A Victorian parliamentary inquiry has recommended the state's Aboriginal Affairs Minister be given a greater say over which Aboriginal groups are tasked with protecting Aboriginal heritage.
By
James Nunez

UPDATED 10:48 AM - 26 Aug 2013

A Victorian parliamentary inquiry has recommended the state's Aboriginal Affairs Minister be given a greater say over which Aboriginal groups are tasked with protecting Aboriginal heritage.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The 18 month inquiry has examined the Registered Aboriginal Parties system, following disputes between Aboriginal groups vying for recognition over the same area.

Registered Aboriginal Parties, or RAPs, were introduced under the 2006 Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act, allowing Aboriginal groups to be officially recognised and tasked with protecting Aboriginal heritage.

The Victorian Coalition launched a parliamentary inquiry into the system soon after coming into government in 2010, concerned about disputes between different Aboriginal groups vying to be recognised as cultural custodians over the same area.

The inquiry's report was released this month and makes 38 recommendations including increasing resources and funding for the RAP system.

The inquiry has found there are several competing and overlapping RAP applications across the state, including Gippsland, the Otways region in the southwest, and near Geelong.

In north central Victoria, the Yorta Yorta people have been given RAP status, while the Bangerang people claim to be the genuine cultural custodians for the area.

Mick Harding is the chairman of the Taungurang Clans Aboriginal Corporation, an RAP that shares boundaries with the Yorta Yorta.

He's also a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, the government-appointed board that determines RAP applications.

Mr Harding says it's imperative that the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people resolve their dispute.

But he says he's cautious about one of the inquiry's recommendations that would allow the Aboriginal Heritage Council to compel disputing Aboriginal groups to undertake mediation.

"Does compel mean force? And if it means forcing people to mediate... I mean we've been forced to do things for the last 150 to 200 years in this State anyway. Our mob, we get our backs up when we're forced to do something. And if it's not good for us we'll rebel against it and say no we're not going to do that. But if it's done in a respectful way, then I think it's of great value."

Mr Harding supports another of the inquiry's recommendations to extend funding for a pilot mediation project, called Right People for Country.

The inquiry also recommends greater powers be given to the state's Aboriginal Affairs Minister, allowing the minister to require the Aboriginal Heritage Council to reconsider an unsuccessful RAP application, as well as allowing the Minister to require a review of a previous RAP appointment.

Mr Harding wants that recommendation rejected, as he says it would allow the Minister to interfere in the Aboriginal Heritage Council's decisions.

"It's our business. Let us control our own business. Certainly help us with the process to make sure that we can get along with one another and help one another. But the minute you start interfering all the time there's going to be problems. Because then it says to me it becomes an outside political process."

Pat Larkin is President of the Victorian Farmers Federation branch in Wangaratta, the area supervised by Yorta Yorta.

Mr Larkin says farmers believed the Bangerang people, and not Yorta Yorta, should have been officially recognised for the area.

"They (farmers) were surprised that a particular group that they had historically believed for generations were the appropriate people for this area, the long term traditional custodians, the pre-settlement traditional custodians had in fact been replaced by another group that they'd only heard of in the last 20 years."

Mr Larkin says he supports giving greater power to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister to allow a review of an RAP appointment.

"The way that has just been put and the wording that I also saw does allow a window of opportunity for further adjustment and perhaps a little more accuracy in nominating what particular clan of people were responsible for what particular area, historically and traditionally. I hope that comes to fruition in this immediate Wangaratta, mid-Ovens (river), lower Ovens area and we'll see what the outcome is."

Victoria's Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Jeanette Powell, says the state government now has six months to respond to the parliamentary inquiry's recommendations.

"I will be speaking now to a number of those people in the report, my department will, to find out what the recommendations mean and how we can implement those. Some of those will mean more money, more resources. Some of the recommendations will need changes to legislation. So it won't happen overnight but at the end of the day, this is a process that has to work because it's so important that we protect Aboriginal cultural heritage."