September 21, 2006
SYDNEY, Australia, Sept. 20 (Agence France-Presse) — A federal court decision has granted Aborigines a title claim over one of Australia’s major cities, Perth.
The decision is the first in which a large metropolitan area in Australia has been determined to belong to the indigenous people who lived there before white settlers arrived, lawyers said. It sent lawyers, homeowners and officials scurrying to assess the impact.
The ruling could lead to similar claims over other cities like Sydney and Melbourne, said Christine Lovitt, a lawyer who is a specialist in native land titles.
Prime Minister John Howard told reporters on Wednesday that the federal government would consider joining an appeal against the ruling. “My initial reaction is one of some considerable concern,” he said.
An Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, welcomed the “absolutely extraordinary” decision by the court, saying it restored native rights to Aborigines who lived in the cities and southern regions of Australia.
Homeowners and businessmen holding freehold title to their properties were assured that the ruling by Judge Murray Wilcox on Tuesday did not mean they could be evicted. Judge Wilcox said the decision to grant native title was “neither the pot of gold for the indigenous claimants nor the disaster for the remainder of the community that is sometimes painted.”
Senator Alan Eggleston of Western Australia, of which Perth is the capital, attacked the ruling, saying it “really could have quite profound and significant implications and change our way of life.” “Every time you want to go and sail or fish you might have to have a permit to get on the river,” he said.
But Glen Kelly, chief executive of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, which represents the Noongar, dismissed the senator’s claims as “scaremongering.”
The judge found that the Noongar people had proven native title over more than 2,300 square miles covering Perth and its surrounding area by continuing to observe traditional customs despite being largely dispossessed by white settlement in 1829. “The outcome was probably a little surprising for most people because one would have thought in a highly developed area that the native title claimants would probably have lost their connection to the land,” Ms. Lovitt said.
Native title is considered in law to have been “extinguished” by the granting of freehold title and some forms of leasehold. “The ordinary owner of a house will not be affected at all,” she said. “Anyone who owns a very long-term lease is probably in the same situation.” But unallocated state land and forests as well as parks and some reserves could be affected.
The ruling gives the Noongar people the rights to access the land and to carry out traditional activities like fishing, hunting and maintaining sacred sites. In theory, if a park in the center of town was found to be covered by native title, the Noongar people would have the right to live there, Ms. Lovitt said.
Aboriginal claims through the courts began around 1995 after the passing of the Native Title Act, the first legislation allowing rights to be contested. Aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years, but they are now a minority after more than two centuries of mainly European settlement, with a population expected to reach 470,000 this year out of a total of 20 million. Many live in squalid outback camps, where unemployment, alcohol dependency and lawlessness are rife.