Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
New South Wales: Government refusal to endorse a native title claim lodged by the Wiradjuri clan, after agreement in 1995 by the white community, the Wellington Council and CRA, has sent the claim to the Federal Court

REBECCA GORMAN: More than two years after the establishment of the national Native Title Tribunal, the first Aborigines to lodge a land claim based on the Mabo decision are still waiting for justice. The claim was lodged by the Wiradjuri clan from Wellington in western New South Wales. The unusual thing about this claim is that the white community, the local council and mining giant CRA agreed to recognise the area as traditional Aboriginal land to be controlled by indigenous people.

It's the first such agreement to be reached, and when the historic document was signed, all of the parties thought the process was complete. But the refusal of the New South Wales Government to recognise the agreement has sent it to the Federal Court. Julie Posetti visited the Wellington Common for A.M. in the company of Rose Chown, the Wiradjuri woman spearheading the six-year battle for the land.

ROSE CHOWN: It's a beautiful, special place, and it's because this is our place. It's our traditional land.

JULIE POSETTI: Rose Chown is a member of the Wiradjuri tribe whose traditional lands embrace much of western New South Wales. Those lands include 180 hectares along the Macquarie River known as the Wellington Common. According to Rose, local Aborigines were living on this land prior to the settlement of Wellington in 1817. And, according to anthropologists, there's substantial documentary evidence contained within the records of white missionaries to suggest continual occupation. Baptism and marriage certificates for Aborigines living on the Common date back to the 1830s.

ROSE CHOWN: Now we're sort of wandering down from the church and to the right of us is a great big gap in the ground. There was a man who used to live there, it used to be a plateau. It had a house there, and someone had once asked him where did he used to live. He said: Well, I used to live here but all that's left is a great big ....

JULIE POSETTI: Rose Chown grew up on the Wellington Common with her family. Her father was the main wood and water carter. She left at the age of 16 to work in Sydney but she returned in the late 1960s after her sister died, leaving her young child in the care of her parents. But pressure from people Rose refers to as welfare meant that Rose had to move into town with her family. She says the last occupant of the Common left in 1993. Now it's the home of grazing cows and horses, although Rose Chown says her people still hunt and gather on the land.

ROSE CHOWN: And there was about 25 families that lived along the top end of the Common, you know, up on the ridge.

JULIE POSETTI: I can see the remains of two .. almost looks like two tin houses in front of us, just down the hill a bit. What was the story with them?

ROSE CHOWN: Well, the first one that we're looking at belonged to my grandmother; it's over 100 years old. And the other one, a little bit further over, was my auntie's house, which isn't as old as the old place. And that is all that remains left of the Aboriginal way of life as to the way they lived on the Common.

JULIE POSETTI: The Wellington Town Common Agreement was signed in February 1995, following a year of negotiations overseen by the national Native Title Tribunal President, Justice Robert French. Its signatories include local Aboriginal groups, Wellington Council, mining giant CRA and the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council. But two New South Wales State governments have refused to endorse the agreement, forcing the claim into the Federal Court where a determination has yet to be made.

Despite being obviously frustrated by the delay and angry with the State Government, Rose Chown insists she hasn't lost faith in the Native Title Act.

ROSE CHOWN: It isn't the Act, it isn't the Tribunal, it is the Government, it is the politicians. They are the ones stopping the Native Title Act.

JULIE POSETTI: How did you feel when you finally got to the point of agreement at the local level, when everybody signed the agreement that said you had rights to the land?

ROSE CHOWN: Well, we thought that was great, because now all we had to do was deal with the New South Wales Government. And not only that it was a New South Wales Labor Government. So we thought: Right, who's the one that's done most things for Aboriginal people and their issues? It has been the Labor Government. And then, when we found out that they were the ones forcing us into to the courts, it was a very sad day for us.

JULIE POSETTI: What sort of faith have you got in the court process?

ROSE CHOWN: After the way we have been treated by the State Government I'm beginning to wonder. Where else do you go and seek justice if you fail in the Federal Court?

JULIE POSETTI: How do you feel personally? You've taken up the cause.

ROSE CHOWN: I feel angry, I feel bitter, I'm getting very annoyed.

JULIE POSETTI: It must be really upsetting, given that you've struggled for so long.

ROSE CHOWN: That's right. And, as I say, I'm very angry and annoyed. As I say, it's been a long, hard, old battle and all it needed was someone to have a bit of guts and stand up and do the right thing. But no, they all want to play politicians and play games. That's all it is. No one wants to recognise Aboriginal ownership to land. That's why they're saying the Native Title Act doesn't work. And then the way we've been treated with the Liberals and the Labor Government, it makes you wonder whether, you know .. but the Federal Court has to be fair, doesn't it? I hope so. It makes you wonder.

REBECCA GORMAN: Wiradjuri clanswoman, Rose Chown; and Julie Posetti reporting.