The Australian Greens have announced a new policy that would create a First Nations Legal Defence Fund for legal protection of the environment and cultural heritage.
The fund, that would total $51 million, would be available solely to Indigenous Australians to access independent legal advice when defending for Country to protect the community from arduous and expensive legal battles with corporations.
The policy is proposed to be funded through additional taxes on billionaires and large corporations, in addition to reducing what the Greens label “handouts to big polluters” in their policy statement.
The Greens state that “1 in 3 big corporations pays no tax” and that many of them as well as billionaires send profits out of Australia tax free.
As such, the new “billionaires tax” and “corporate super-profits tax” as well ceasing Government contributions to drivers of the “climate crisis” will according to the Greens aim to “build a better life for all of us”.
These policies have been costed by the independent Parliamentary Budget office.
The fund itself aims to somewhat make up for previous erosion of Indigenous peoples’ rights and Country, as well as working to provide legal assistance on issues of Native Title.
Senator for Victoria Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai, Gunditjamara and Djab Wurrung woman, emphasised the need for “better resources so Traditional Owners can fight back and assert their rights to Country”.
“Right now, there’s no money and no support when we take big corporations to court. In balance of power, The Greens will contribute $51m to establish a First Nations Legal Defence Fund so Traditional Owners can access independent legal advice.”
Senator Thorpe criticised both major parties for their treatment of the Beetaloo Basin, where “the Labor and Liberal parties decided to destroy Country, in favour of a company that makes big donations to both of their parties. Too many sacred sites have already been destroyed”.
Greens Senator for Western Australia and Yamatji-Noongar woman, Dorinda Cox further commented that within some states “there is no right to appeal. There is no right to veto”.
“First Nations people do not have bags of cash lying around to take mining companies and corporate landowners to the Supreme Court to protect their cultural heritage.”
Senator Cox remarked that current “legislation protecting Country is weak” and that its design is “in the interests of mining and development”.
“The Australian Cultural Heritage Bill and the Senate Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge show that legislation protecting Country is weak. It was written in the interests of mining and development.”
“We need designated resources for First Nations peoples to assert their rights and fight for Country,” concluded Senator Cox.
In response, a spokesperson for Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, commented on the independent legal support the Morrison Government provides Indigenous communities “for land-related matters”.
The spokesperson noted that through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, investment of around $100 million a year is committed for “legal and anthropological services to traditional owners” through native title representative bodies and service providers.
These organisations (NTRB-SPs) “have functions under the Native Title Act 1993 that include assisting traditional owners to make and progress native title claims and negotiate land use agreements”.
These organisations represent traditional owners “to negotiate and enforce these agreements”.
More broadly, the spokesperson touted the $2.3 billion that the Government provides states and territories under the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 that provide legal assistance services, “focussed on improving outcomes and keeping the justice system within reach for vulnerable people facing disadvantage”.
This partnership holds Indigenous people as a priority group and funding within it supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) nationwide.
“In the 2021-22 Budget the Morrison Government increased legal assistance funding by about $395 million, with the majority of that funding being delivered through the Partnership,” concluded the spokesperson.
By Aaron Bloch