A plan to return Boomanulla Oval to Indigenous control has been rejected by the ACT government in a shock decision criticised for ignoring Aboriginal self-determination.
The neglected park in Narrabundah has huge cultural significance to the local Aboriginal community, but is currently managed by the government after its previous owners went into voluntary administration in 2014.
After two years of negotiations and spending $50,000 on a proposal to put Boomanulla back in Aboriginal hands, the ACT government has decided to manage the oval itself.
Winnunga Nimmityjah chief executive Julie Tongs was involved in developing the Boomanulla bid and was furious at the government’s unexpected decision to reject the plan.
She said the decision lacked transparency and showed the government had “no commitment to the principle of Aboriginal sovereignty and self-determination”.
The recent ACT budget allocated $770,000 to upgrade the oval, although it is understood these improvements will only allow “informal recreational use” and the oval will still not be suitable for sport.
In 2016 Winnunga began discussing plans with the ACT government to place Boomanulla back under Indigenous management.
Ms Tongs said the upfront cost of making the dilapidated park usable was $3.5 million, with ongoing maintenance expected to cost about $500,000 per year.
To meet these costs, Winnunga sought the certainty of a long-term lease as well as planning variations that would allow a section of the site to be developed.
At the outset Winnunga warned the government such a proposal would not comply with tender requirements and would require some kind of special consideration or exemption.
Without this, Winnunga said it was unlikely anyone would be able to put forward a sustainable plan for the oval.
The ACT government subsequently encouraged Winnunga to flesh out the idea, providing $50,000 to do so, and held regular meetings to discuss the plan's progress.
Ms Tongs said the final plan was lodged with the government in September 2017 and, after almost a year of consideration, was unexpectedly rejected last month.
“The decision ignored the significance of the site to Aboriginal people and represented a denial of the right of the Aboriginal community to self-determination and self-management of a place of the deepest significance to them,” Ms Tongs said.
Ms Tongs said the process had left such a bad taste, she was no longer “prepared to commit the time, energy and resources to open tender processes for the provision of services or support to the Indigenous community”.
Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service is a community-controlled organisation and one of the largest outfits of its kind in the territory.
The ACT government asked for expressions of interest from organisations keen to manage Boomanulla Oval in March 2016.
“…we are looking forward to identifying a new management organisation that is passionate about the prosperity of the oval, and that is committed to managing Boomanulla as a facility that the community can use for a range of activities,” the announcement read.
A spokeswoman from the ACT’s economic development directorate did not address questions about Winnunga’s bid or the ongoing management of the oval.
“The ACT government understands and respects the significance of Boomanulla Oval to the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and is committed to seeing the facility reopen as soon as possible,” the spokeswoman said.
“Since 2016, the government has been working in good faith with the community to develop an innovative approach to ensure the long-term, sustainable management of the oval.”
The oval is named after Indigenous advocate Mervin John "Boominulla" Williams, and as a significant football ground for the national Aboriginal community it once hosted training sessions for visiting NRL teams.