Bergmann, Voelte, Augustine, Djiagween slam withdrawal of benefits package
Traditional Owner Rita Augustine – Photo, Aaron Bunch
Goolarabooloo Elders and community leaders fought all the way to save the pristine Country they call home but on which the Western Australian Government wanted to develop a $40 billion gas precinct – the largest in the world. The Woodside-led joint venture, ferociously supported by the State Government, was dumped in May by Woodside Petroleum but with this so have the hopes extinguished of impoverished Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr peoples who had signed a Native Title agreement with the State Government and the resource companies.
Despite all those among the Aboriginal communities who fought against the industrialisation of James Price Point (Walmadany) there were many who fought for it because they knew that waiting for Governments to help their peoples, their children out of impoverishment is in other words waiting forever and a day.
Former Kimberley Land Council (KLC) CEO Wayne Bergmann who was in the thick of all the negotiations with the State Government and the Native Title holders is disappointed that nothing at all was leveraged for the local peoples who he feels have been stranded once again in chronic poverty. He blames the “environmental do-gooders”. He said they “failed” the Aboriginal peoples of the region and their economic and social rights.
WA Premier Colin Barnett who threatened compulsory acquisition if the Native Title holders did not sign an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) also threatened earlier this year that if the venture folded that the promised $1.5 billion Native Title package would disappear. The venture did fall t through and weeks ago it was formally announced so did the Native Title benefits package. Mr Bergmann is upset for the local peoples. It was Mr Bergmann who brokered the financial package, what would have been the most lucrative Native Title deal yet anywhere in Australia – such is the poor state of Native Title agreements and the weaknesses of the oversight bodies.
Mr Bergmann slammed the many high profile figures who campaigned against the gas hub in order to protect the pristine James Price coastline, the nearby breeding waters of whiles, and the Song Cycles of the Goolarabooloo. He said these individuals are nowhere to be seen when impoverished Aboriginal peoples need them, and that their one-sided campaigning has condemned long suffering communities to their poverty. “They have retreated to their beautiful houses, while our people endure utter poverty.”
“It is incomprehensible that the Native Title agreement has been abandoned.”
“The $1.5 billion benefits package would have been life-changing.”
Mr Bergmann also hit at the diehard environmentalists and activists and asked where are they since the collapse of the gas hub proposal. He asked why are they not campaigning for the impoverished communities. The Kimberley is a tourist mecca, and is resource rich, quite of some of it is being mined but poverty is widespread. The population of the Kimberley is 42,000 with 14,000 comprised of Aboriginal peoples. However seven per cent of the Kimberley is homeless and 90 per cent of that homelessness comprise Aboriginal peoples. This is one of the world’s worst homelessness rates. Governments and all sorts of public and private institutions have neglected the region’s Aboriginal peoples and the endemic homelessness problem soars. It barely gets a mention in Western Australian and national media.
With this backdrop a bitter Mr Bergmann slammed high profile figures like Dr Bob Brown, Telstra director Geoff Cousins, musicians Missy Higgins and John Butler all who campaigned among many others to save the Kimberley coast from industrialisation.
“These do-gooders are still sitting back in their beautiful Sydney houses while our people continue to suffer the worst living conditions in Australia.”
He pointed out that many Kimberley Aboriginal peoples “are living in tents.” This is true. While with The National Indigenous Times and with The Stringer I have visited the Kimberley, met with many within the endemic poverty that is rampant within and on the outskirts of Broome. There are third-world conditions for Aboriginal communities in the tourist mecca of the Kimberley.
Some of those Mr Bergmann has criticised have argued that the impoverished communities should be assisted by the State and Federal Governments, and that much of the Native Title Agreement should have been lived up to despite wherever the resource companies took their mining. In this case the drilling and production of liquefied natural gas will now go relatively a little offshore from James Price.
Dr Brown and Mr Cousins argue the now broken-record that Governments should ensure the equivalent opportunities, services and health for Aboriginal peoples but we all know this does not happen, despite Aboriginal peoples comprising only less than 2.5 per cent of Australia’s total population. Dr Brown should know, he was part of the Australian Senate for 16 years, and therefore part of an Australian Government that has failed Aboriginal peoples. He knows it just does not happen.
The Woodside-led joint venture had intended the $1.5 billion benefits package to the local peoples for a 30 years use of the land at James Price Point (Walmadany).
Woodside will now build an offshore floating LNG plant to tap into the Browse Basin gas reserves. Therefore there will be less employment opportunities for the local peoples when the plant is ready.
But to the surprise of everyone, former Woodside CEO Don Voelte spoke up for the local peoples last week and said the Woodside group should honour the benefits package that Bergmann had brokered and that there should be no escape clauses. He said the whole purpose of the package was to share the benefits from the natural gas development. He said that the region’s resources would still be extracted and therefore the relocation of the actual production site should not matter.
Mr Bergmann agrees with Mr Voelte and said that Woodside has a “social responsibility to pay the benefits it promised.”
“Woodside have turned their back on the community. It is a huge opportunity lost. (Chairman of Woodside’s Board) Michael Chaney could have provided leadership,” said Mr Bergmann.
“It has made Aboriginal people more cynical and less trusting of companies, governments and environmental groups.”
A Woodside spokesperson responded, “Woodside has made, or is in the process of making, $25.6 million in payments in accordance with agreement provisions. This includes funding for the Reading Recovery childhood literacy program, business development organisation and education, healthcare and cultural assistance through a trust established for the Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr people.”
The spokesperson said developing the Browse resources “will make a contribution to the Australian and West Australian economies.”
It had been known for quite some time that the Native Title Agreement would not be honoured. At the time of the collapse of the venture Woodside Petroleum’s CEO Peter Coleman said that $18 million in Native Title payments would still be made, that $3.7 million had been made in advance payments, and that Woodside would honour what was in the contract.
“The agreement was very clear,” said Mr Coleman.
“We do not expect to be making ex-gratia payments to them.”
At the same time Mr Bergmann said, “During the negotiations, the State Government, and Woodside put the Traditional Owners under extreme pressure. The extreme pressure produced the agreement.” He said the Traditional Owners were not “dealt fairly” and that because the deal was pushed through while circumventing normal Native Title processes that the venture partners are morally bound to deliver the benefits package.
“You have to consider the savage way in which Aboriginal people had to negotiate. There were threats of taking the land without a compensation package.”
Jabirr Jabirr Elder Rita Augustine who signed off on the agreement and who last year wrote to the nation about the plight of her peoples’ chronic poverty and the sense of hopelessness they feel and hence why the gas hub should go ahead, said she “feels betrayed by Woodside.”
Jabirr Jabirr Elder Cissy Djiagween said Aboriginal youth suicide rates in the Kimberley were among the highest in the nation, that the region’s homelessness was an unheralded national disgrace, unemployment high, illness rampant and untreated.
Ms Augustine said, “Woodside had our spirits up. But now our children will not benefit with education, jobs, good health.”
The natural gas market is in strong demand and according to Mr Coleman will remain strong for several more years. Up to 13 trillion of cubic metres of Browse gas will be extracted and processed, many will get richer. Native Title is not recognised in terms of seas, and therefore the loophole. This though means that at least for another generation there will be entrenched impoverishment for the Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr peoples.
It must be threaded into every piece of journalism on impoverished Aboriginal communities that yes indeed Governments, State and Federal, utterly neglect, and hence discriminate, against Aboriginal communities, but that resources companies have utterly failed them too. They profit more than enough and do have the capacity to have returned vibrant economic communities and townships in the Kimberley, Pilbara, Western Desert, Goldfields to Aboriginal peoples, and indeed all over Australia. Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy and is powered by the resources sector, with the multinational resource companies in Australia returning some of the world’s highest company gross and net returns.