To anyone who assumed that the Native Title Act was designed to ‘assist our Aboriginals’, think again. Like most legislation there was much going on behind the scenes that only became obvious after the economic damage was done. To be sufficiently informed to indulge in discussion on this topic there are two books that give insightful background:
- The beginnings and original strategy is outlined in – Red Over Black by Geoff McDonald. For $10, including postage, you can order a copy through our Book Store.
- The Fabrication of Aboriginal History Vols 1, 2 & 3, meticulously written by academic Mr Keith Windschuttle – more details can be found through Trove.
A long relationship
Personally, having attended school with young Aboriginals, then providing foster care and later enjoying many prospecting partnerships with Aboriginals during my 65 years on Western Australia’s Goldfields, I’m probably closer to their strengths and weaknesses than many metropolitan armchair observers. I was a close personal friend of Sir Ronald Wilson who, many years before his knighthood and becoming the author of the ‘stolen generation’ report Bringing Them Home, had extended his friendship and kindness to me.
Also, in Kalgoorlie for seven years, I enjoyed the role of finding guest speakers for the Kalgoorlie Rotary Club’s weekly meetings and on November 21, 1983, I arranged for Mr Geoff McDonald to travel from Melbourne to be our guest speaker. Geoff McDonald had been an organizer for the Communist Party of Australia and had some alarming stories of the Communist Party’s plan to ‘divide’ Australia, in line with their strategies for many other countries. He delivered an intensely interesting story but most of the attendees felt that his scenario for Aboriginal land rights were closer to science fiction than reality.
This was my start in collecting material to see if this nightmare scenario would come true; with ‘claimants’ holding projects to ransom at enormous cost to our nation. The developing situation was summarized by me on pages 104–107 in my 2009 book, Heroic Misadventures.
“In 1979 I purchased a block of land in Hong Kong. I still have the title, headed ‘Document of Land Ownership’ (below), and it certifies quite clearly that: “Ron Manners, the above named honourable person, is a purchaser of a square centimeter of land in the British Colony of Hong Kong entitled under this document.” It was purchased from China Square Inch Land Ltd.
Now let me compare that with an application in Western Australia for an Exploration Licence, Prospecting Licence or a Mining Lease. Neither these applications nor the China Land Title give me useful access or rights.
The essential difference is that when I purchased the square centimeter of Hong Kong land I knew it was a joke, simply a clever tourist gimmick and I never had any expectations of claiming the rights to my so called ‘title’, for which I paid very little. However, with the Mineral Tenement Application, that was different. I paid good money with the expectation I could proceed to explore and produce.
The scandal which confronts us now is that any of us applying for a mineral tenement would be lucky to live long enough to go through the various procedures that will give us the access, when in the past we could simply “get on with our job”.
I despair at the outcome (or lack of any outcome) of what is mistakenly called Native Title. Australian Aboriginals do not have any title as a result of this and, simultaneously, the system of mining titles that previously gave good title is now severely diminished.
The Act was not well thought through and is poorly drafted. With all due respect to our High Court and Parliamentary scribes, I’m amazed how they can have had so much knowledge, but so little wisdom. Since the High Court judgements, property rights have not only been reallocated without compensation for people’s losses but, worse from an economic perspective, they have been stripped of any useful function—destroyed!
What is called Native Title is inalienable, and therefore cannot be sold or mortgaged. Native Title is unclear as to:
- geographic extent
- rights that it confers
It is of almost no use to the Aboriginal people and an absolute nightmare to investors who must steer clear of uncertainty. It has cost our nation around $60-$90 billion in lost production, lost opportunities and lost employment and gives Aboriginals no rights whatsoever other than to hold projects up.
Let’s think for a while just what momentum and excitement Australia’s mining industry could develop under the rule of law and some form of property rights, where we could quickly drill a few holes on exploration tenements.
No-one wants to talk about the land access problems that plague Australia and have caused so many Australians to seek employment overseas. These are people whom we desperately need to tempt back home.
I raised the question of the badly drafted Native Title Act with our Deputy Prime Minister at a public meeting in October, 2001 and, as someone said later: I didn’t realize that politicians could run so fast!”
(1) Native Title “lost opportunity” cost between $60-$90 billion. A figure of $30 billion was the estimated opportunity cost of the Native Title legislation in its reduction in the value of mining projects, quoted in a paper delivered to the Securities Institute Seminar on Native Title in Perth on June 4, 1996 by, Coopers & Lybrand Partner, Wayne Lonergan (now at Lonergan Edwards & Associates). In delivering the paper Mr Lonergan said, “this is not a comment about the underlying social policy—it is a comment on a tragic and unnecessary waste of money.” Only a fraction of this lost value will flow to successful Native Title Claimants. Most of the lost value simply disappears because of the statutory time delays and the increase in risk created by the Native Title Act. I have extrapolated his 1996 figure of $30 billion through to 2004 as “between $60 – $90 billion” for the following reasons:
- Although my extensive files trace the development of Native Title since July 1977, the effects of the Native Title Act were only starting to make themselves felt in 1996 and opportunity costs have compounded since then. No other detailed study of this nature has been conducted since 1996, to my knowledge, simply because it would not be regarded as politically correct to identify such lost opportunity costs to our nation. (Perhaps we need a study to identify the opportunity costs of ‘political correctness’).
So, in conclusion, let me state that it will take a better actuary than me to pick up the 2009 figure of $90 billion in lost opportunity costs for the nation and to extrapolate that right through to 2017 and I hope that someone will take on this challenge. Writing this, short piece, on this long saga reminded me of my May 19, 1999 interview in Kalgoorlie with Swiss National TV involving a respected Aboriginal elder.
I asked him how he felt about being one of the ‘stolen generation’. He replied, with a smile:
“Ron, I wasn’t stolen; I was rescued.”