Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Ed Wensing
By late 1996/early 1997 the Australian Local Government Association (‘ALGA’) and some state associations realised that local councils throughout Australia needed factual information and guidance on how to work with native title. In March 1997 ALGA resolved to undertake a native title project comprising information seminars and the production of resource guides specifically for local government. ALGA’s approach was to ask ‘what does a local council need to know about native title so that it can continue to carry out its responsibilities, and make decisions about land use and management in accordance with the law and at least cost?’.
Supported by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (‘ATSIC’), ALGA undertook over 60 information seminars throughout Australia to provide councils with an overview of their native title responsibilities and produced the Working out Agreements: A practical guide to agreements between local government and Indigenous Australians (‘Working out Agreements guide’). With further assistance provided by ATSIC and the addition of a new partner, the National Native Title Tribunal (‘NNTT’), ALGA also produced the Working with Native Title: A practical guide for local government (‘Working with Native Title guide’). The Working with Native Title guide provides councils with a six-step action plan for incorporating native title into council’s day-to-day operations, as well as necessary background information relating to the common law recognition of native title. The Working out Agreements guide provides information about how to develop, implement and review an agreement, as well as information on recent case studies.
Later stages of the project involved the preparation of a training program, including the development of training materials with card games, board games and other small group activities to engage participants in the material. Over 55 one-day training workshops were convened in all mainland states to provide practitioners with an understanding of the basic facts of native title, their responsibilities arising from the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and how to apply the action plan in the Working with Native Title guide. Specialist assistance was provided to remote councils who would otherwise have difficulty accessing such assistance. ALGA also produced an information kit comprising ten checklists for different positions/occupations in local government and a second edition of an earlier brochure, as an aid to applying the action plan in the Working with Native Title guide. Lastly, a series of issues papers addressing specific inquiries raised by councils during workshops and consultations were posted onto the ALGA’s website for general access.
The training workshops were made possible by a partnership between ALGA, ATSIC, the NNTT and the Legal Assistance Branch of the Federal Attorney-General’s Department. Over 800 people have participated in the workshops, including elected local government representatives (councillors), chief executive officers, senior managers and practitioners in local government, solicitors and consultants, members of native title representative bodies and individual claimants. Other participants included representatives of ATSIC, state and federal government agencies, academics, pastoralists and other local community representatives.
To date, the total cost of the project from 1997 to 2001 is approximately $700,000. This includes grant funding, ALGA’s own contributions, revenue from sale of the guides and the conduct of training workshops on a cost recovery basis. The actual investment including in-kind contributions of the partner agencies would double this figure. This project demonstrates the high costs associated with conducting effective national information and training initiatives, the need for partnerships between key agencies to assist local communities to come to terms with new responsibilities, and the value of developing a range of resource materials in response to a newly developing body of law. Feedback from councils that have benefited from the project has been very positive. It has contributed to raising the level of understanding in local communities about native title and the need to find negotiated agreements rather than litigated outcomes.
(For more information visit the ALGA website at www.alga.asn.au, then click on native title.)
Ed Wensing is a consultant to the ALGA on native title matters and is co-author of the Working with Native Title guide with Lucy Macmillan (a former editor of the Indigenous Law Bulletin).