Review of oldest Lands Rights in Australia a challenge

Robyn Layton QC (L) and Nerida Saunders (R) at Pukatja for APY Review consultations (SBS K Ashford)

An overhaul of Australia's oldest Land Rights Act is proving to be tricky business.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
The APY Lands (Anangu Pitjatjantjara Yunkunytjatjara Lands) in South Australia's far northwest are in the midst of change - change that everyone agrees is needed, but not everyone agrees on the form it should take.

As Karen Ashford reports, the original Act of 1981 is undergoing what's described as a narrow review, in an attempt to bring stability and strong leadership to the region.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

In the dusty yard outside the Pukatja office, former Supreme Court judge Robyn Layton brushes away flies as she scans paperwork for the APY Lands Review.
Getting the views of 3,000 people scattered across 100,000 square kilometres of desert is a massive task.

This day's turnout is low because an elder has passed away and Sorry Business has consumed the community.

Another visit here will be needed, but the views of other communities have been put forward loud and clear, and Ms Layton says priorities are emerging.

"What they are hoping to achieve is they want strong men and strong women; they want people who are prepared to speak out and not just sit back."

In particular there's a demand for greater female representation on the region's peak organisation, the APY executive.

Currently there's just one woman amongst its ten members, Mrs Milyika Paddy - and she thinks women's priorities should be heard in balance with men's.

"I'm worrying it should be all the ladies come together, and ladies and men - must be five ladies, five men. Ladies get good ideas and talking, strong ladies, all the ladies talking."

The review was prompted partly by a need to keep up with the times - the Act has been significantly amended just once in its 32 years - and partly because of concerns about its structure, operations and accountability.

The organisation has a statutory obligation to consult with and protect the interests of Traditional Owners over Land management, but it has experienced financial troubles and only recently moved its ledger back into the black.

It's also had instability, with a high turnover of General Managers - the fourth was recently appointed in as many years to this key administrative role supporting the Executive.

The Executive itself has faced community scrutiny over its structure and independence.

At present, elections are held every three years and involve each of the ten communities electing their own representative.

At last year's election, two electorates didn't receive candidates and supplementary elections were held.

Because communities are small, with around 300 or fewer residents, there's a view that kinship connections could influence the process.

There's also concern that Anangu, or local Aboriginal people, who live outside the major communities in smaller homelands might not be properly engaged.

The review team is speaking with Anangu about options for better representation, such as increasing the Executive to 12, and enabling voting similar to the Australian Senate, where everyone gets a chance to vote for all candidates, not just the ones from their community.

It's a proposal that seems to have broad appeal in the community of Fregon, known in the local language as Kaltjiti.

Robert Stevens is Fregon's chairman, and a member of the current APY Executive.

He thinks APY operations have become too centred on the larger communities, to the detriment of the smaller places, called homelands.

"Things are really crook - no-one ever talks about homelands, no-one. All our funding is gone, been taken away from homelands and there's really no talk, no one speaking up, there's nowhere to go, we don't know where to go. Really lost."

Another concern for Anangu is the calibre of candidates for the Executive.

Robyn Layton says there's a strong demand to ensure Executive members are fit to hold office.

"People should live on the lands if they are to be elected and live in the community which they are meant to represent. They should also be physically and mentally fit. They should also not have really serious convictions. So people are saying no serious convictions, there must be a clean police record. And that covers serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, really serious violence. They are very strong on that. So those are the major issues and that will automatically, in some instances, bring about the best men and women."

That means members of the current Executive, including chairman Bernard Singer, could be precluded from the Executive because of a police record.

Mr Singer was unable to be contacted because of men's cultural business, but Milyika Paddy is adamant of the need for Executive to be upstanding citizens.

"All executive must be standing strong, and tell no marijuana and no grog. Executive first. No executive if the police take people and put them in jail, some man and ladies, no Executive."

The review process itself hasn't been without criticism.

Some past initiatives on the Lands have failed because Anangu say governments have a tendency to drive decision-making rather than consulting widely.

It's a pitfall Robyn Layton's tried scrupulously to avoid by staging several visits to the region and asking Anangu how they want to see the Lands run, rather than presenting them with a plan.

But Anangu activist George Kenmore, who wants a royal commission to investigate APY's finances, says the process hasn't allowed enough time for people to give their views.

He thinks the government is pushing its own agenda.

"They shouldn't be trying to set up a structure anymore, they should be having a look how can they control the money so service providers don't keep it in the bank in Adelaide. And then you can do a proper management review on it, how it would be run. But they're trying to take a short cut and by taking short cuts they will fail."

Mr Kenmore says he has support for his concerns from some elders and recently presented a signed list of grievances to the Executive - but meeting minutes shows that at least one influential elder now wants to have his name removed from that list.

Mr Kenmore, who lives in Adelaide, also thinks Anangu should be able to run for executive regardless of where they live.

"Well, you know, we do have children going to school and mothers and fathers won't just live up there, they'll come down with the kids to go to school and stuff like that."

It's a notion senior woman Milyika Paddy strongly opposes.

"Not going other place, not going long way. Stay here in the community. Local. No outside, staying local, on community place."

Another aspect Anangu are being asked to consider is whether outside experts should provide the Executive with advice.

Some like Mrs Paddy think the Executive should have access to legal and financial expertise to inform its decision-making.

She thinks the Executive should be able to hear advice from outsiders, without them getting involved in decisions.

"There should be outside people bring their stories to management, executive board, supporting. Outside people bring story and give it to executive and tell the meeting."

Fellow executive member Robert Stevens doesn't like the idea of outsiders getting involved in Anangu affairs and consuming too much of the Executive's funds.

"Consultants are wasting time, you know, too much money goes in."

It's an issue that Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ian Hunter told Parliament shall be put to one side for now, even though he says a key reason for the review was to strengthen its expert advisory capacity and knowledge base.

"There was some support for the idea of a separate economic advisory committee but only limited support for the addition of two skills-based directors to the APY executive, consequently there are no recommendations made on these two proposals.The panel considers this may be considered further at a time when a new APY executive is elected."

However he says other elements, including gender balance, and the introduction of a "fit and proper person" test for aspiring Executive members, have met with widespread support and remain key parts of the review panel's interim report.

"The interim report will be handed to the APY executive so they may consider and assess the views expressed by Anangu in this review, prior to the public release of the interim report."

With Parliament having concluded for the year, any changes to the Act will have to wait until after the state election next March.

The review comes at a time when the APY Lands are undergoing another change, with the implementation of a Regional Partnership Agreement.

That Agreement aims to refine the way that APY's state and federal funding is managed.

Former engineer Sean McCarthy is the APY's newly appointed General Manager.

He paid tribute to his predecessor Richard Preece for ushering in the RPA and says the challenge ahead for the revitalised Executive will be to make the Agreement work.

Source World News Australia

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