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Development and Indigenous self-determination

In Canada and Australia Indigenous groups face a planning system that has limited relevance to the specific institutional and legal structures that support self-determination. First Nation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have distinct histories but both face planning systems that inadequately integrate Indigenous ownership and control.

In Canada, the process of treaty-making is well-established and First Nation “reserves” have long provided a geographical base for community action, if challenged by socio-economic constraints. In Australia, Indigenous constitutional recognition waxes and wanes in favour as the Commonwealth, states and territories act in fits and starts to address inequality.

Since 1983, NSW has been at the forefront of reforms due to the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. This compensatory, beneficial piece of legislation resulted in the transfer of enormous amounts of land wealth from the Crown to Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs). At present, there are over 28,000 unresolved land claims in NSW, representing an immense portion of land wealth locked up in the lengthy determination process.

The challenges that Aboriginal groups experience when facing a blinkered planning system form the subject of a new book by Libby Porter, research fellow at RMIT, and Janice Barry, of the University of Manitoba, Planning for Coexistence? Recognizing Indigenous Rights Through Land-use Planning in Canada and Australia.

A talk held by the Henry Halloran Trust invited Porter and Barry, along with other key figures from government and LALCs, to flesh out the local experiences of planning, development and Indigenous self-determination.

Tanya Koeneman advises the Department of Planning and Environment on a new initiative to improve outcomes for NSW LALCs. “If you don’t plan for Aboriginal outcomes you will not get them,” says Koeneman, who is also a member of the La Perouse Aboriginal community.

The state government is looking at ways to unlock the economic potential of Aboriginal communities through reforms to the planning system, increasing cultural competency in the planning sector and capacity building in Aboriginal communities and LALCs.

At present, there is no integration between the key pieces of law that relate to Aboriginal-held land – the Crown Lands Act, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Some “super-lots” that were the site of former reserves under paternalistic policies are effectively off the “planning grid”, says Koeneman, and need to be recognised by state planning policies and local government plans.

But planning for outcomes needs data, and despite the abundant number of studies into Indigenous disadvantage Koeneman says there is a severe lack of information on the “cost-benefit” ratio of supporting development through Aboriginal land management.

If not plainly evident, the success of the Darkinjung LALC on the NSW Central Coast provides anecdotal support. Darkinjung has become a shining example of how proactive land-asset management and community decision-making can lead to benefits that extend well beyond the community represented.

Lynn Hamilton, planning and development manager at Darkinjung LALC, says that the problem with the planning system is a conglomeration of things, beginning with land councils “not knowing enough”. The savvy Darkingjung LALC has fought its battles with local councils (namely the pre-amalgamated Wyong Shire Council), residents and commercial entities seeking to stymie or interfere with its own development plans or local Aboriginal heritage.

In 2014, Darkinjung LALC received 2,157 individual submissions (over a thousand of which were adverse) on a single manufactured home estate at Halekulani. That battle is finally resolved and Darkinjung LALC is going ahead with a modified proposal that will provide a modest portion of housing for its own community members.

“We are not a developer,” Hamilton claims. “Our duty is to our community.”

The mixed identity of LALCs appears as a contradiction, referred to by Porter and Barry: “Indigenous people and non-Indigenous settlers co-occupy place, and yet they do so in ways that are rarely common with each other and often fundamentally different.”

How to treat Indigenous bodies with integrity without evaporating the helpful distinction between such bodies and ordinary commercial entities challenges governments which chop and change between more “intervention” and a laissez faire approach. This challenge is often made more difficult because of the gradations of self-reliance that exist across the diverse array of Indigenous communities.

The lesson from Canada, Barry says, is “equal partnerships” that recognise the authority of the Indigenous person or group, but admit that planning decisions are “inherently tied up” in strategic and development decisions that involve non-Indigenous actors.

The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the success of Darkinjung LALC show that although such plans are seldom seen and often neglected, once organised, land-wealth is the ideal beginning of self-determination for Indigenous groups.

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