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Environment and Communications References Committee
Oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo Basin

WILSON, Mr Johnny, Chair, Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation [by audio link]

CHAIR: I now welcome Johnny Wilson. Mr Wilson, I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Wilson : I represent the 60 members of Nurrdalinji across the NT, and the 11 determinations of native title areas in the Beetaloo Basin.

CHAIR: Would you be able to give a short summary of how you feel about the fracking and drilling in the Beetaloo Basin, and your concerns, to the committee and then we'll go to some questions.

Mr Wilson : We do have a lot of concerns. I speak on behalf of Nurrdalinji, which is a registered corporation that is a vehicle for our voice and our concerns to be heard.

We have NLC, which is our main body that represents all native titles in this region, but there is no communication whatsoever between the NLC and traditional owners. We are very concerned that 21 million litres of contaminated water has been put back into the ground. We—as Aboriginal traditional owners and owners of this country and First Nations people—have not been told about this. No regulatory action was taken, and traditional owners weren't notified about the water pollution. There was nothing like that. It was all done by Santos. Who authorised all this? Our concern is that we have to live on this country. This is our country that our elders left for us so that we can look after it. I, as jungkayi, means that, like a policeman, I must protect my country, my grandfather's country. These wells that are going down now are going to ruin our country. Our future isn't looking so bright at the moment. Like Graeme Sawyer, Nicholas Fitzpatrick, Larissa Baldwin and Amelia Telford all said, a lot of money is being put into the Beetaloo Basin to get this program started, to get all this work started. Why? This is our country. We don't want it. We don't want any of this. We are very concerned because our country is going downhill. Our voices are not heard. We have grave concerns for our country, and our water especially. We have to live here. We have to live on our country. Our water is sacred to us. There are our sacred sites and our cultural heritage—everything. We are connected to our land. It is very disturbing that our government will not listen to us. They are injecting so much money into oil and gas when it should be used somewhere else. I still live in a tin shack. My floor is bare ground. Where do I get money for my housing and stuff I need on my country? Just like the other traditional owners on country, we are struggling to even get the basic maintenance for our land and for our community, and yet the government are willing to pour so much money into destroying our country. First they gave money to the NLC so that people can get back on country. Why, when it's going to be ruined anyway? These are a lot of the concerns that we have, especially for our country, our water, our children, our future. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Wilson. I will go first to Senator McCarthy. Senator McCarthy, do you have any questions, please?

Senator McCARTHY: Yes. Good morning. I just wanted to check with you—

Mr Wilson : Please—you guys are breaking up.

Senator McCARTHY: You can't hear me?

Mr Wilson : Not too well.

Senator McCARTHY: Let us know if you have no ability to hear me at all. We may have to try something else. I will drop my video and just use the microphone if that assists. What do you think?

CHAIR: Yes. I was about to suggest that. That would be great, thank you.

Senator McCARTHY: I have just a couple of things. Firstly, thank you for your submission. It's very comprehensive. It's good for us to have received that submission and we will certainly be asking questions of other witnesses around your submission. Firstly, can you talk us through this: you said, 'I think it's important the committee is aware.' You talk about your home and where you live, in terms of your housing. Tell us a bit more about your own circumstances.

Mr Wilson : I'm with my community. I am not speaking for myself. I am representing Nurrdalinji, which represents 11 determination areas of the Beetaloo Basin with traditional owners. We have 60 members right across to Tennant Creek, all the way back to Numbulwar, Borroloola and Elliott—throughout. We are concerned and want to work together to stop all activities that are happening on our country.

Senator McCARTHY: You've had no consultations whatsoever around the gas companies in this area?

Mr Wilson : Not at the moment. I have meetings set up, which coronavirus has stopped at the moment, with Alec Underwood, the CEO of these mining companies, and I have pastoralists on hold to meet as well, because we all live in this country. We all have to fight to secure our place and to stop all this so that we can give our children a future.

Senator McCARTHY: Until now, have you had any consultations with the gas companies?

Mr Wilson : We've had no consultation with anyone at the moment. As the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, we met in Katherine and travelled to Hodgson Downs, Elliott, Marlinja and Borroloola, spreading the word to join us so that we may fight as one voice and our concerns can be heard. We deeply ask the government to please listen to us. We asked NLC: 'Please stop and talk to traditional owners,' and not just the ones that they handpicked. There are families and there are clan groups that are splitting up and fighting because of all this progress that is happening.

Senator McCARTHY: Have you met at all with the Northern Land Council?

Mr Wilson : We've tried on several occasions. We've written them a letter, and I even rang them, recently, when they had a meeting in Katherine for the whole of last week. Not even one hour was given to us so that we could sit down and talk together for the benefit of all traditional owners in this region.

Senator McCARTHY: Is there anything else that you want to let the committee know about?

Mr Wilson : Yes. We ask the committee to look into all this, to look into the NLC and to look into the mining mob. All of us can sit down and talk, but our main concern is that they please stop this altogether. The money that they put towards this is $50 million. Graeme Sawyer, Nicholas and Ann-Marie are people who are standing and fighting for our country. These are people that, hopefully, Nurrdalinji can work very closely with so that our voice can be heard. The money is $50 million—my floor is bare ground and I live in a tin shack. Education, health, our main roads—what's wrong with money being spent somewhere in those places and not on our country?

Please, we need our country. This is our future we are talking about, the future of our children and of the pastoralists that live on this country. We all have to live here. I see that what the mining company is doing is ruining our country. Our water will be the first to go, and then what's left? Water is life—without water there is no life.

Senator McCARTHY: Mimi, could you tell the inquiry whereabouts you are based?

Mr Wilson : I am on Lightning Ridge on the Broadmere turnoff. Broadmere is up ahead of me, and another station, Eleanor, which they lease on my country. This is where the production and progress is happening in the area. But I do not speak for myself in this area—I speak for other traditional owners in this area that connect through country, through water, through Dreaming, through our kudjika line—our songline.

Senator McCARTHY: Yo yamalu, thank you, Mimi.

Mr Wilson : Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk.

Senator McMAHON: Mr Wilson, Senator McCarthy just asked you where you're from, and I missed the answer. Are you living in a community or on a station?

Mr Wilson : I live on my grandfather's country. I am a traditional owner and djungai, which is like a policeman. It is my job to look after this country. Lightning Ridge is No. 4 paddock on the Broadmere Road, west of Balbirini in the McArthur district.

Senator McMAHON: The Nurrdalinji corporation came into existence in September last year; is that correct?

Mr Wilson : Yes, Nurrdalinji is a registered corporation, a vehicle for our voice so that our concerns can be heard. The NLC is not hearing our concerns. No information is passed on to traditional owners. We are very worried about our fracking. There are family concerns, because it's breaking us up. There are huge arguments going on between Aboriginal families over everything that's going on here. These agreements were signed in 2004, but our elders never really understood what fracking was all about. They were told it would be one well or two wells—now how many wells are going to be in place? A lot. Our elders never fully understood the impact on country.

Senator McMAHON: You stated that these wells are going to ruin our country. Could you detail to me who has told you that or how you believe that will happen?

Mr Wilson : Who has told me? There is a well across the road from where I live. And I don't need to be told that nothing's going to wreck our country. We look at the other pictures happening everywhere else across this country and even abroad, as you were saying—overseas—how their country has been wrecked. Black water has been appearing and all that. I know for a fact that these wells are going down—we have so much water underground that connects this country together and connects our people together. Our songlines go through these places, through these waters and through these channels. It's witnessed everywhere that fracking is not good for us and that fracking will ruin our country. All we need is people to understand and let us be.

Senator McMAHON: Do you have any actual scientific evidence or scientific proof that you're relying on to say that—

Mr Wilson : Like I said, you've heard from Graeme Sawyer himself and this stuff that I've read from, about how they're drilling and putting the water back underground into our aquifer and how these stygo—what do they call them?—the little animals that have been found in these water channels underground.

Senator McMAHON: So it's from Graeme Sawyer that you've got this understanding, is it?

Mr Wilson : No, not only from Graeme Sawyer. A lot of people have said that. I'm looking into the water systems and what's been happening underneath and how they are pouring all this contamination back into our water. Our country is connected underground through water.

Senator McMAHON: Mr Wilson, if you have evidence of the water supply being contaminated by this activity, would you like the opportunity to provide that evidence to this inquiry?

Mr Wilson : Yes, I would.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you. I would ask you, then, to provide that evidence.

Mr Wilson : No worries, yes.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator McCarthy.

Senator McCARTHY: I just want to ask a follow up question there. You spoke about the wells and you said the well is across the road from where you live. Do you want to describe to the committee what it is that you see there?

Mr Wilson : I beg your pardon?

Senator McCARTHY: You said to Senator McMahon that there's a well across the road from where you live?

Mr Wilson : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: Do you want to just describe what it is that's there?

Mr Wilson : It's a well out there where they've got this pumping gear all in there and a big fence around it and a country that's been graded and left. A bushfire could come through here, and it's all gone. Our country is so dry and barren. Water is our life out here.

Senator McCARTHY: What this inquiry is looking into is the $50 million that the federal government wants to grant to fast-track production in that area. If that is grant money that's used in your area, would that be a good thing or not a good thing?

Mr Wilson : No, it's not a good thing. As we all said, it could be used some way else. This is our country, for crying out loud. Let the government know that this is our country. We are crying for our country. This is our living. This is our life. This is left here by our elders. My grandfather left my country here for my family to live, so that we may start off something of our own for our children—our business—so they could have something in the future for themselves. But how is this all possible if we have all these wells around our country? We as parents now want to bring our children and our grandchildren back home on country. We all know the stuff that goes on in town: the drinking, the drugs, the suicides. I believe that, given a chance—stop this fracking and everything—we as an Aboriginal people on our country and as traditional owners may benefit and start off programs for our children, our grandchildren and our future.

Senator McCARTHY: Can I just ask you one thing, because you're the only one we've heard from so far, from memory, who has said that you have a well just across the road from you: how far away would that well be from your home?

Mr Wilson : I am about seven kilometres from the bitumen, and I drive another five kilometres to the turn-off and then another 10 kilometres in. Those are just estimated numbers.

Senator McCARTHY: That's good. How far would the well be from you, though?

Mr Wilson : All up, I'd say 15 or 20 kays—15 kays tops.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you.

CHAIR: Mr Wilson, your submission notes—and you've mentioned it already here today—that consent was given to Origin Energy 15 years ago. I imagine that's including for the well that's next door or that's on your property?

Mr Wilson : It is on our country, yes.

CHAIR: Yes, it's on your country. So consent was given 15 years ago, and you note that fracking and the impact on the water table and the environmental elements were poorly understood. What is the process and what are the opportunities for traditional owners to withdraw consent? Fifteen years ago is a long time.

Mr Wilson : Yes, it was around 2004. It was a long time. Back then, our elders never understood properly the whole situation of fracking and the wellings. They never knew that they were going to drill that far down. They don't know anything about aquifers and all that, no. They know that water's underneath, but with big names like 'aquifer', if you tell that to my people, they wouldn't have a clue what that is. I can imagine that these people have come out with big words, big names and big stories just as a quick fix for them to get on their way to ruining our country.

CHAIR: Over the last 15 years, have you seen money and investment in your community that's helped people from all of this?

Mr Wilson : No. I've heard that in Elliott, for instance, the mining companies have given grants for the Elliott football oval.

CHAIR: They gave some grass, did they? That's nice!

Mr Wilson : Yes, just to put grass on their ground to run around and play football, to be Australian, because we Australians—we Territorians—are mad on football. That was one way for them to get through. How about building a football oval and putting grass on the oval? It's a quick fix for them to get what they wanted. Anywhere else, I would love the money to be spent out here on our bitumen or our house so I can put my feet on floor.

CHAIR: Fifty million dollars to these gas companies is a lot of money, isn't it?

Mr Wilson : It is a lot of money, and if I had my way I'd say: 'Take it and shove it. Let me be with my country.' My country is worth more than $50 million. My country is worth life—life for me, my children and my grandchildren and for all the TOs and families that live on country. We would rather that money be spent on somewhere else—upgrading and making a better life for Aboriginal people. Come on! They say we live in the third poverty. We've got a government here that's supposed to help us First Nations Aboriginal people. What is being done? Where are all the promises? Nothing. Now they want to take our country and drill on it. Please give us a fair go. We have never had a fair go for a long time—back since colonisation came in. Please. We are begging with all our hearts. Our grieving hearts, our heavy hearts, are begging these miners to stop it. NLC, please put a stop to it and let us live freely on our country as free people, as owners of our country, traditional owners with our cultural heritage. At the moment, we don't have any environmental management plans or work programs. They have been signed off without including all affected families, clan groups and all that. Please; we are begging. We are at an edge now at a time where the government needs to listen to us.

CHAIR: How many wells do you understand to be on your country now? You said consent was originally given 15 years ago—

Mr Wilson : No, it wasn't like that. As I said before, my people, my elders have never understood properly what was going on, and I am sure with no doubt about it that dollar signs would have been put up to encourage and make these people sign without even proper consultation. Where was NLC? Where was the body that is supposed to protect us, help us, look after us? It was nowhere in sight. These people signed.

CHAIR: On those dollar signs that you mentioned: aside from some grass on the oval, you haven't really seen any of that eventuate.

Mr Wilson : No. Could you say that again?

CHAIR: You said that the consent or the signing of the papers was done after traditional owners had been shown dollar signs. That was your phrase.

Mr Wilson : I am pretty sure—well, it happens now. A mining company comes around to have a meeting with us. There's the big dollar sign up at the top. There's the work progress underneath. Who's going to say no to that money?

CHAIR: Yes, except my question is: have you actually ever seen any of the money?

Mr Wilson : No. I live here in Lightning Ridge. I live out in the bush in the middle of Woop Woop and I've never seen anything. But, like I said, I've seen the oval in Elliott and I've been told that the mining company has funded that oval.

Look at the big picture. They know that we Territorian Aboriginal people are so crazy for football. Naturally, that's the first thing they will do in the community. 'Hey, let's build them an oval. Let's put grass on it. Let's give them a changing room.' Why? 'So we can have our paper signed off.' It's good that they've got a good oval and stuff like that, but does it have to come with conditions?

CHAIR: Yes, I understand. To be clear: you are concerned that there hasn't been informed consent, it's never been well understood by the traditional owners who were given any form of consultation and, up until now, you still feel that the consultation from the Northern Land Council and the gas companies has been poor.

Mr Wilson : It has been very poor. Like I said, the NLC are hand-picking a few traditional owners who they know they can manipulate to give them what they want so they can have the authorisation to give to the mining companies and say: 'Here; we've got authorisation. Go ahead and do it. Go do what you have to do. We've looked after the other side, the traditional owners.' We all know now that that's been happening with the NLC. They have been hand-picking people—elders—and making them sign off without proper consultation with the whole family, with the whole clan. You've got families. You've got one family here and one family there. There have been arguments because one family or somebody in one family has signed over these agreements without the knowledge of the whole family, of the whole clan, of the whole traditional owners group, and that is very upsetting. That is where all the arguments are coming in, and it's destroying Aboriginal people.

CHAIR: So it's creating division and problems.

Mr Wilson : It's creating a huge fight.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Wilson, and thank you for your submission. It's quite thorough and I think it states your position well, and thank you for your further evidence today. Senator Sterle, did you have any follow-up questions?

Senator STERLE: Just a quick one, thank you, and thank you, Mr Wilson. I'll put this to you: would Nurrdalinji be happy to—happy is probably not the right word—

Mr Wilson : I can't hear you. You're breaking up.

Senator STERLE: I'll try again. If the mining companies came to you, as the representative, and said that we want to sit on your country, we want to have all the TOs and First Nations people around and we're going to bring scientists from Geoscience Australia and we're going to show you what the new fracking stuff does and we promise and can prove—I'm just asking you this—that there'll be no damage to the water and if there was damage to the water there would be a massive claim put on them, would they be welcome on your country to sit down with the TOs to have that conversation?

Mr Wilson : We've never had no conversation like that, no—not with mining companies, not with NLC. They say it's not going to hurt our water, our country. What happened at Tanumbirini with one of the wells there? They spilt 21 million litres—21 million litres in the Tanumbirini ground! They went and poured that back into the ground. We haven't been consulted. We haven't been told. No traditional owner has ever been told about that, and I wonder if pastoralists have been told about that. Our lives, our future, depend on our country. This is where we have to live, and we're not just here for one or two weeks, one month, one year and then gone again. We're here because this is our country. We are connected to our country.

Senator STERLE: Yes, I fully understand that, Mr Wilson. We've got that very clear. What I picked up is the gross gap between talking to the TOs. Is it because the Northern Land Council has been entrusted to do that? Is that what you've been told?

Mr Wilson : I beg your pardon?

Senator STERLE: Is it because the Northern Land Council are the ones that are supposed to come and meet with you? Is that why they haven't had—

Mr Wilson : Yes, the NLC is the representative body for the whole native title region around here for all traditional owners. The NLC is the mother of all stuff that takes place on country. But, like I said, there is no communication. Nurrdalinji has tried on many occasions to sit down with them so that they may bring their information, their knowledge, to the traditional owners of this country. But there is a very lack of that. There is no communication.

Senator STERLE: Just so I'm clear and the committee's clear, that criticism goes to the Northern Land Council? You've said you have tried many times to communicate, which you also said in your opening statement, with the Northern Land Council.

Mr Wilson : Yes, we've tried to get in contact with them to sit down with us, even just for an hour. As I said, we have 60 members across the Northern Territory from Tennant Creek coming back up the Darwin way, and not once have these people come to talk with the traditional owners. NLC so far has done nothing for us, and, if they did do something, these wells wouldn't be on our country in the first place. You know what I'm saying?

Senator STERLE: I think it's very clear, Mr Wilson. I just wanted to make sure that if , if, if—they're big if's, but—the companies came and they brought the scientists and they said: 'We're going to create opportunity. We're not to poison in the water'—I'm just paraphrasing—'and we're going to give the opportunity for Indigenous employment, Indigenous enterprises,' would they still be welcome to come and talk. I just want to know that.

Mr Wilson : I couldn't quite get all of what you said. I only got 'what opportunities'.

Senator STERLE: Sorry if I'm breaking up. I'll just put it one more time. If it doesn't work, I'll leave it and get the chair to see if we can do something through the committee to write the question. If the mining companies came and said that they wanted to sit on your country with the TOs, sit in the dirt and have community meetings, bring scientists with them and say that they can prove that the fracking won't damage the water and that, if it did, there would be massive claims against them—if they did actually say that they wanted to talk about giving Indigenous enterprise and Indigenous employment opportunities and training, would they be welcome on country to have that conversation?

Mr Wilson : We'd be happy to sit with these people and talk, but who says nothing's going to happen? We've seen photos and stories and seen a lot of things that are happening elsewhere—their water. No matter what these people have told these other people. I'm talking about across the country and overseas: how their water and their communities are damaged. Damaged! What's to say that it's not going to happen here? Our country we know. It changes. It changes, our country. All the time. What's to say that these things they're going to put down aren't going to muddle up anything? Sure, it might not now, but what about down the track? We need to be wise and think about down the track. What's going to happen down the track if it does spill into our waters? What good are all of these opportunities going to do? We're going to have to leave our country anyway, because our water's no good.

Senator STERLE: That is a very, very fair question to be asked. I can't answer that, but that's what others should be thinking about: the community needs to understand what it all means. I understand that. I get that. Thank you, Mr Wilson.

Mr Wilson : I just can't see the point in having all these communities and work opportunities if our country, our water, is damaged. As I said, water is life. If there's no water, there's no life.

CHAIR: Senator McMahon has a final question.

Senator McMAHON: Yes. Thank you, Mr Wilson. You've stated numerous times during your evidence that the NLC has not consulted properly and that you're unhappy with the way the NLC has acted and conducted itself. I just wanted to make sure that you are aware that, under the law, the NLC is actually the body that must take part in these negotiations and must consult—

Mr Wilson : Yes, I understand that fully, but take note where we are coming from and why Nurrdalinji, which is now a registered corporation, was set up: it's because we were not being heard by NLC. We had concerns for our country. NLC make their profit in whatever way they want, from the miners and the government. That is of no concern to us. Our concern is our country, our water, our life and our future—the future of our children.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Wilson, and thank you for your evidence today. I appreciate your time and I know the rest of the committee does as well. We wish you the best of luck.

Mr Wilson : Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak. I wish and I hope that, in the end, we, as traditional owners living on our country, can live in peace and look forward to the future with our families—our children and our grandchildren—in a country where there is no contamination.

CHAIR: Thank you. I just realised that Senator McCarthy has a clarification.

Senator McCARTHY: You spoke about Tanumbirini, and 21 million litres was spilt at that well. Can you give some further evidence as to what happened there or take that question on notice. We'd like to understand your evidence there.

Mr Wilson : I'd have to give you that on notice, but it is true that 21 million litres of contaminated water has been put back into the ground. I can get those details for you.

CHAIR: That would be very much appreciated. We'll get the secretary here at Parliament House to get in touch with you about getting a response to that, and an explanation. Thank you, and have a good afternoon.

Mr Wilson : You too. God bless you all. Please help us on our country. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 12:00 to 12:10