The end of the native title claims era is in sight, forcing a rethink of how indigenous land rights councils will operate when their primary role winds up.
Heralding the shake-up, the Cape York Land Council in north Queensland has pulled Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion into a “strategic discussion” with traditional owners on the agency’s future once the carve-up of native title is complete.
A land claim over more than half the peninsula is now in train, and when determined it will exhaust the stock of territory that can come under native title there.
CYLC chairman Richie Ah Mat said the land council could become a platform for a new form of regional government and serve as a model for the country.
One option would be for the CYLC to evolve into a “one-stop shop” to deliver professional services and advice that go beyond its existing brief. “Traditional owners will have the opportunity to determine how best we can serve their future aspirations and enable a life of economic opportunity built on land and home ownership, empowerment and, of course, recognition in the Constitution,” Mr Ah Mat said.
The 25 registered land and sea councils in Australia are funded by the federal government to represent traditional owners in native title and land-use cases, which can involve lucrative mining or development rights.
The biggest of them — such as the Northern Territory’s Northern Land Council and Central Land Council — are already multi-million-dollar operations that represent thousands of traditional land owners exercising rights over vast tracts of remote Australia.
Since 1993, the CYLC has been recognised as the representative body for traditional land owners on Cape York seeking native title.
What’s known as the Cape York United Number 1 claim, covering a record 14.6 million hectares, is on track to be settled within two years and will mean determinations have been reached over the bulk of land subject to native title on the peninsula. Mr Ah Mat said this was a forerunner to what would happen in other parts of the country where the land right applies.
“We have got to think outside the square now,” he told The Australian. “Native title has just about achieved all it can on Cape York … once we get this claim done, most of the cape will be covered by native title and that’s a good thing.
“The question is what do we do next? You can’t just get your native title determined and leave it at that. We have got to help people create new opportunities and we recognise that we need a new structure to do that … a mark two Cape York Land Council.”
Mr Ah Mat said this could involve a “broad new regional structure” representing and possibly elected by the 16,000 traditional owners on the peninsula.
The options would be hammered out at “summits” of traditional owners and presented to Senator Scullion by the end of the year. The minister attended the inaugural meeting outside of Cairns last week but declined to comment on the CYLC initiative.
Picture: Kym Smith