IN 2014, the NSW Land and Environment Court overturned a decision by the state government to reject a land claim by the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council for the historic former Newcastle post office building in Hunter Street.
The court decision was a controversial one at the time, and the grant itself has become all the more problematic since, given the further decay to the building and the controversies that have embroiled the Awabakal land council, and its former chief executive Richard Green.
Despite these controversies – primarily the sacking of the land council board and an ongoing ICAC investigation into some of its property transactions – the council was able to lodge further land claims.
Chastened, perhaps, by the court decision, the Minister for Lands, Paul Toole, has now accepted two of these claims: one for the former Newcastle bowling club site at King Edward Park, the other for the Burwood Colliery bowling club at Whitebridge.
Apparently anticipating opposition to his announcement, Mr Toole has said that the decisions were not discretionary ones but were based on the criteria set out in the 1983 legislation, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. But as Kim Ostinga of the Friends of King Edward Park has observed, the government was able to reject a 2011 claim on the Newcastle club site under the same legislation, so it is difficult to see what has changed in the meantime.
While both the King Edward friends and a group trying to keep the Burwood site away from developers have both publicly welcomed the successful claim, the reality is that the Awabakal will now become freehold owners of two prized pieces of coastal real estate. Success with the Newcastle claim, especially, has come as a surprise to the Awabakal, judging by the response from its new chief executive, Rob Russell.
And if the Awabakal themselves are surprised, then its fair to say that a fair slice of the region’s broader population will be similarly surprised. It should not be forgotten that one of the main purposes of the land rights act is to help to empower Aboriginal groups by giving them land to develop for financial gain. The intention was not to saddle them with property that cannot be developed, simply so the Crown can pass the costs of its upkeep to someone else. In this light, the needs of the Awabakal, and those who want the properties preserved, may well end up in conflict.
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