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Concerns Raised Over Extent of Land Transfer Powers Under Aboriginal Land Act

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About 15 Queensland towns are also subject to land transfer under the Act.

An outback pub manager is calling for action as he fears 95 percent of land in his hometown could be handed to an Aboriginal corporation.

Toobeah business owner Michael Offerdahl says he only found out about the plans from Goondiwindi Regional Council meeting minutes in January, with the Bigambul Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (BNTAC) revealing its master plan for a section of on its website.

The group says it plans to use 210 hectares of the 220-hectare Toobeah Reserve to carry out land management, eco-tourism, and land regeneration.

But Mr. Offerdahl claims no members of the Bigambul people currently lived in the town and didn’t understand why they were being granted “inalienable freehold” over the land.

“None of the people of that tribe live in this town,” he told The Epoch Times.

He said the Indigenous people behind the claim had only been in the region since the 1920s, well after other Indigenous tribes and after the town had been established.

The publican said the origin of the name Toobeah was from the native Gamilaroi word, dhuba-y, meaning “to point,” which Mr. Offerdahl says demonstrates the lack of history the Bigambul people have in the area.

The business owner said he held concerns the move could significantly alter the trajectory of the township and future commercial opportunities, warning more clarity was needed otherwise it could have ramifications across the state.

“If you let them win and this is what they want to do, then this is going to happen all over Queensland.”

15 Towns Under Aboriginal Land Act Applications

One Nation’s Mirani MP Steven Andrew raised the issue in state parliament on May 1, where he questioned the proposed land transfer under the Aboriginal Land Act (ALA) of Queensland.

He asked what steps had been taken to ensure the Toobeah community was included in the decision-making process, what impact the transfer would have on townspeople’s property rights, and its ability to access its treated water and sewerage system.

Another key questions was how many towns were under pending ALA applications.

The Department of Resources responded that the ALA did not require broad community consultation, but that it did hold a community forum in Toobeah on March 4.

Information from Goondiwindi Regional Council also revealed the department would ensure town water and bore facilities remained accessible.

Local children at the Toomelah Aboriginal Mission in NSW, just across the border from Goondiwindi on Jan. 18, 2005. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Local children at the Toomelah Aboriginal Mission in NSW, just across the border from Goondiwindi on Jan. 18, 2005. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

An area of land adjoining the Toobeah township would be used for the community, including for open space, future town expansion, and travelling stock requirements.

The council response said the land subject to the expression of interest was designated as a reserve for camping purposes associated with the stock route network and that would continue over the retained land.

Two lots of land in the community, including rodeo facilities, would remain available for recreational use.

Mr. Andrew’s question of which townships had expressions of interest went unanswered, with only the confirmation that there were 15 sites under consideration.

The Epoch Times understands two of the other areas of interest are Eurong and Happy Valley on Fraser Island.

Indigenous groups have lodged expressions of interest for inalienable freehold handover of those parts of the island.

Land transfers made under the ALA are separate to Native Title.

So far, more than 6 million hectares of state land has been granted to Indigenous Australians in some form.

How the Aboriginal Land Acts Differ From Native Title

The ALAs and Native Title both represent Indigenous claims to land, yet both differ in law and function.

Native Title is a recognition of the rights and interests of Indigenous people in land and waters, according to traditional laws and customs.

For example, the rights to look after sacred sites, camp, hunt and fish and hold ceremonies in areas Indigenous people have a proven connection to. Yet the rights can vary depending on the specific case.

Native Title law was found to exist by the High Court of Australia in the landmark Mabo case in 1992, which overturned the prevailing legal property concept of “terra nullius”—that Australia belonged to no one prior to European settlement.

In contrast, the ALA is an actual grant of land.

The concept originated in 1976 as Commonwealth legislation that provided Indigenous people in the Northern Territory the right to be granted land if they could prove historical and cultural ownership.

Legislated as the Aboriginal Land Act in Queensland in 1991, the law recognises the concept of inalienable freehold title, which means land is handed to Indigenous people indefinitely.

Rights under the act can include ownership, control and management of land, development, lease negotiation and economic activity.

Indigenous Group’s Plans for Eco-Tourism

BNTAC claimed there had been widespread misinformation in the media regarding the land claim.

The group said claims the state was giving away 95 percent of land at Toobeah, including infrastructure such as the now decommissioned town dump and recreational areas, was misleading.

They said land subject to the claim constituted just 0.18 percent of land mass in the Toobeah area and that locals would still have unrestricted access to amenities like water and attractions such as the recreational reserve.

The group denied plans to build social housing on the land, saying it would be used for cultural, ecological, economic development, and prosperity objectives for the Bigambul people through regional eco-cultural tourism opportunities for Toobeah.

Bigambul Executive Director Justin Saunders said he had spoken to Mr. Offerdahl on many occasions and the community had been consulted several times.

BNTAC claimed parts of the land had been damaged by four-wheel drives and other use, and said the land was in dire need of rejuvenation to restore traditional bush medicine and food plants.

The group also said the Bigambul people had lived in and been connected to the Toobeah region for generations, with camps and reserves in the area as recently as the 1950s and 1960s.

The Bigambul people are Native Title holders of the land.

Council Denies Social Housing Claim

The Epoch Times contacted Goondiwindi Regional Council, which is led by former Queensland Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg.

The council directed the publication to its online Q&A on Toobeah.

According to the website, the future of the Toobeah Reserve is a state issue and not something the Council can control.

The Council stated the Toobeah Reserve was currently only slated for use for camping or watering in relation to stock, but that BNTAC was open to collaborating on shared use guidelines.

It also stated social housing would be an unlikely development due to guidelines around such estates that would require more infrastructure services than Toobeah had to offer.

Need For Transparency: Researcher

Close the Gap Research Chairman Gary Johns said there was a need for transparency around land transfers under the ALA.

“The Queensland government should not hand land exclusive to any group without full consultation with all stakeholders and the public,” he told The Epoch Times.

“This secretive means of handing over land is not a sensible way to proceed. The public should be aware of the possible uses of the land.”

Mr. Johns said assurances from groups were not sufficient.

“Aboriginal groups are fond of quoting from U.N.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires governments to consult with people to obtain their ‘free, prior and informed consent’ before legislative or administrative measures. Yet these same rights have not been afforded all other Queenslanders,” he said.

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