Native Title future hangs in balance

James Nason, 21/12/2012

Landholder groups say the future of native title negotiations hangs in the balance after the Federal Government recently decided to cut financial assistance for respondents in native title cases.

From January 1 next year assistance paid to landholders in native claims will cease, but funding for claimants will continue.

The Federal Government has defended the discontinuation as a necessary cost cutting measure. It says all native title law has now been finalised, and rural properties, as commercially viable enterprises, should fund their own defences.

Landholder groups argue that the federal funding for pastoral respondents, which typically amounts to around $1 million a year, is a small price for the Government to pay to keep a native title process that is gaining momentum and harbouring a strong spirit of good will on both sides moving forward.

Funding for pastoral respondents has amounted to no more than $1.8m in a single year, while funding for claimants has totalled around $6m.

After just four cases were finalised between 1996 and 2011, eight resolutions have been struck in 2012 and the Federal Court diary shows that another 17 cases are expected to be finalised next year.

Rural groups warn that without financial support for pastoral respondents, the entire process and all it has achieved is at serious risk of falling over.

From January 1, 2013, existing funding arrangements for solicitors and State Farming Organisations that are currently representing landholder interests on native title will cease.

In Queensland, for example, AgForce currently has 578 respondents involved in 52 native title claims on its books.

If the funding decision is not overturned, those respondents will have to choose early next year whether to engage their own solicitor, whether to represent themselves in the Federal Court process, or whether to do nothing and hope for an acceptable outcome without representation.

In-built efficiencies in the current system, under which large numbers of landholders in Queesnsland are represented by a single legal expert in native title, Thynne & McCartney’s Mark Boge, and AgForce senior native title officer John Stewart, who also chairs the NFF native title taskforce, are also at risk due to the funding cuts.

With four claims due to be finalised in the next month, AgForce is understood to have committed funding to keep its native title program operating for the first few months of the new year, but arrangements beyond that date remain up in the air.

Rural leaders remain hopeful they can change Federal Attorney General Nicola Roxon’s mind on the funding cutbacks.

In the meantime state-based groups are looking for alternative funding sources, with AgForce lodging a submission for assistance from the State Government this week.

“We’re still hoping that we can still get the funding that we need to continue,” Mr Stewart said.

“If we can’t get that funding we probably have to go back to our respondents to see if they are prepared to accept a user-pays system.”


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