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Resourcing critical to the successful management of Native Title agreements

Media release

A report released today by Curtin University and the Centre for Regional Development at The University of Western Australia (UWA) highlights the challenges faced by Native Title holders in managing related agreements, including the perception that claimants are primarily motivated by financial compensation.

Aboriginal Assets? The impact of major agreements associated with Native Title in Western Australia addresses how effective Native Title agreements have been in meeting the needs and aspirations of three Aboriginal traditional owner groups in northern Western Australia – the Gooniyandi (Kimberley region), Miriuwung-Gajerrong (Kimberley region) and Yindjibarndi (Pilbara region) people.

Areas over which Native Title has been determined, or are under application, now account for around 85 per cent of Western Australia’s land mass, making it a central issue to regional development in WA.

Curtin University’s Associate Professor Mike Dockery, report co-author, said the research participants’ views were contrary to the perception that Aboriginal people who had achieved Native Title recognition were sitting on large financial windfalls – instead, they often face substantial challenges in leveraging benefits from the rights provided by Native Title.

“When we asked the traditional custodians what they hoped to achieve from Native Title agreements, they spoke of keeping their culture strong, securing access to their traditional lands and self-determination,” Associate Professor Dockery said.

“Economic development is certainly an objective of these agreements, but it is often negotiated in the form of employment opportunities and enterprise development as a means to self-empowerment and independence, not short-term financial gain.”

Once a Native Title determination is made, a Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) is established to manage Native Title interests, and manage any related agreements.

Associate Professor Dockery said these PBCs were often under-resourced and highlighted the need for funding commensurate with their responsibilities as one of the most important policy recommendations to come out of the report.

“The overwhelming challenge we identified in the management of Native Title rights is simply the lack of funding and resources available to Aboriginal communities and PBCs in negotiating and managing Native Title agreements,” Associate Professor Dockery said.

“These roles are created by the country’s institutional framework and require legal, financial, managerial and other expertise. It is hard to think of comparable positions that are expected to be fulfilled on an unpaid basis.”

Often, financial benefits associated with Native Title agreements are held in trust to be managed for the benefit and use of Native Title groups.

Dr Sarah Prout Quicke, UWA Senior Lecturer and co-author, said trust structures were often quite complex and understanding their management required a high level of skill and legal literacy.

“Trust boards engage professional trustees and/or advisors to assist with this, but the more widely this understanding and skill base is spread, the more effective the management and use of trust assets are likely to be,” Dr Prout Quicke said.

“While all three case studies identified trust structures as having the capacity to secure future wealth for long-term strategic investments, they also have to balance these objectives with the immediate needs of many native title holders.”

Ms Lynette Shaw, former Gooniyandi Aboriginal Corporation Acting CEO, said financial gain was not a driving force behind her community’s push for Native Title recognition over their lands.

“Native Title is important for us as a way to maintain greater control over our future, economic independence and the survival of our culture,” Ms Shaw said.

“While our people are excited for the employment and enterprise development opportunities that come with leases, we want to be recognised as Gooniyandi people and ensure our country, stories and sacred sites are protected from developments.”

The full report can be viewed online here: http://business.curtin.edu.au/our-research/publications/cbs-publications/