Crashing through Aurukun's red gold

By: Tony Koch

LAST week, an old Aboriginal man led a group to a remote part of the massive Aurukun Aboriginal reserve on western Cape York, to the wreck of a helicopter that crashed in the mid-1960s.
Much of the frame was still there, along with the seat and rotor parts.
Wik elder Silas Wolmby explained he and other Aboriginal stockmen were told to go out and search for the chopper, which had contained two men prospecting for minerals.
``One was badly injured and the other was blinded from injuries. The blind one went for water after a day or so, and came back but could not see his friend,'' he said. ``We were not able to find the wreck for almost a week and by that time both had died.''
So it was with tragedy that the extraction of the region's red gold -- bauxite -- began. What followed was a complete sellout of Aboriginal people in the greatest act of racist political bastardry perpetrated by the Queensland government headed by Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The subsequent decades of misery are only now being redressed. The traditional owners will visit China later this year for talks on a multi-billion-dollar deal, which if successful could finally lay to rest a shocking episode in Queensland history.
The actions of the Bjelke--Petersen government were what led to the introduction of liquor canteens on ``missions.'' The canteens decimated entire Aboriginal families and communities through alcoholism and child neglect.
The bauxite in this region, which covers 2400 square kilometres, is valuable because it is so easy to recover. It lies on top of the ground, in varying-sized textured balls of deep red.
A month ago at a meeting with Premier Peter Beattie, Aurukun Mayor Neville Pootchemunka told how, as a child, he used the balls to play marbles.
But Pootchemunka's community lost control over the valuable commodity in the 1970s. Then, last April, the Queensland parliament introduced legislation cancelling leases granted to the French-based company Pechiney over the bauxite deposits, which are potentially worth $23 million.
In 1975 the Bjelke-Petersen government passed legislation overriding the rights of the traditional owners, the Wik and Wikwaya people, to grant leases to mine their ``Aurukun mission reserve''.
The lease arrangements for the Aurukun bauxite deposits were organised by the Tipperary Land Corporation, whose managing director was one of Australia's most powerful businessmen, grazier William Gunn.
The legislation was rammed through the parliament within 48 hours, one week before the 1975 state election.
By then, Aurukun was a mission run by the Presbyterian Church. The church sent letters to Bjelke-Petersen right up to the day the legislation was debated -- December 4, 1975 -- asking for more time for the locals to be consulted.
The Labor opposition also objected, pointing out that the legislation gave the lessee complete control over the land and included provisions to convert it to freehold title.
In return for losing possession and control of their land, the Aurukun people were given a miserly 3 per cent of the net profits, to be paid to the Aboriginal Welfare Fund.
That fund was set up for the benefit of all Aboriginal people. But history shows it was raided by successive governments, and the millions of dollars collected (in Aboriginal wages paid to the fund but not to the individuals) were squandered.
As predicted by the Labor opposition and the Presbyterian Church, Pechiney failed to build the smelter, which was part of the contract, and never put so much as a shovel into the mineral deposit.
Instead, the deposit was ``warehoused'' -- locked away so nobody else could mine it and become a competitor on the world alumina market.
Writing in the Indigenous Law Bulletin, Neva Collings noted that the first court challenge to the bauxite mining was by Wik elders John Koowarta and Donald Peinkinna.
The Wik people won in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the agreement was a breach of trust on the part of the Queensland Director of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement -- then Pat Killoran. But the decision was overturned on appeal by the Privy Council in 1978 on the basis that Killoran was under no obligation to make any particular provision for the community.
Subsequent to this appeal, the federal government under Malcolm Fraser passed an act to ensure the Aboriginal people regained control over their land.
However, the Bjelke-Petersen government, furious at the actions of Fraser and the involvement of the Presbyterian Church, reclassified Aurukun as a shire under the Local Government Act.
This meant councils had to be established. They became eligible for grants, but had to collect rates; as there were no home owners, there was no one to pay those rates.
Local government minister Russ Hinze hit on the idea of establishing a liquor canteen in the community, the profits from which would provide the funds to take care of council services.
Despite enormous local opposition, the canteen was imposed on the community in 1985.
Records show that as far back as August 1971, the Presbyterian Board of Missions told the Queensland government it did not want to legalise liquor sales on Aurukun.
Killoran ordered a local opinion poll in September 1971, which overwhelmingly rejected the notion of allowing liquor to be sold at Aurukun.
Then Hinze visited in August 1985 and, incredibly, declared the social problems at Aurukun, including school absenteeism, could be the result of the council's decision to make the area ``dry''. He subsequently ordered that a canteen be built.
And all the while, Pechiney sat on its hands and did nothing with the rich reserves.
Last year, Beattie lowered the boom, announcing that because the contract had stipulated that mining would commence and a refinery be built, the company had breached its contract and it would be rescinded.
Alcan, which had acquired Pechiney in a hostile takeover in 2003, offered to spend $15million studying the economics of building a $1 billion alumina refinery.
But Beattie stood fast, despite the dire predictions of mining interest groups and cancelled the contract, returned the $518,160 lease payments made over the 29 years (plus $54,000 in interest) and announced that global expressions of interest would be called in the lease.
Soon the big players in he alumina market will put in their bids. But a key to the arrangement this time is that proper negotiations be held with the traditional owners and that, led by lawyer Noel Pearson, they be included in the bounties from the resource.