Greens indifference to Aboriginal Australians


Bob Brown, the former leader of the Greens in Australia, appeared on the ABC tv program Q&A on Monday night.  His comments about the rights of traditional Aboriginal land owners in the Kimberley region of Western Australia were a perfect example of how little the Greens care about Aboriginal Australians.

The first question of the show was put by Rita Augustine who is an Aboriginal woman from the Jabirr Jabirr country of the Kimberley which encompasses James Price Point where the proposed $45 billion Browse Basin gas project will have its processing plant.  Rita Augustine pointed out to Bob Brown that the proceeds of the agreement between the developers of the gas project and the traditional owners will provide financial resources that will be used to improve the conditions of her community and mitigate their social problems.  She recognised that Bob Brown’s concern for whales and dinosaur footprints were genuine but then asked why he did not have the same concern for the welfare of the traditional owners.

Bob Brown’s answer imagined a fantasy world in which the gas hub was not built, but nonetheless the traditional owners received the $1.5 billion settlement with the project developers.    He said that there is a moral obligation on others to make the real world resemble his fantasy world.  Everyone, including Bob Brown, knows that if the gas hub is not built then the traditional owners will not receive the $1.5 billion.  Why would they?  The $1.5 billion is for use of their land.  The gas field is 250 km off-shore from James Price Point.  If the gas does not come ashore then the traditional owners are not involved in any way.

The true Green position is obvious.  The welfare of the traditional owners is not a first order consideration for the Greens.  The Greens know that whales and dinosaur footprints are not endangered by the project.  Those are just smoke screens.  The Greens want the project stopped.  The Browse Basin will deliver over 1 billion tonnes of gas if it is developed and their goal is to prevent that production.  If traditional landowners are deprived resources as a result, that is unfortunate from the Greens perspective, but not a first order concern.  That is the truth of it.

It is a long way from Fitzroy or Newtown to Warburton or Hall’s Creek, not just in distance but in mindset.  The Greens don’t have the problems of Aboriginal Australians front of mind.  As another example, consider what happened when the Greens negotiated with Julia Gillard for their support in forming a Government in 2010.  The first thing the Greens wanted was carbon pricing.  What was their second highest priority — reform of the Marriage Act.  What about improving the conditions of Aboriginal Australians — isn’t that the next most important thing after carbon pricing?  No, not if your constituency is urban elites.

Consider as another example the opposition of the Greens to the extension of the Federal Government intervention in NT Aboriginal communities.  It is a mystery to me why anyone opposes the Federal Government insisting on the rule of law throughout Australia, and especially the protection of children and women from sexual violence.  Nonetheless, the Greens opposed the Government’s bill to extend the intervention by 10 years, seeking major amendments.  It passed with the votes of the Government and the Opposition.  It just shows how removed the Greens are from the real problems and aspirations of Aboriginal people in remote communities.

15 Responses to "Greens indifference to Aboriginal Australians"
  1. While I don’t think Bob Brown is a man with all the answers, you seem to be making the point that agreements between resources companies and traditional owners is somehow a successful process for social progress in remote aboriginal communities. And Bob Brown is trying to deny this particular community a proven recipe for success.

    I’m no expert, but I’d be interested to hear about such successes before I cast judgement. I can imagine a situation where dependence on the resources company for handouts becomes the new normal, and ultimately contributes to other social problems. Hence the net benefits don’t seem clear cut.

  2. I agree with your points, but you say yourself that the Green’s constituency is urban elites. So why is this surprising or infuriating? They might look a bit different, but they are still politicians.

    I dont understand the outrage.

  3. Rumplestarskinn
    Payments in Native Title Agreements are not ‘handouts’. Native TITLE means exactly that. The traditional owners form a body corporate to represent the interests of all members of their community and the Federal Court grants title to the land to the body corporate. That means the traditional owners are the legal owners. Anyone who wants to use the land owned by an indigenous group has to negotiate with the body corporate.
    In what sense is that a ‘handout’?
    In this particular case, of James Price Point, native title has not been assigned by the Federal Court. The current legal status of the land where the Gas Hub will go is ‘vacant crown land’. So, the agreement between the gas consortium+state government and the Jabirr Jabirr people makes payments for use of the land for the life of the project and then hands over title in perpetuity.
    A ‘handout’ will occur if the gas does not come ashore but the Jabirr Jabirr people are nonetheless collectively payed money for contributing nothing to the projects (they might individually work on the project, but that is a separate thing). It seems to me that what Bob Brown wants is ‘handouts’.

    • Yes, I understand the principles around Native Title.

      I guess you have a very narrow definition of handout. If government (the rest of society) gave me private title to land, I’d also call that a handout. So either I am given property as a handout, and I sell rights to that property for income, or I am given income as a handout – they both seem much the same on balance.

      I am not denying that either/both of these is probably a good thing to improve social outcome for all Australians. Handouts can be good.

      I guess my point is that it is not at all clear that this statement is generally true

      “… the proceeds of the agreement between the developers of the gas project and the traditional owners will provide financial resources that will be used to improve the conditions of her community and mitigate their social problems. ”

      Agreements such as this come in all shapes an sizes, and my question was about successful examples were income from negotiated agreements with resources companies has greatly improved conditions in communities and alleviated social problems. Such examples would seem an obvious place to start a debate about this topic. I did some Googling, but would like to hear what you had in mind would be the outcome for the Jabirr Jabirr people when you wrote the post.

      Also, your argument applies to all conservation vs development. Essentially you are arguing that conservation is bad, because something won’t be built and someone won’t get paid. Ignoring of course the next best alternatives that will be built instead.

      Bob Brown’s world doesn’t seem so different to me – there are some environmental differences to the Jabirr Jabirr land, the social arrangements (some variations of private property and redistribution) required for payments to be made to them are a little different, and investment in the next-best resources project at a less environmentally sensitive location gets built instead.

  4. Will
    I agree that we should not be surprised or outraged, and I am not. But I think it is worth pointing out that a party which presents itself as highly progressive, actually cares very little for the interests of remote indigenous people. Emphasis on remote here, because there is something of a divide between the Aboriginal people who live in the inner city constituency of the Greens and the Aboriginal people in remote communities. The Greens rub shoulders with the former and do have more alignment with their interests.

  5. Rumplestatskinn
    The expression ‘handout’ implies redistribution of wealth. Native title is about recognising that the traditional owners of the land are the legal owners of that land. In what sense is that a handout?
    Giving water rights to farmers and then spending $5 billion to buy them back — now that is a handout.

    • My point is that ‘handout’ implies a base-case distribution from which to re-distribute. Private property itself is a distributional decision, and could just as easily be classified as redistribution.

      This article provides more clarity to the argument

      And to your own example, if this was a government enterprise seeking to process gas, rather than Woodside, BHP and Co., then it would be a handout? Since property rights where created then bought back?

      Which of course leads nicely back to the consideration of net outcomes – which are not greatly different.

  6. ‘Bob Brown’s answer imagined a fantasy world in which the gas hub was not built … The Greens want the project stopped”

    Sam, you must have listened to a different program than I did because I heard Bob Brown say, consistently, that a ‘win, win, win’ situation would be for the gas to be piped to and processed in the Pilbara, with proceeds from that going to the Aboriginal people. I didn’t hear him say that the gas project should be abandoned altogether.

  7. Russell
    I am sure that you would agree that what politicians say and what they really believe are often not the same. The Greens are anti-development but they don’t like to sound too anti-development because that will lose them votes. Moreover, the rights and aspirations of remote Aboriginal communities are clearly not the Greens highest priority but they like to pretend they are. To be simultaneously against the James Price Point development and for Aboriginal rights Bob Brown has to go off into a fantasy world where the Jabirr Jabirr people receive $1.5 billion even if the gas comes ashore in the Pilbara (which is not their country) instead of the Kimberley. He expects us to follow him into that fantasy world.

  8. Sam, you wrote that “Bob Brown’s answer imagined a fantasy world in which the gas hub was not built ….” when he clearly said that if the processing would be done further south it would be a win for the company, a win for the Aboriginal people and a win for the environment. On the basis of your misrepresentation you go on to claim that the Green’s position “a perfect example of how little the Greens care about Aboriginal Australians.” which manages to be both wrong and offensive.

    You misrepresented what he said, his actual words, on that program, you should correct and apologise.

  9. Russell
    Here is what I said in the post:
    “Bob Brown’s answer imagined a fantasy world in which the gas hub was not built, but nonetheless the traditional owners received the $1.5 billion settlement with the project developers.”
    The gas hub = The proposed facility at James Price Point.
    That is what everybody means by “the gas hub”
    The traditional owners = The Jabirr Jabirr people
    They are the the traditional owners of James Price Point.
    So, I have not misrepresented anything.

  10. It’s not obvious to me why the decision by a party called The Greens to prioritise environmental issues over indigenous welfare is such a terrible thing. Yes, we can enjoy seeing The Greens squirm about having to choose between competing priorities. But I’d like to see The Greens making more tough choices, not less. Accusing them of “indifference” seems a little harsh.

    I also have some sympathy for The Greens not making “improving the conditions of Aboriginal Australians” their number two priority after carbon pricing. “Improving the conditions of Aboriginal Australians” is not a policy you can implement. It’s an aspiration that no-one knows how to meet.

    As a critic of The Greens, you can do better than this.

  11. In the mid 1990’s, I voted Green for the first and last time. I voted for them because I thought it would be useful to have at least one voice in the Senate that would positively, definitely put the environment first. Back in those days, the Greens were associated with core environmental issues like the Franklin Dam. They articulated a vision that nature had its own intrinsic worth and is ultimately just as important as human progress as measured by GDP. I supported that vision. I still do.

    During the course of the next government, there was federal legislation introduced to put a tax on cars that still used leaded petrol, older cars in other words. The Greens voted against and the bill (which failed). Why? Because, older cars are owned by poorer people and the Greens were not prepared to tax poorer people for polluting the environment. The party who were supposed to put the environment above all other considerations were more interested in class equality than the air we breathe. According to the Greens, if you were poor then you get a free license to pollute.

    I have no idea whether or not the development is environmentally destructive, but I am actually pleased to see Bob Brown putting the environment first for a change (rather than gay marriage and refugees).

  12. modern Australia was built by handouts, when so called settlers took up land they didnt pay, thats a handout

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