The Western Australian Government has released a draft Bill capturing an offer made to the Noongar People worth approximately $1.3 billion to settle native title claims covering land in the South West corner of Western Australia.
The Bill is the first of its kind, formally recognising an indigenous group as the traditional owners of land in Australia.
In this Alert, Partner Jonathan Fulcher and Solicitor Borcsa Vass discuss the background to the Bill, and explain its significance for future native title claims in Australia.
History of the negotiations
Since 2009, the Western Australian Government (the Government) has been negotiating with representatives of six Noongar native title groups, which include approximately 40,000 indigenous people from the state.
On 5 July 2013, the Government made an offer to the Noongar representatives to resolve native title claims over 220,000 square kilometres of land in South West Western Australia.
The draft Noongar (Koorah, Nitja, Boordahwan) (Past, Present, Future) Recognition Bill 2014 (Bill) represents the next step in the negotiation process.
The settlement package offered in the Bill includes payments of $600 million spread over 12 years, the transfer of up to 320,000 hectares of Crown land for indigenous use, and the establishment of schemes directed towards conservation, heritage, housing, employment and indigenous culture.
The Noongar People have six months to decide whether they will accept the offer.
Significance of the Bill
The package offered to the Noongar People represents the largest native title settlement offer in Australian history. It covers an area of land that is almost one tenth of the area of Western Australia.
The proposed settlement offer consolidates what were originally seven separate native title claims. This in itself is a novel approach to native title settlements in Australia.
The significance of the offer as a Bill demonstrates an intention by the Government to be bound by its obligations. It is a significant gesture by the Government.
The size of the settlement in the case of the Noongar People is comparable to some of the settlements for indigenous land use in Canada. Given that the Bill is the first of its kind in Australia, it is yet to be seen whether it will create a trend for other governments. It may be that the sheer size of the native title area and the various elements of the settlement offer have lent themselves to this approach.
In any event, the Noongar Bill opens the door for governments across Australia to recognise native title claims through legislation.