THE minute the government changed its tune on Newcastle’s rail corridor, disowning old assurances that the land would remain undeveloped, there were some who predicted an Aboriginal land claim might follow.
After all, the experience of the former Newcastle post office building appeared to show the way. In that case the state government bought back a building previously sold to a private investor by the federal government, but didn’t have any immediate plan for its use.
Under NSW land rights law any state land held without a clear and stated purpose is more or less open to a claim by an Aboriginal land council. Acting on this, the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council claimed the post office building and, despite an attempted defence in court by the government, it won title to the property.
Perhaps buoyed by that victory, the land council has returned to the fray with a variety of claims over various pieces of property around the Newcastle area. Among these is the contentious rail corridor. This in itself is a fascinating claim that might appear – if the post office case is any guide – to have a fair chance of success. The case must be argued on the basis of plans for the land as they stood at the time the claim was lodged, and nothing can proceed on the land until the claim is resolved.
The land council has stated that it opposes development on the rail corridor and wants to control the destiny of a strip of land long considered highly desirable for development because, unlike much of Newcastle, it isn’t undermined.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean any kind of victory for those who have opposed the removal of the heavy rail link, since the council is apparently not opposed to the corridor being used for light rail, as was proposed before the sudden emergence of the Hunter Street alternative route.
The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act is designed specifically to transfer wealth to Aboriginal people via ownership of valuable land from which they may earn money. The downside is that land-rich land councils are subject to most of the usual expenses associated with owning property, a fact that tends to create an incentive for commercial development.
News of the latest claim is certainly a fascinating twist, following hard on the heels of the government’s own surreptitious attempt to transfer ownership of the rail corridor to its Hunter Development Corporation. That move – initially defeated in court but subject to an appeal – appeared to be designed to liberate the government from legislative obligations surrounding railway lines. If the government’s goal is to facilitate the ready sale and redevelopment of portions of the former railway corridor, that goal appears to have become a little more elusive.