The first major claim to native title over a large urban area clouds the future of popular scenic areas, parks, playing fields, cemeteries and even municipal buildings.
The claim could infer native property rights to around 3,500 properties owned or managed by the council in Brisbane’s Redlands coastal area, home to 165,000 people.
Redland City Council Mayor Karen Williams said the claim, lodged in 2017 by the Quandamooka YoolooburrabeeAboriginal Corporation, was a landmark case that all Australians should pay attention to.
“This is the first time such a claim of title has been made over an urban area in such a large quantity,” she told Daily Mail Australia on Thursday.
Tourist maps such as Wellington Point (pictured) could become exclusive areas for native title holders under the claim.
The first major native title claim was made over an urban area, the Redlands region of Brisbane, which has a population of 165,000.
“Some of these areas we will defend vigorously because they are important, a very important part, like the coastal points in particular and the cemeteries where, I might add, many ancestors and pioneers are buried.”
Cr Williams said the claim could deprive locals and visitors of access to popular tourist and recreational sites, which could be handed over to the claimants’ exclusive use.
“We’re a coastal town, so we have Wellington Point, Victoria Point, Cleveland Point, where people go for a Sunday afternoon drive or go fishing,” she said.
Although native title claimants will have access to millions of dollars in federal funding to pursue their claims, the council will have to rely entirely on its own resources to take the case to the Federal Court.
“It’s a bit like we’re on our own,” Cr Williams said.
“There are obviously costs that taxpayers must absorb.
“We have island communities, marine parks, ferries, an aging population and a small commercial base, so we resent every penny we have to spend.”
Redland Council has extensive experience with native title after Stradbroke Island, which lies within its maritime boundaries, was ceded to native title in 2011.
Cr Williams said with native title “you can either hand over the land or get compensation”.
“If you take North Stradbroke Island, part of the compensation was giving away that land and giving them the council-owned business, the caravan park, to the traditional owners,” she said.
The Cleveland Cemetery is an area that Redland Council has pledged to fight for in Federal Court.
Redland Town Council buildings are also part of the native title claim being decided at the High Court.
The Federal Court case comes after several years of negotiations during which the list of municipal sites subject to the claim was reduced to 1,050 by the state government.
Native title claims can be extinguished where there is either a prior grant of tenure and/or prior public works – the onus is on the council to prove this.
However, the state government made a U-turn by rejecting the 3,500 council-owned or managed sites in the concession.
“We spent a few years getting to this point so it was a big disappointment for us,” Cr Williams said.
“That’s when we decided to stay at the courthouse.
“We are now doing everything we can, with a lot of time and resources, to gather this evidence (of public works) on 3,000 properties.”
In the case of less developed coastal areas, the council will challenge native title by demonstrating that sites have been reclaimed, but this involves digging into historical records.
Cr Williams said uncertainty over which sites were subject to native title claims had frozen planning and major capital works.
“We obviously take into account areas where native title is claimed, because we don’t want to invest more taxpayers’ money in the landscape that may have to be ceded,” she said.
The mayor emphasized that what the council ultimately wanted was clarity on the content of the claim, which was made difficult by relationships with the state and federal governments.
“As an organization and a council, we are absolutely committed to reconciliation,” she said.
Redland Mayor Karen Williams said she felt the council was “alone” with the claim.
Queensland One Nation senator Pauline Hanson said the native title fight for councils was very unfair.
“We agree with some of the areas that have demands. All we are looking for is clarity and a level of fairness.
A number of residents had expressed concerns that the proposed Indigenous voice in Parliament would make the council’s job more difficult, but Cr Williams insisted that was not the case.
“They think the referendum will have an influence on how this is handled, which is not the case,” she said.
“The Native Title Act is a pre-existing piece of legislation. Whatever happens to Voice, whether it’s yes or no, we will still face this particular challenge.”
Cr Williams admitted Voice could influence legislation in the future.
Native title versus land rights
Only NSW and NT have laws that allow Aboriginal groups to claim land rights. All of Australia is subject to native title under federal law.
Land rights mean that a local land council can claim full ownership of any unused or misused Crown land as recompense for historic dispossession. These claims are evaluated by the ministries.
Native title is the legal recognition of traditional rights and interests in land and water, where those rights and interests have been maintained by an indigenous people connected to that land. He seeks to correct past injustices. It can be extinguished by demonstrating that a site has major public works or a previous grant of tenure.
Native title can only be claimed by a corporation of traditional owners. This may be exclusive or non-exclusive access, which confers special rights to camp in an area, visit and protect important places, hunt, fish and gather bush food and medicines. Native title can also be resolved through negotiation of a legally binding agreement, such as a Native Land Use Agreement.
One Nation senator Pauline Hanson insisted what was happening in Redlands was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“If we raise our voices in Parliament, it will grow enormously,” she told Daily Mail Australia on Thursday.
In the more comprehensive documentation of the Uluru Heart Declaration, resulting from a 2017 convention, native title features prominently in discussions.
A “road map” in the final document, which contains the declaration, shows native title will be part of the body overseeing a treaty between First Nations and Australian governments.
“The role of the National Native Title Tribunal should be integrated into the Makarrata Commission,” it reads.
Senator Hanson claimed South Queensland’s native title services were being funded to the tune of $71 million by the Albanian government to assert their claims to the Redlands region.
Meanwhile, a federal fund intended to help councils respond to native title claims had been abolished by the Albanian government, she said, making the matter very one-sided.
“There is no funding from the federal government for the respondents to fight these allegations,” Senator Hanson said.
“Local councils can’t afford it. I think it’s unfair, I think it’s unfair.
Senator Hanson said she would bring forward a motion to reinstate the fund and wanted a sunset clause setting a deadline by which native title claims can be lodged.
Ms Hanson said native title already covers 50 per cent of Australia and a further 10 per cent is being determined.
“I saw the map of Queensland,” Senator Hanson said.
“They returned the land around Hervey Bay on Fraser Island. Stradbroke Island.
“There are claims stretching from Brisbane and the Gold Coast to Toowoomba and beyond to Warwick. This also goes down to the border.
“It’s also spread around Bundaberg, from Maryborough up to Emerald and up to Mount Isa.”
A 2019 report from the Native Title Tribunal indicated that 40% of the continent had been claimed.
Senator Hanson said she was studying the extent of native title claims across Australia and the funding provided to enable them.
“They will seek reparations, that’s what it’s about,” she said.
“In fact, this land is returned to them and it cannot mean much to them because they are selling it for profit.
“It is wrong to simply return them (sites) to a handful of Aboriginal people and deny the majority of the Australian population the enjoyment of these areas.”