'This will mean moolah': former High Court judge calls for cash for Indigenous families
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'This will mean moolah': former High Court judge calls for cash for Indigenous families

Twenty six years after the Eddie Mabo decision, a former judge says cash could help Indigenous people when native title law hasn't.

By Richard Baker

Indigenous Australians who have been unable to secure recognition of their right to land under native title ought to be able to access money to improve their lives from a national fund, according to former high court justice Michael Kirby.

Mr Kirby raised the idea of a national fund “to provide for the economic benefits of Aboriginals who can’t prove” native title, during an interview for episode four of The Age's investigative podcast Wrong Skin.

Wrong Skin, named after a Kimberley phrase used to describe a relationship forbidden under traditional law, is examining the 1994 death of Looma mother Julie Buck and the disappearance of her boyfriend.

The podcast series is also examining the power structures in the Kimberley region of Australia's far north-west, and how native title law has been handled.

Of the idea of a new national fund, Mr Kirby said: “A lot of Aboriginals in Australia don’t have those [native title] entitlements so they’re left out on their own. So it [the fund] would have to come out of general revenues and the taxpayers ...

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“This will mean money, moolah. This will mean cash out of the pockets of those who have not been dispossessed into the pockets of those who have been dispossessed and their families and dependents. That’s something that is very controversial in Australia. A lot of people don’t agree with it.

 Justice Michael Kirby.

Justice Michael Kirby. Credit:Stephen Baccon

“But until we somehow resolve the economic injustices that have been suffered by the Indigenous people and have a second chance to re-establish relationships between all people in Australia on the basis of equity and justice, we are not going to see Aboriginal advancement to true equality in the country.”

Episode four of Wrong Skin, released on Monday, provides important new details about the mystery surrounding both Julie Buck's death and the disappearance of her boyfriend, Richard Milgin.

It reveals that a Toyota Troop Carrier that police have been told may be connected to the disappearance of the young couple was in 1994 registered to the current Kimberley Land Council chairman, Anthony Watson.

At that time, Anthony Watson's father, John Watson, had just finished his second stint as KLC chairman.

Police have been told by people in Looma that the father and son may be able to help solve the mystery of what happened to Richard and Julie because of their high-ranking status in the community and past connection to senior tribal men upset by the couples' relationship. Many of these senior men have passed on.

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The Age is not suggesting Anthony Watson nor John Watson were involved in the disappearance of Richard and death of Julie.

John Watson and his son Anthony Watson.

John Watson and his son Anthony Watson.Credit:Kate Geraghty.

The latest Wrong Skin episode explores the KLC's role in achieving native title recognition for the people of the Kimberley.

In the far north-west of Australia, the KLC has been extremely successful in getting native title claims recognised by the courts for traditional owners across a huge tract of land.

Paul Keating’s Labor government introduced the Native Title Act in 1993. It was prompted by the High Court’s historic Mabo decision, which overturned 150 years of legal precedent to accept that Murray Island man Eddie Mabo’s ancestors’ had ownership rights to their land pre-dating British arrival.

By having native title recognised, traditional owners have the right to negotiate with other parties who want to conduct exploration or other activities on their land. This can lead to considerable financial benefits for those recognised on the native title claim.

With so much at stake, the way the KLC and similar representative bodies around Australia have gone about choosing applicants for native title claims has been criticised by Indigenous families left out of the process.

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Mr Kirby, who had to rule on several complex native title cases on the bench of the High Court between 1996 and 2009, said Australia needed to have a national conversation about how to help the thousands of Indigenous families who were unable to be recognised under native title.

To be accepted on a native title claim, an applicant has to be able to prove in court a continuous connection through ancestors to a particular piece of country pre-dating British arrival.

But many Indigenous Australians are unable to provide enough information to prove their ongoing connection to land to satisfy the court. One reason for this inability is the policy of previous governments of forcibly removing generations of Aboriginal children from their families.

Mr Kirby said money to improve education, housing, living standards and employment prospects for Indigenous Australians would make a bigger difference to lives than “just having a few poetic words in our constitution”.

The son of Eddie Mabo, Eddie Mobo jnr.(left) with Wik people from Cape York Peninsula Norma Chevathun (2nd left) Jonathan Korkaktain (2 right) and Doug Woolah (far right).

The son of Eddie Mabo, Eddie Mobo jnr.(left) with Wik people from Cape York Peninsula Norma Chevathun (2nd left) Jonathan Korkaktain (2 right) and Doug Woolah (far right).Credit:Mike Bowers


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Richard Baker is one of Australia's most experienced and decorated investigative journalists, with 12 years in The Age newspaper's investigative unit. He has many times been the recipient of Australia's major journalism awards, including multiple Walkleys, the Melbourne Press Club's gold quill and more than a dozen other quills, a Kennedy award and the George Munster prize for independent journalism. Together with colleague Nick McKenzie, Richard has broken major international and national corruption scandals. He also writes regularly on politics, business, crime, sports affairs, defence and intelligence and social affairs. In 2016, he created and co-hosted the awarding winning six part podcast series, Phoebe's Fall.