Towards a comprehensive regional agreement: Torres Strait

Author/editor: Arthur, W
Year published: 1997
Issue no.: 147


Under native title in Australia, Indigenous groups may form regional agreements with governments, industry and other parties. There is no clear statement about the scope of such agreements but the suggestion is that in some cases they could be comprehensive, resulting in arrangements which would resemble a form of regional government.

It is argued here that to achieve such an outcome would require the major parties involved to embrace notions of regionalism and agreement-making. This paper investigates the likelihood of a comprehensive regional agreement in Torres Strait by exploring the extent to which these two notions prevail. The investigation is informed by calls from Torres Strait Islander leaders for a form of self-government; the current status of native title in Torres Strait; Commonwealth initiatives to increase self-governance and autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders; and the arrangements for managing the international Treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The form of increased self-governance envisaged by Torres Strait Islander leaders is one in which they would have a greater say in policy-making with respect to State and Commonwealth inputs to Torres Strait, and some greater control over natural resources and development.

The Queensland Government has taken a regional approach to Torres Strait for some time and established the Island Coordinating Council so that Islander leaders could provide it with policy advice for the region.

The Commonwealth has taken several initiatives to increase Torres Strait Islander self-governance. These have included establishing the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) in 1994 and giving it the powers of a Commission; separating the TSRA's budget from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission; guaranteeing a greater degree of autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders by the year 2000; and mounting a parliamentary inquiry into the possibility of greater autonomy.

Although the TSRA is the Native Title Representative Body for the region, it does not presently handle the majority of the native title applications in Torres Strait. Furthermore, neither it nor any other body can claim to provide regional representation for all residents. The parliamentary inquiry into autonomy has recommended that the Island Coordinating Council, the TSRA and the Torres Shire be collapsed into a new Regional Assembly which would be elected by all Torres Strait residents and this proposal and the general issue of regional representation is the subject of ongoing consultation.

The paper concludes that despite some divergent views about the form and content of regional representation, there is evidence that the preconditions for a comprehensive regional agreement, or a form of self-governance, exist in Torres Strait. From a broad perspective, Torres Strait is an archipelago and its Indigenous people, who are the majority of the population, have their own unique culture and history. These factors encourage consideration of the Strait as a discrete Torres Strait Islander region.

However, the argument here is that it is the political geography of Torres Strait which has influenced the relationship between government and Indigenous people in the region. Torres Strait sits on the international border between Australia and Papua New Guinea and the arrangements for managing the border and the associated Torres Strait Treaty have brought Indigenous people, the Queensland Government, the Commonwealth Government, and the commercial fishing industry into a unique regional partnership. This relationship has, in part, provided the pre-conditions for a comprehensive regional agreement and/or increased self-governance in Torres Strait.

ISBN: 0 7315 2582 5

ISSN:1036 1774

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