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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 338

Mr EVERINGHAM(12.45) —Mr Deputy Speaker, it is indeed a pleasure to rise while the House is being presided over by your august presence, my fellow back bench mate. I use my time today to highlight the injustice visited upon one family in the Northern Territory by the actions of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding) in applying the land rights Act in the Northern Territory. It is the declared intention of the Minister to amend that part of the land rights Act that allows an Aboriginal group to lay claim to land held by another Aboriginal group. True, we are not told when the Minister intends to bring in the necessary amendment, but the Minister has publicly acknowledged the need for it. Even he can see that a law that makes land available for claim on the basis of the colour of the present occupiers is in direct contravention of all the principles of law that we have in Australia.

In simple terms, the current Act makes it possible for Aboriginals to lay claim to land held by others, as long as those others are Aboriginal, even if the claim is opposed. I am sorry that the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Hand), who is interjecting, missed out on the ministry! I thought old Gordon would have been an easy mark for a guy like the honourable member. As the Minister is well aware, this provision has caused great hardship for one Aboriginal family, the Johnstons of Vanderlin Island. Despite this, in June last year, the Minister handed over title to Vanderlin Island and West Island in the Sir Edward Pellew Group to the Wurralibi Land Trust. He did not take the matter to arbitration, as he could have done. He did this in the full knowledge that he was worsening an already tense situation. Since then, predictably as long as outsiders continue to interfere with arrangements for the future of Vanderlin, the situation has worsened.

The Johnstons have lived on Vanderlin for two generations. They operate an extensive property with around 2,000 head of cattle, goats, horses and other stock. Late last year, in direct dealings between the island's traditional owners-old Tim and Banjo-and Steve Johnston, it was agreed that the Johnston's occupation of the 250 square kilometre island could continue. The traditional owners moved by choice some 40 years ago to the mainland and I am told have no plans to reoccupy the island themselves. It seemed that agreement between the directly interested parties had resolved a problem created by the Commonwealth legislation.

But then the Northern Land Council Chairman and the Northern Territory Director of Aboriginal Affairs stepped in. They decided that the acknowledged traditional owners-old Tim and Banjo-were too old to know what they were doing. At a meeting at Borroloola from 21 to 23 January, after asking Steve Johnston to leave the meeting, they overturned the agreement and decided to offer the Johnstons a lease over only a small southern corner of the island. Understandably, when Steve Johnston found out that decision through the pages of the local paper, he refused to accept it. He now intends to fight to the last for his family's years of occupation to be recognised. But, of course, although the Johnstons are Aboriginals when it comes to claiming land from them, they are not Aboriginals when it comes to asserting their rights to occupation of their home island. They are the pawns of legislators, the victims of legal draftsmen and bureaucrats. They are uniquely discriminated against by Commonwealth law-without the rights of Aboriginals to assert their claim, without the rights of non-Aboriginals to resist the claims of others, and without the right to reach amicable agreement with the acknowledged traditional owners without the interference of the Minister's Department in consort with the Northern Land Council.

The result is likely to be that the island will be vacated by all, that some 2,000 head of cattle and hundreds of other livestock will be shot, that the Johnston family will move away, and that the traditional owners will fail to take up occupation. Vanderlin Island will be an empty memorial to land rights legislation. Its only sign of habitation will be the graves of a Scottish born fisherman and his Aboriginal Wurralibi wife, who together believed that they had established a permanent home for their several children and for children of those children.