A sniff of a long overdue refreshing change in the wind? #Muckaty #wasteontrial

Coming back to Tennant Creek in Central Australia from the East Coast we were struck by how dry everything is, We have seen very little surface water anywhere on the 500 km road trip up the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs. There was some at Bonney Creek just north of the Devil’s Marbles and 80 km to the south of town.

So it was nice this morning (Thursday) to wake to sniff the sweet hint of outback rain on the air. Some dark clouds to the west – but whether or not anything comes of it is another matter.

Tennant Creek has a population of about 3,000 and a good half of them are indigenous people.

I must say the feeling of life i get in Tennant Creek – where i spent much of the 1980s – is that the town has lost the vibrancy it once had. There were always some big social problems here but those problems were counterbalanced by a healthy side of life – First Peoples here were engaged and empowered.

After the years of the Federal government’s intervention, the place feels like it is slowly dying. The town is ill and needs something to revive it. That something is not the radioactive waste industry.

As Warlmanpa people are saying, radioactive waste on country will kill the spirit of the land and something very bad will happen. Some of them are well acquainted with the nuclear disasters overseas, and the devastating consequences on the surrounding country – country where they collect spiritually important bushfoods not available in the supermarkets.

It is time for a new attitude towards First Peoples to become manifest in the provision of much needed resources, including those of recognition and respect. And to provide these without a radioactive poison chalice.


The Federal Court is sitting in Tennant Creek at the request of Warlmanpa people opposed to the radioactive waste facility which the Commonwealth Government seeks to establish on Aboriginal land (anywhere) but especially at Muckaty – 100km up the road from here. The very concept is racist in its inception.

I understand that there was opposition to the Federal Court coming here to Tennant from the other side (not clear on details) so it is to the great credit of the Federal Court – under Justice North – that they are here this week listening to evidence from Warlmanpa people opposed to the radioactive future.

And it has to be said that this form of legal process is one initiated by Warlmanpa opponents to the radioactive waste facility. Lacking any other legal option (i imagine) they brought their case to the Federal Court.

I say this because they processes of this form of Western justice strike me as being at real odds with the workings of indigenous society in this part of the world.

The way the system works is that a single person is called to give evidence, and is then cross-examined. Then that witness is dismisses by the Judge and allowed to stay and listen to the evidence of others or leave.

But before anyone can give evidence they are not allowed to sit in Court and hear what other witnesses are saying. There is good legal reason for this – it ensures that the evidence people give is not unduly influenced by something they may have just heard from a person giving evidence.

The thing is – individualism of this kind is a comparatively recent development in Western life – and is not something which exists at a deeper level in the lives of First Peoples here. There is, by contrast, a very strong notion of being part of a collective – a group – which has (amongst other things) two complementary opposite parts – kirda and kurtungurlu – (like yin and yang).

Added to this there is a marked distinction between the worlds of men and women. Mens business and womens business are worlds clearly distinguished.

There has been a lot of evidence about both these facts of Warlmanpa life in proceedings in Tennant Creek this week


Earlier attempts to resolve this dispute by mediation (both by Warlmanpa Ways and through the Western legal process) have not been successful. They appeared to lack serious support from those involved in the nomination of the radioactive waste site but i don’t really know why mediation was not a successful healing process. That is what is needed.

When i worked on land claims here in Central Australia the approach of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner was very different. People were always treated in ways which accommodated these fundamentally important features of their social Being. Kirda and kurtungurlu were present. Men and women treated according to the appropriate protocols.

Speaking about country and Dreamings requires the right people to be present. I noticed Dianne S (a very strong women with – as she says – culture) look trapped on one occasion when she was being cross-examined – she looked around the court room for the right people for that moment, but they were not in the room. She could not escape and had to continue.

Given the great importance of this case, procedures are required that ensure people can give their very best evidence.

I hope to tease out some of these matters when i return to Wollongong since there is so much happening here at the moment i need some quiet time to reflect on these things.

Yesterday in Court we heard from a very strong woman P Brown who was very capable and spoke strongly about key matters – but she was followed but a far less confident women who – isolated and alone – worried about other matters – situated in the middle of the intense focus of
non-indigenous men – was subject to gruelling hours of cross-examination by Northern Land Council lawyers.

It just felt so wrong i had to leave the room – one less non-indigenous man i thought. Later on other Warlmanpa women expressed their concern about how she was being treated and ensured that they were in the court room to give her some support.


Muckaty, like Tennant Creek, is in the Barkly Region. Both major Land Councils have offices here – remote from the action back in the main office – and both have long opposed the establishment of a Barkly Land Council. Muckaty is in the Northern Land Council part of the NT.

While the Federal Court appears to be novices in these areas of First Australians life, the Northern Land Council is more than well acquainted with these basic realities. The NLC has been running land claims since the early 1980s and must know far better than this.

Instead of seeking to discredit Warlmanpa people opposing radioactive waste entering their lives uninvited it should be seeking to ensure that they have the same treatment and resources as the other small Warlmanpa family who nominated a site to the facility.

No doubt there are many good people who work for the NLC but it seems to me that the Northern Land Council has grown arrogant with far too much power residing in the hands of a few key power-brokers. And is long overdue for a major reform process.

I won’t be going to Darwin where the Federal Court will sit after Tennant. I expect the NLC will be giving evidence in support of its consultation process for the radioactive waste facility.

Maybe one good outcome of a situation which is causing great stress to Warlmanpa people would be to recognise the shortcomings of the 1976 Land Rights Act which placed them under the Darwin and Top End based Northern Land Council rather than a one which covered this already vast Barkly region.

Time for a Barkly Region Land Council under the control of local indigenous people i reckon.

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