Aboriginal land council’s backflip on McPhillamys gold mine has traditional owners demanding answers: ABC

ABC Central West 
/ By Micaela Hambrett

Original story here on ABC

Yanhadarrambal says OLALC is failing its legislated remit in the instance of the gold project.

A group of traditional owners in NSW’s central west say they are “at a loss” as to why a land council reversed its stance on a gold mine proposal from “opposed” to “neutral”.

The Wiradyuri Traditional Owners Central West Aboriginal Corporation (WTOCWAC) said the Orange Local Aboriginal Land Council (OLALC) had initially met with them to discuss the Regis McPhillamys gold mine and the site’s cultural significance.

“Our corporation actually provided information to Orange LALC to support their case against the proposal,” said Yanhadarrambal, the corporation’s public officer.

“So we’re at a bit of a loss actually.

“We have reached out to Orange LALC to explain their change of position but we’re yet to hear back from them.”

Key points:

  • The role of land councils in Aboriginal cultural heritage protection is being questioned after a position was reversed
  • An Aboriginal corporation says it was blindsided by the decision and the LALC lacks legal and cultural credibility
  • Heritage consultation processes can favour land councils over elders due to practical constraints
A stone artefact

An artefact found in the vicinity of the approved McPhillamys gold mine pit at Kings Plains. 

‘Spirit sick’

The corporation represents the traditional owners of the Bathurst region which includes Kings Plains, near Blayney in central west NSW.

In March, the NSW Independent Planning Commission gave Regis Resources approval to mine the area for gold.

Bathurst traditional owner Dinawan Dyirribang said the company’s mining activities would destroy the area that forms the basis of his people’s creation story.

“This is something that would affect us, not just physically, but also spiritually,” he said.

“It would make us what we call ‘spirit sick’ and that is because it’s damage to the mother which is Mother Earth.”

A winding river.

The Belubula River originates at the mine site. Its springs and tributaries a significant for Wiradyuri people. 

Backflip ‘astounding’

Documents dated October 2019 and September 2020 show that OLALC was firmly against the Regis McPhillamys gold mine project going ahead during the consultation process.

It changed its position to neutral in January in its final submission to the Independent Planning Commission.

“The inconsistencies from going against the proposal to neutral and appearing to support the proposal are quite astounding,” Yanhadarrambal said.

The corporation has said it would like to see an independent, Aboriginal-owned archaeological firm review the mine site’s cultural significance, saying the backflip lacks objectivity.

“It certainly seems like someone is controlling the narrative here. It doesn’t pass the pub test,” Yanhadarrambal said.

OLALC told the ABC that every Aboriginal person and organisation’s views should be respected.

“They are entitled to their opinion,” the statement said.

“Any such views should be supported by evidence regardless of whether they are tangible or intangible.”

What’s the process?

In New South Wales, projects of a certain size, economic value or potential impact — like mines or road expansions — are considered of state significance and require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to proceed.

An Aboriginal cultural heritage (ACH) study is required as part of the EIS to document any heritage impact by the development.

Land councils are legislated to serve as a conduit between native title holders or traditional owners and developers requiring ACH consultation.

But ACH expert and academic Maria Cotter said consultation was a bureaucratic process that favoured land councils over traditional owners and Aboriginal communities in council areas.

“The NSW government always prefers the one-stop shop approach to dealing with Aboriginal communities,” Dr Cotter said.

“With respect to cultural heritage, this has frequently meant a focus on the LALC.”

Developers are required to advertise the project so that Aboriginal community members can register their knowledge of the area and the fact they require consultation.

Dr Cotter said this was often practically difficult.

“Some of the most senior elders are also the less economically equipped or politically savvy in terms of the legislation process, and they get sidelined,” she said.

“That’s the unfortunate reality.”

The right representatives?

Dinawan Dyirrinbang said governments and developers incorrectly assume land councils represent all Aboriginal people – regardless of connection to a place.

“They just say ‘well, let’s have the land council as the main body to go to for everything and represent all the views of all Aboriginal people,” he said.

“The land council does not have that authority. That authority is not written in the [Land Rights] Act.”

“The right ones are the traditional owners, people who can speak for country.”

A close portrait of a man looking bemused.

Dinawan Dyirribang says governments and developers incorrectly assume land councils represent all Aboriginal people.()

OLALC told the ABC there were no registered traditional owners within its boundaries, which includes the mine site, as there are no native title claims.

In the absence of traditional owners, land councils are required to protect and promote awareness of Aboriginal culture and heritage in a council area under the NSW Land Rights Act.

Yanhadarrambal said that OLALC is failing its legislated remit in the instance of the McPhillamys gold project.

“It’s pretty clear in the Land Rights Act under Section 52.4 what the functions of a LALC are,” he said.

“And the problem is that they’re not protecting the culture and heritage of Aboriginal peoples in their council area.

“In fact, it looks like they’re doing quite the opposite.”