Aboriginal people. But the Kimberley is also full of humiliation’s opposites – pride, success and dignity – and I believe that they have empowered and invigorated Kimberley Traditional Owners.

Kimberley successes include the fact that large areas of the Kimberley are now back in Indigenous hands. The first successful native title claim over a town – Broome – was made in the Kimberley.

Culture, language and leadership are strong, held up by what are said to be the three pillars of Kimberley Indigenous life: the Kimberley Land Council, the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and the Language Resource Centre.

The Kimberley Land Council, formed during the Noonkanbah dispute (also a dispute about resource extraction on Indigenous land) has been negotiating these sorts of agreements for a long time. Wayne Bergmann, its former CEO, told the National Press Club this year that he believes they are negotiating better agreements in the Kimberley than elsewhere, even without the Native Title Act’s right to negotiate.

Why is this so important? I turn to Stanner again, who noted “the rapidity with which peoples who but a short time ago were powerless, dependent and voiceless found power, independence and voice”.

I believe that the power and voice of Traditional Owners is the “quiet revolution” of the James Price Point controversy. Stanner may have wrongly implied that Indigenous people could not live a modern economic life, but the words of his Boyer Lectures, and Marcia Langton’s, are reflected in the Kimberley today. It’s time we heard more about it.