Regional agreements and localism: A case study from Cape York Peninsula

Author/editor: Martin, D
Year published: 1997
Issue no.: 146


There are a number of important prerequisites before there can be any assurance that regional approaches to negotiating new institutional arrangements between Aboriginal and other interests can have any chance of success. This is the case whether Aboriginal leverage in negotiations is derived from the assertion of native title rights or otherwise. In Cape York Peninsula, Aboriginal people form a substantial proportion of the permanent population, and already control significant areas of land, including much of outstanding conservation value. There are broad similarities of political and cultural forms amongst the region's Aboriginal peoples. Over recent years, a number of significant Aboriginal peak bodies have been established, particularly the Cape York Land Council. Furthermore, there are processes and institutional arrangements already in place or being negotiated in the Cape which form a significant base on which regionalism as a set of political and institutional forms can develop.

There are, however, major obstacles to the development of regional agreements in the Cape, most particularly those arising through the current uncertainties at State and national level in the response to Wik and other Indigenous policy issues. There is strong opposition to processes under the Native Title Act 1993, to proposed Aboriginal joint management regimes, and to the Cape York Peninsula Heads of Agreement by a number of non-Aboriginal locally and regionally based organisations and individuals who have proved highly adept at mobilising political support for their positions. While current amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 propose strengthening the capacity to negotiate regional agreements and Indigenous Land Use Agreements, other amendments such as changes to the right to negotiate and the schedule of tenures which confer exclusive possession have the capacity to remove the leverage upon which Aboriginal negotiations can meaningfully take place.

There are also impediments within the Aboriginal domain itself. The strong emphasis on localism poses significant problems for strategically and collectively addressing issues, developing responses and conducting negotiations across a region. Also, many Aboriginal people demonstrate a strong commitment to existing political structures and institutions, which in many cases have become deeply embedded within the Aboriginal political and economic domain. Furthermore, the difficult circumstances of everyday life for many Cape York Aboriginal people, as reflected in socioeconomic data on health, alcohol consumption, employment, income levels and so forth, can tend to ground people in the struggle for existence and for immediate advantage through existing structures and institutions rather than providing a dynamic for change.

Policy implications

While regional agreements may ultimately be based on the assertion of Indigenous rights, they must also be firmly grounded in the circumstances of Aboriginal people's everyday lives and priorities, and must seek to change these circumstances for the better. Overall negotiations must address such issues as well as the wider ones in which they are, arguably, embedded. For example, the principles of customary law implicit in the recognition of native title could be brought into more creative play in dealing with such difficult social issues as the control of alcohol abuse. Strategies to expand Aboriginal land holdings and recognition of native title rights also need to incorporate mechanisms to leverage an increased economic stake in the region for Aboriginal people, for example, through negotiated agreements with resource developers.

The capacity to use native title or statutory land rights as leverage, however, is dependent upon an appropriate legislative and policy regime, such as royalty equivalents for mining on Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory, or the current right to negotiate provisions under the Native Title Act 1993, which facilitates such leverage. Furthermore, strategies to increase an economic stake must be linked, for example, to the delivery of appropriately targeted educational and training programs.

Success is highly unlikely for any strategies which are directed towards an all-encompassing 'regional agreement' over a wide range of issues such as Aboriginal government, control of lands and resources, and service delivery. Nonetheless, there are a series of arenas in which strategic advances have already been or could conceivably be made in regional responses to core issues in the Cape, some flowing from the assertion of native title rights, and some taking advantage of current State and national political trends in service delivery and other government functions. The issue then becomes how to creatively develop mechanisms over a range of agreements which may be negotiated over different issues, so that the agreements can be structurally linked in appropriate ways. That is, rather than attempting to negotiate a single comprehensive agreement encompassing a diverse set of issues, the approach is from the other direction; to negotiate a set of focused agreements on regional issues which allow a strategically linked mosaic of agreements to gradually be established.

Linkages between different local area, sub-regional and regional agreements could be established through a range of mechanisms. Firstly, institutional linkages need to be formalised and relative roles and areas of operations defined between the peak Aboriginal bodies (especially Native Title Representative Bodies) negotiating such agreements. The second means of establishing linkages between different agreements would lie in formalising and ensuring consistency in institutional arrangements for the resourcing and process of regional negotiations. The third area could lie in ensuring consistency and coordination between the monitoring and evaluation structures and processes which should be developed as an essential part of each agreement. It may even be possible in some instances to have separate agreements utilise the same monitoring and evaluation structures.

ISBN: 0 7315 2581 7

ISSN:1036 1774

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