Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday flagged urgent changes to the Native Title Act after the National Native Title Tribunal confirmed on Friday it was freezing all new land use agreements across the country due to a federal court decision earlier this month.
The federal court in Western Australia struck down a $1.3 billion deal with local indigenous people on February 1 after some representatives refused to sign the agreement claiming it would have permanently stripped the Noongar people of their native title rights.
Brandis said the amendments to be introduced into federal parliament this week would remove the "commercial uncertainty" created by the McGlade decision, named after Mingli Wanjurri McGlade who refused to sign the WA agreement along with Mervyn Eades, Naomi Smith and Margaret Culbong.
UQ academic Dr Kim de Rijke presented a paper on CSG, Native Title and indigenous land use agreements in southern Queensland in 2014 which outlined how there was nearly always vigorous debate within Aboriginal groups about economic benefits, heritage and environmental impacts, which is a nightmare for resources companies and governments to navigate through.
Three years later, De de Rijke told Energy News yesterday that very little has changed, and both government and industry have a role to play to help improve the situation.
"There is this cultural politics among Aboriginal groups which is very hard for the resources industry to deal with," he said.
"That goes to the issue of how do you navigate that difficult world of inter-indigenous conflicts and different views of what matters, which is what happened with Noongar, where it appears the majority wanted the agreement to get some outcomes; while some said ‘we are not interested in giving up our Native Title rights, we are interested in this idea of ‘cultural maintenance'.
"You have legislation which is far from ideal and which, in native title, hasn't been resolved in many cases in Queensland, so industry operates in an uncertain situation where the federal court hasn't decided who the right people are.
"In the context of the WA federal court ruling, mining, oil and gas companies need to engage much more thoroughly with what's happening on the ground, rather than this hands-off approach, because that's feeding conflict in many ways."
Yet that's not an easy task for resource companies, and Dr de Rijke said many resources companies' indigenous liaison officers were "not quite equipped" to navigate the murky world of Aboriginal politics.
He said those officers also often "don't get the kind of clout they need within companies to undertake this kind of work", indicating that the resources sector needs to get a lot more serious about the issue.
While he said companies are doing that now that things have come to a head, they need a more sustained effort.
"The federal court, governments and regulators also need to engage more thoroughly with the politics of indigenous life," he said.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association is not commenting on the pending legislation.
However the Queensland Resources Council, which speaks for both the natural gas and coal sectors, said the move to amend the Native Title Act as it related to the Indigenous Land Use Agreements was needed as future ILUAs were at risk, along with new projects.
"This ruling will affect new projects and has the very real possibility of halting a significant number of projects in Queensland, including those commences since 2012. In addition, it also affects infrastructure, national parks, ports and railways," the QRC said.
Last week the QRC called on the Commonwealth to expedite legislation to ensure that ILUAs could be approved with a majority decision, and for the opposition to support the amendments, which are in line with the 2010 QGC v Bygrave federal court decision.
Back then, a single-judge decision in the federal court ruled that it was not necessary for all individuals, which constituted the registered native title claimants, to sign an ILUA.
The QRC said yesterday that Senator Brandis had "managed the native title issue as best as he could up to this point".
However, "when he received a letter from the National Native Title Council last year, warning of the need for possible changes, there was no certainty at the time as to which way the Federal Court decision would come out".
"In fact at the time, the court proceedings were ongoing and it was unclear whether or not there would be a need for legislative change," the QRC said.
"A premature move by Senator Brandis could have been seen as prejudicing the outcome of the Federal Court and he was wise to refrain from inflaming the issue.
"Now the magnitude of the problem is graphically clear, I call on all politicians from all sides of politics to raise up above politics and work to solve this problem that has the potential to affect hundreds of mining leases in Queensland and cost thousands of jobs.
"It's imperative Canberra works together to solve this matter as soon as possible."