The hopes of the Wik people have been cruelly dashed

17th November 2014 at 7:48am


There has never been a decade in the past four in which the Wik peoples have not been fighting the Queensland government in court.

In the 1970s they fought Joh Bjelke-Petersen over the attempt by the Queensland government to grant bauxite mining leases to a French consortium led by Pechiney. It did so without consulting or obtaining the support of the traditional owners. A Wik man, Don­ald Peinkinna, challenged the grant in the Supreme Court of Queensland The case was initially won in the Supreme Court, which found the agreement constituted a breach of trust. However, Qeensland successfully appealed this decision in the Privy Council, which found against Peinkinna in March 1978.

In the 80s, the case of Koowarta was handed down by the High Court of Australia, confirming that Bjelke-Petersen had unlawfully discriminated against Koo­warta’s people when he refused to allow the sale of the Archer Bend cattle station to its traditional owners. Though he lost the case, Bjelke-Petersen still had the last word: he turned the cattle station into a national park to prevent Koowarta from owning it.

In the 90s, the Wik people launched their native title case in the High Court. Their victory established native title on the Australian continent and was a historic milestone in the land rights cause.

In the 2000s, all of the native title claims of the Wik people were settled in the Federal Court under the terms of the Native Title Act, including over the lands that are the subject of the current dispute.

Despite the fact that the Wik have had their rights confirmed by the courts many times over, the Queensland government has continued its contemptuous treatment of Aboriginal people.

When, on August 28, Queensland’s Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, also Minister for State Development, announced in The Australian that his government had selected Glencore as the “preferred proponent” of these deposits, the announcement was met with a collective gasp by those who had followed the process.

Bjelke-Peterson would have been impressed with the machinations of Premier Campbell Newman and Seeney over the process for awarding the right to operate a mining venture over the Aur­ukun bauxite reserves (RA315) in Cape York.

As a greenfield project, RA315 is the perfect project for the Aur­ukun Bauxite Project joint venture negotiated between local Wik owners and an impressive investment team. Yet their bid was rejected in an extraordinary breach of the agreed, publicly announced process for assessing bids. The Wik people were counting on this project to build their local economy, businesses and to shift their people out of poverty and welfare dependency. Their hopes have been cruelly dashed.

It is as if several decades had not passed and it is business as usual in Queensland circa 1972. No abolition of the hated remnant of the Native Affairs Protectorate in this state; no Fitzgerald royal commission; no Racial Discrimination Act; no native title; no consideration of the Wik people’s aspirations for their future and their land; no indigenous accord with the mining industry and the Minerals Council of Australia, nor hundreds of indigenous land use agreements with industry.

Perhaps naively, the proponents of the Aurukun Bauxite Deposit consortium of traditional owners and a range of Australian and international investors believed that the process to which the Queensland government had committed in dealing with the old leases to Pechiney would follow due and legal process.

They are just the latest victims of a long tradition of quick fixes for the mining industry and midnight sessions in the parliamentary precinct in Brisbane.

The story begins in 1955 on the western coast of Cape York when geologist Harry Evans discovered massive bauxite deposits under the then Aboriginal Reserves where Aurukun, Weipa and Mapoon are located.

In 1957, the Queensland parliament passed the Commonwealth Aluminium Corporation Pty Limited Agreement Act 1957 (Qld) (“the Comalco Act”) and the government issued mining leases to the company. Nearly 8000sq km were excised from the mission reserve. Further exploration of what were said to be the world’s richest deposits established that the ore body extended from north of Weipa, where the Presbyterian mission Mapoon was established in 1891, to the south of the Embley River, where lay another Presbyterian mission, Aurukun. Alcan was issued with mining leases over large tracts of land in the vicinity.

Farther to the south, at Weipa, Comalco was given mining leases over 587,802ha of Aboriginal reserve land. Later, Comalco set aside 125ha of this for Aboriginal use, thus reducing the size of the reserve by 347,831ha.

In 1961, the Presbyterian Church handed over its mission leases and some Aboriginal residents of Mapoon “voluntarily” left to make way for a mining town. Over two days in November 1963, the Queensland police forcibly ­removed at gunpoint the people remaining at Mapoon, then demolished their houses, burnt their church and shot their dogs.

One of the residents removed in this raid was Rachel Peter, who described the events for a Uniting Church publication: “We’re the ones that were moved out by police, by gunpoint, (on) that boat they sent for us … sneaked in on us in the night … they came from Thursday Island. We were really sad, but we just had to go because they told us we were going for questioning. At the Bamaga wharf they told us there were seven houses waiting for us to walk in and light the stoves. And when we arrived in Bamaga there were no homes. We were just standing out in the streets like a mob of ­cattle with nowhere to go.”

In 1975, when Bjelke-Petersen decided that, despite these lands being within the Aurukun Aboriginal Reserve, a special bauxite mining lease would be granted to a consortium of Billiton, Pechiney and Tipperary corporations, special legislation was rushed through the state parliament.

On November 21, 1975, the Queensland government approved draft legislation for the start of a $100 million bauxite mining and alumina refining scheme at Aurukun, a decision that prompted one of the many legal challenges by Wik ­people.

About the same time, the Fraser government attempted to override the Queensland government’s racism by providing a federal statute to give Aboriginal people the right of self-management: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-management) Act 1978 (Cth). Queensland immediately countered by revoking the reserve status of the reserve lands of the Aurukun and Mornington Island communities in May 1978.

The Local Government (Aboriginal Lands) Act 1978 (Qld) provided instead for 50-year leases to the residents of Aurukun and Mornington Island, and switched the status of the land from “reserve” to “crown”, which meant that the Queensland government was virtually taking it out of the reach of the commonwealth.

In addition, it meant that the Uniting Church, which had managed the communities and had vigorously supported them, was sacked.

In 1996, the Wik and other west coast Aboriginal peoples entered negotiations with Comalco, now Rio Tinto Alcan, designed to create a new relationship.

In 2001 a comprehensive agreement, the Western Cape Communities Coexistence Agreement, was reached between traditional owner groups, the Aboriginal communities, Comalco and Queensland under the terms of the Native Title Act. It remains one of the most sophisticated and effective indigenous land use agreements settled in Australia in the past two decades.

The Wik and Wik Way peoples have lived in western Cape York for more than 30,000 years and have built a sophisticated amalgam of institutions to protect their ancient ways and corporations for managing their engagement with the modern economy. Their Aur­ukun Bauxite joint venture was established to pursue their economic aspirations. They have been cruelly disappointed.

The Queensland government’s tradition of contempt for Aboriginal people and for normal process in allocating mining tenements continues as if old Joh’s ghost were hovering over Seeney’s office.


Marcia Langton is professor of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne. She is involved in a WA-based mining services company with Aboriginal ownership.