For the video link to this 7.30 Report broadcast go to http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2007/s1916717.htm
Indigenous viewers are warned that this report contains images of a deceased person.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Murray McLaughlin
KERRY O’BRIEN: In the Northern Territory, Chief Minister Clare Martin is facing a serious stand-off with Indigenous members of her caucus. Three of them crossed the floor of Parliament on Thursday night to vote against special legislation overturning a Supreme Court decision that had gone against the Government. The court found last Monday that the Government’s approval of a huge expansion of the McArthur River zinc mine near the Gulf of Carpentaria was invalid. Fearing a backlash from business interests and keen to protect jobs at the mine, the Government rushed through legislation which retrospectively validated the expansion. The decision has angered native title holders in the Gulf country, especially because the law was changed only two days before the funeral of an Aboriginal elder who was a key elder in the campaign to save the McArthur River. This report from Murray McLaughlin, and Indigenous viewers are warned it contains images of a deceased person.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: At Borroloola on Saturday they buried a 43-year-old Aboriginal man, Mr Timothy, who had been a leader of the long fight by Aboriginal traditional owners against the expansion of the nearby McArthur River Mine. His sudden death came two weeks before a Supreme Court judge declared illegal the Territory Government’s approval of the mine’s expansion.
BARBARA MCCARTHY, LABOR MLA, ARNHEM: Everyone here reacted that day with absolute delight and joy and singing and dancing and people were just so proud. People felt thankful and grateful.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The McArthur River Mine, 80 kilometres south of Borroloola, is one of the world’s largest zinc mines. It opened in 1993, and till last year was an underground operation. The Northern Territory Government last October authorised its expansion to open cut, which requires a diversion of five and a half kilometres of the McArthur River. Concerned about environmental consequences, Aboriginal traditional owners challenged the Government approval. The day their case opened in March was the last time Mr Timothy spoke on television.
MR TIMOTHY, TRADITIONAL OWNER: We want them to look through our eyes, not through their dollar signs, you know.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Supreme Court found last Monday that the Government’s authorisation went beyond what McArthur River Mining had applied for. The authorisation did not actually specify an open cut mine and was, therefore, illegal. The Government wrote off the judgment as a narrow technicality.
CLARE MARTIN, NT CHIEF MINISTER: It is a difference of opinion between the judge and the Department of Justice.
RON LEVY, SOLICITOR, NORTHERN LAND COUNCIL: First, judges make the law and interpret the law, not, with respect, solicitors. Secondly, again with respect, the Department of Justice’ legal advice which was in evidence simply failed to squarely address the legal issue upheld by the judge.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The judgment stopped work at the mine immediately. The Government decided not to chance an appeal. Rather, on Thursday night it rammed through Parliament emergency legislation which overruled the court’s decision and retrospectively validated the approval to expand the mine.
CLARE MARTIN: We had to make sure that that mine could operate and there were hundreds of workers who’d been stood down and there were certainly significant costs to be looked at.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Darwin barrister Tony Young was among the mourners at Borroloola on Saturday. He’s worked with the Indigenous people here for many years and has advised the NT Environment Centre on the mine expansion. He says the special legislation has trampled the rights of the Indigenous plaintiffs.
TONY YOUNG, BARRISTER: The result of this legislation is to deprive them of an effective remedy, deprive them in effect of the point of going to a court and seeking to vindicate their legal rights. They were successful. What concerns me about that is that it’s close to an abuse of human rights.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Government’s emergency legislation cast a shadow over Saturday’s funeral. Three Indigenous Government members voted against the law on Thursday night, and the Environment Minister, an Indigenous woman, was deliberately absent from the vote. They wanted the vote delayed till after this funeral. The rift between Chief Minister Clare Martin and Indigenous members of her caucus has widened.
BARBARA MCCARTHY: It was an absolute disgrace, in my view. It was a disgrace because it was the lowest form of disrespect against Indigenous people in this country when a great win had occurred for a senior traditional elder who had just passed away and had not even been buried and I was devastated.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: With will and determination you could have postponed last night’s Parliament motion until next week, couldn’t you? You could have recalled Parliament, whatever it took?
CLARE MARTIN: The certainty that was needed to be created needed to be done quickly. Hundreds of workers stood down, the business suppliers on hold. In fact, what we had to look at from a Government’s point of view of what our liability would have been.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The McArthur River Mine has been a jinx on Clare Martin. Her government’s approval last year of the expansion and river diversion provoked a national protest from environmentalists, fuelled in part by a leaked Treasury document which revealed the mine has never returned any royalties to the Government and enjoys a $5 million a year subsidy of its electricity. A Treasury official was fired and threatened with criminal charges. Now the Government’s facing a charge of special treatment.
TONY YOUNG: McArthur River Mining, Xstrata, have been privileged by this decision. Big or rich or important people or corporations ought not be privileged in a way that puts them beyond reach of the ordinary law.
CLARE MARTIN: The benefits are going to be substantial in the next few years of the operation of that mine. We needed to get it back and running as quickly as possible.
MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: But the Indigenous people of the Gulf country have not exhausted their options. A challenge to the Commonwealth Environment Minister’s approval of the mine expansion began in the Federal Court at Darwin last week. A victory there would surely confirm the jinx of McArthur River.
KERRY O’BRIEN: That report from Murray McLaughlin.