Indigenous Australia and country: the debate in 2015

Connection to country is the founding pillar of Indigenous identity. But threats to this connection have been making headlines throughout 2015. Here is a breakdown of the issue. 


Background: Indigenous Australia and country making headlines in 2015

In 2010, the Western Australian government conducted research to deem which remote Indigenous communities in the state were unsustainable, according to a leaked document as reported by the ABC in 2015.

In 2011, the federal government prepared a document titled Priority Investment Communities – WA that named 192 of 287 remote Indigenous communities as not sustainable. Most of these communities are located in the Kimberley region in the state's northwest.

In 2014, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett flagged the closures of about 150 remote Indigenous communities after the Federal Government said it planned to cease providing essential services to those communities and make it a state responsibility.

A remote community in Western Australia.


The Australian Government funds about two-thirds of the state's remote Indigenous settlements but announced in September 2014 that it would transfer that responsibility to the state government.

In 2015, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the federal government supported the Western Australian Government's possible service cuts.

"What we can't do, is endlessly subsidise choices, if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have," Mr Abbott said.

SOS Blak Australia campaign

In response to Tony Abbott's support for the potential closures of remote Indigenous communities through Western Australia and subsequent disapproval from the communities, Indigenous leaders banded together to form the SOS Blak Australia campaign.

"We who live in the remoter areas of Australia do not believe it is a lifestyle choice but an intrinsic fundamental human right to live in our own communities and our own country. We hold significant cultural obligations to our Ancestors to maintain Sovereign ties to our lands," a statement on behalf of the communities reads.

"After successive breaches of human rights conventions and the forced removal of the Aboriginal Community of Oombulgurri in 2014, we maintain a vote of no confidence in both the incumbent state and federal governments in their actions toward Aboriginal people."

In March it launched a global call to action to stop the potential closure of the communities. Protests around the country took storm and social media engagement mushroomed. In May, communities around the world converged to protest the flagged closures.

The campaign says on behalf of the remote communities they:

1. Do not accept the terms, alleged rationale or reasoning upon which both Governments have presented.

2. Do not accept acts of dispossession, genocide and apartheid in the 21st Century on our Sovereign lands.

3. Demand transparency in the stated Government agenda.

4. Demand transparency in the relationship between Government and the mining interests of Australia.

5. Demand urgent consultation with Government by community leaders.

6. Call upon the greater Australian community to stand with us as we develop our own self-determined community led strategies to ensure community viability and tenure for our people.

7. Call upon the world to build profile to our plight as the Indigenous people of Australia.

Major resource projects affecting communities in 2015

Adani's Carmichael Coal Mine

The Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail project of Adani Mining Pty Ltd was given the green light in October this year by Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

The Wangan and Jagalingo people initially rejected a land-use agreement with Adani Mining over the $16-billion Carmichael Coalmine project. In April 2015 the National Native Title Tribunal ruled that Adani's remaining mining leases could be granted (but that ruling did not mean that it must be granted), without further consideration of native title issues.

The project was approved in July 2014 by Mr Hunt but was set aside in August by the Federal Court over threatened species yakka skink and the ornamental snake whose habitat was at the intended site.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) says that the mining project, which is set to be dug in Galilee Basin in Queensland, will have a severe impact on around 10,000 hectares natural environment. Endangered species, such as the largest-known population of the southern black-throated finch, are expected to take the brunt, it said. 

"To approve a massive coal mine that would make species extinct, deplete 297 billion litres of precious groundwater and produce 128.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year is grossly irresponsible," ACF President Geoff Cousins told media.

The project has estimated that it will produce a total 2.3 tonnes of thermal coal.

Ichthys LNG Project

The Ichthys LNG Project is an oil and gas project, and Japan's largest investment project in Australia, about 220 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia.

It is a joint venture between INPEX, major partner Total, CPC Corporation Taiwan and the Australian subsidiaries of Tokyo Gas, Osaka Gas, Kansai Electric Power, Chubu Electric Power and Toho Gas.

Ichthys, which is currently under construction, says it expects to produce about 1.6 million tonnes of LNG per annum and a total 8.9 million tonnes of LNG. It is set to produce a maximum of 100,000 barrels of condensate per day.

Gas and condensate will be transferred to Darwin through a 900 kilometre pipeline for processing then exported to global markets from a facility in the Browse Basin, north of Broome.

In September it came under fire from the Maritime Union of Australia. They were concerned INPEX would not provide enough jobs to locals and launched a campaign to ensure INPEX would commit to a binding agreement to ensure the venture would provide jobs to locals.

Ichthys responded saying it would. Its 2015 reconciliation action plan says that it has:

  • More than 600 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples engaged on the Ichthys Project construction workforce through the efforts and cooperation of Project contractors.
  • Formal training across a range of construction skills provided to over 200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the Ichthys Project.
  • Fifty-one businesses engaged on multiple contracts through the implementation of the Ichthys Project Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business engagement strategy.
  • An Indigenous Business Capability Initiative established with the Northern Territory Indigenous Business Network and Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Why is it important for Indigenous Australians to stay on their lands?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a special connection to the natural environment. The land is a part of them and is at the core of their spirituality.

Their ancestor's spirits created the land and everything in it, which makes every part of it sacred. Every part of the world is interconnected – people, plants, animals, land mass and the celestial.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people inherit totems, a natural object or living thing that is a spiritual descendent, according to which tribe they are from. Indigenous Australia was made up of more than 250 tribes, says the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

The Australian Government itself acknowledges that "land is fundamental to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people". 

The connection that Aboriginal people feel to our country is one of the hardest concepts to explain to the layman. Trying to frame this concept is modern language is like trying to grasp a two dimensional cup out of a piece of paper, it’s the layers that make the cup palpable not the drawing of it.

Connection to country is inherent, we are born to it, it is how we identify ourselves, it is our family, our laws, our responsibility, our inheritance and our legacy. To not know your country causes a painful disconnection, the impact of which is well documented in studies relating to health, wellbeing  and life outcomes. Modern constructs of identification do not work for us, in fact they dismantle the fabric that holds us together.

For example it matters not that my licence says I live in Sydney, it matters that I am guest in this place, I respect it because I am from the Arrente and Luritja lands, and it is this knowledge that enables me to identify who I am, who my family is, who my ancestors were and what my stories are. We are indistinguishable from our country which is why we fight so hard to hang on.

-Journalist Catherine Liddle

The WA issue: how are decisions on Indigenous issues made?

Western Australian Government

The Government of Western Australia’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs leads policy on issues affecting Indigenous Australians in the state and advises the state government on the state and direction of services to them, under the 1972 Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority Act.


Section 17 of the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act and Regulations 6-10 of the 1974 Aboriginal Heritage Regulations work to preserve Aboriginal sites and objects.

The Western Australian Government has introduced the 2014 Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill to parliament.

Under the 1993 Native Title Act, native title claimants can make an application to the Federal Court to have their native title recognised by Australian law.

Native Title recognises the traditional rights and interests to land and waters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Before 1992, Australian law did not recognise Indigenous peoples having rights to land and water bodies that they had inhabited for thousands of years.

It was formed when the outcome of the High Court of Australia's Mabo v Queensland case (1992) of Australia's Mabo v Queensland case (1992) favoured the Meriam people's claim to Murray Island.

Western Australian Heritage Council

The state government's Heritage Council, advises the state on matters concerning its heritage and makes decisions pertaining to heritage using the 1990 Heritage of Western Australia Act.

None of its members are Indigenous.

The Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee

The Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee falls under the WA Government's Department of Aboriginal Affairs and was established under the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act to evaluate the importance of places and objects alleged to be associated with Aboriginal persons and make subsequent recommendations to the minister.

As of 2015, three of its six members are of Aboriginal descent, the state government confirmed to NITV.

The Western Australian Government confirmed to NITV that 35 sites had been deregistered from the Aboriginal Heritage Register.

"The Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee has previously made decisions on the 35 heritage places affected by the Supreme Court decision," a spokesperson told NITV.

The move was made in line with Section 5 of the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act, the government said.

There have been reports that 1,262 heritage claims has been rejected under Section 5. The government would not answer NITV directly when asked to confirm this.

Instead the spokesperson said the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee was required to assess if a place meets any of the subsections of Section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. 

They added that the status of an Aboriginal site or heritage place could only change to Stored Data/Not a Site-status through an assessment by the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee that had determined the site did not meet Section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The ancient Aboriginal rock art at the Burrup Peninsula is the world's largest and oldest.


The Department of Aboriginal Affairs Aboriginal Heritage inquiry system has two categories, Registered Sites and Other Heritage Places.  The Other Heritage Places category is comprised of two subsets: Lodged and Stored Data/Not a Site places.

"The government has been working for several years to improve the register to ensure that the places it contains actually meet the requirements of the act, still exist, and that they are in the correct location," the spokesperson told NITV, adding that 14,000 locations are on the the Register of Aboriginal sites, and more than 35,000 are in the database.

"The federal government works with the Western Australian Government to ensure that current levels of support for remote area communities are maintained.”

In a move that stirred controversy, the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill was introduced into parliament in November 2014. The bill gives the executive of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs considerable power.

It can declare under Section 18C that Aboriginal sites do not exist. It, nor the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee, do not have to consult with Aboriginal native title holders or custodians when considering a heritage site.