Connecting to country

Thursday, 01 December 2022

Susan Muldowney

    The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation assists First Nations people with the acquisition and management of land, saltwater and freshwater, so they can achieve economic, environmental, social and cultural benefits. 

    On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia abolished the doctrine of terra nullius — “land belonging to nobody” — marking a turning point for the rights of First Nations people. In their case against the Queensland government, Eddie Mabo and four fellow plaintiffs from Mer (Murray Island) in the east of the Torres Strait, proved that traditional ownership of the land predated white settlement and that these rights should still exist today.

    Ian Hamm MAICD, a Yorta Yorta man and chair of the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC), which was established in 1995 in response to the Mabo judgment and the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), recalls the High Court decision “as clear as a bell”.

    “There was such excitement in the Aboriginal community, but we also just couldn’t believe it,” he says. “The High Court had found in favour of an Indigenous litigant around land ownership? You mean we’re now recognised as having always been here? Once people started to digest it, Parliament went off its collective nut.”

    ILSC Group CEO Joe Morrison has similar recollections.

    “The Mabo decision was nationally significant, but I remember the country being quite divided in relation to native title,” he says. “There was a lot of scaremongering and political interference during what should have been a national conversation of the place of First Nations people in the fabric of Australian society. The average Australian is a lot more open-minded and accepting. While there’s always going be an element of opposition to Indigenous self-determination, I think it’s a lot less compared to what it has been in the past.”

    New era of engagement

    Self-determination for First Nations Australians is at the heart of the ILSC agenda and, three decades after the landmark Mabo judgment, the Commonwealth entity is coming into its own.

    First Nations rights and interests cover 51 per cent of the Australian landmass and this is projected to grow to two-thirds by 2030 as more Country is recognised as being Indigenous- owned under native title, land rights and other negotiated processes.

    The ILSC has returned 6.4 million hectares of Country to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations and invests in a range of projects — from aquaculture projects and health services to commercialising native food. Funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land and Sea Future Fund (ATSILSFF), the organisation received $54.8m in 2020–21.

    It is currently developing a new National Indigenous Land and Sea Strategy (NILSS), which Morrison says marks a new era of engagement with First Nations people. “I always saw the ILSC as being an enabler for Indigenous people,” he says. “But in my view, it has been focused inwards on its own businesses, and operating at the expense of supporting Indigenous people. That’s changing now.”

    Changing the conversation

    Morrison has spent 30 years working in Indigenous land and sea management. During his previous role as CEO of Northern Land Council (NLC), he oversaw the settlement of two of Australia’s oldest land claims in Kenbi and Yarralin, as well as the settlement of the Jangala nuclear waste case. He left his role in 2018 following tensions at the NLC and was appointed CEO of ILSC in December 2020.

    A Dagoman and Torres Strait Islander man, Morrison grew up in the Northern Territory, where the 1966 walk-off from Wave Hill cattle station, led by livestock worker and activist Vincent Lingiari, helped spark Australia’s land rights movement. His interest in First Nations land and sea management stems from childhood experiences visiting the Katherine cattle station that his father managed.

    “I remember seeing Aboriginal people living in separate camps to the homestead and thinking, they work on this station, their ancestors have always been here, why are they living in these degraded little tin huts?,” says Morrison. “It triggered something in me, and I thought, something’s just not right. That drove my interest in wanting to elevate and amplify Indigenous people’s connection to their country.”

    When Morrison joined the ILSC, one of his first moves was to align the corporation with the voice of First Nations people. “It’s legislated that the ILSC must table its National Indigenous Land and Sea Strategy every five years,” he says. “What’s not legislated is that it consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about its strategy — and it’s never really done that in a comprehensive way. That’s what we’re doing with our NILSS engagement process and I’m blessed as a CEO to have a board that comes to the table with a similar view. It certainly makes my job a lot easier in terms of implementing change.”

    Board renewal

    The ILSC board — appointed by the Minister for Indigenous Australians under section 191X of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005 (Cth) — has undergone recent renewal. All but one of its seven directors have been appointed within the past 12 months.

    Hamm — who is also an AICD Victoria Division councillor — was appointed to the board as chair in December 2021. He says he came to the role without an interest in “revisiting all that past stuff with the board”.

    “My focus is in where we are going and how we get there,” he says. “We’re about building up the capacity and capability of the communities and Aboriginal organisations to not just have land, but to make the most of it for the purposes that they want, so they’ll never feel disconnected from their country again.”

    Hamm says he has sought to build cohesion and consensus on the board since his appointment. “Having said that, the board is a good group of people, because it’s mostly blackfellas who are not shy of having a good, robust discussion,” he says. “People have their views and opinions, and we debate and discuss, but we come to a consensus about where we should be going. We focus on the longer-term strategic stuff we’re trying to achieve. We don’t sweat the small stuff. That’s not the role of a board.”

    Addressing diversity

    In mid-2022, the ILSC held more than 40 engagement sessions across the country to seek community views on what should be included in the next NILSS, which is due for release in 2023. Morrison stresses it was not a “one-off conversation”, but part of an ongoing process to better align the ILSC with Indigenous Australians.

    “The numbers [of attendees] were lower than I expected, but I think that’s partly because of COVID-19 and that there’s been this history of paternalism within the ILSC and many government organisations in telling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what they should be doing, rather than talking to them about what they want and working alongside them,” he says. “But the level of feedback that we have is that there’s a broad range of interest from the Indigenous community about the sorts of things they want to get done on their country. It’s not just thinking about remote Australia anymore, there are some amazingly innovative entrepreneurs emerging in more urban areas, away from the land rights and native title struggles that people have, and innovation is growing rapidly.”

    ILSC deputy chair Claire Filson MAICD is one of two non- Indigenous people on the board. She regards stakeholder management as among the ILSC’s greatest challenges. “There are so many constituent parties and they’re so geographically spread,” she says. “They will have different needs and different expectations, so being flexible is extremely important and there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. That requires a lot of engagement, including at a grassroots level.”

    Filson describes the ILSC as being at the “sharp and pointy end of Indigenous awareness”.

    “This is because while we are a government entity, it’s not the government’s money that we administer and allocate,” she says. “It’s the money given to the Indigenous community as compensation arising out of the Mabo decision. Yes, we do report to the minister, and I’m in no way seeking to minimise the importance of that role. But it’s also important that our many stakeholders understand that we are not just the government. Our role is to ensure that we are delivering on the expectations of Indigenous communities’ proper use of the money that belongs to them.”

    Maximising impact

    To maximise the impact of the ILSC, Hamm notes it can’t simply “acquire land and hand it over”. “Our job is to create the best opportunity for the best outcome for Indigenous communities around Australia,” he says, adding that this involves working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enterprises on organisational and governance structures.

    Morrison is also focused on the ILSC funding model. He says the organisation is exploring the potential divestment of its capital-intensive subsidiary businesses, including Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, which operates Ayers Rock Resort in Central Australia and Mossman Gorge Centre in Northern Queensland. He’s also looking at how its future fund drawdown can keep up with current market demands.

    “Unfortunately, we are constrained by the current drawdown being matched by 2010 CPI values,” he says. “Some large agricultural holdings go for more than we are able to draw down in a year, and we’re looking to review the drawdown so it is more akin to the reality we’re facing in 2022.”

    Inside the ILSC, Morrison is stripping back the corporate speak to align its language with the Indigenous communities.

    “As an example, we’ve shifted away from using the term ‘Indigenous estate’, because feedback shows that the Torrens title view of individual property rights doesn’t resonate with the Indigenous community,” he says. “So now we’re shifting back to just referring to ‘Country’.”

    Morrison says the ILSC is currently analysing the data gathered during its NILSS engagement process and ensuring the corporation is structured to implement the results.

    “You can’t just pay lip service by asking Indigenous people what they want and then do nothing about it,” he says. “We’ll have more conversations about the changes we make to ensure that the structure of the ILSC and the amount of investment we draw from our future fund can keep up with the pace of development and appetite of the Indigenous community. Indigenous people have an insatiable appetite to reconnect with their Country, which just never goes away.”

    ILSC on land and sea 

    The ILSC invests in projects to assist First Nations people with the acquisition and management of land and water activities for their economic, environmental, social and cultural benefit. Recent examples include:

    Sister Kate’s Home Kids Aboriginal Corporation

    In August this year, the ILSC returned the 2.7ha parcel of land in Perth’s Queens Park to the Sister Kate’s Home Kids Aboriginal Corporation (SKHKAC). The land is opposite the former Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home for Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents between 1934– 75. The “bush block”, was a secret meeting place for parents and their children to briefly reunite.

    The ILSC bought the land in 2008 from the Uniting Church to return it to SKHKAC for the benefit of members of the stolen generation who had lived at Sister Kate’s, their families and the wider Noongar community.

    SKHKAC plans to turn the land into a cultural centre and place of healing, as well as develop fee-for-service activities to sustain operations. The ILSC has granted SKHKAC up to an additional $500,000 for capital works.

    Wanna Mar

    An industry first, Wanna Mar — meaning “sea food” in Mirning and Wirangu languages — is a new commercial tuna fishing joint venture between Traditional Owners, Far West Coast Investments and the Stehr Group. The ILSC helped to secure Wanna Mar funding support of $3.5m in 2020. It is a 100 per cent Indigenous- owned commercial fishing venture, which ILSC Group CEO Joe Morrison describes as a “strategic investment” to enable Indigenous Australians to “take their rightful place in the fishing industry”.

    Aboriginal Independent Living Village

    Announced in June 2021, the Aboriginal Independent Living Village project will be built on part of a 5.8ha property purchased by the ILSC on behalf of the native title holders of the Adelaide plains area, the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation (KYAC). The $10m project will create a purpose-built village for Aboriginal Elders living in Adelaide.

    A partnership between the ILSC, KYAC, national First Nations NFP housing provider Aboriginal Community Housing Limited (ACHL), and the South Australian government, the proposed development will include 40 individual homes to be built on 1.3ha of the property located 13km south of the Adelaide CBD, close to “Warraparinga”, a traditional ceremonial meeting place for the Kaurna people near the Sturt River.

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