Native title cash help continued

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

Funding for native title respondents has been extended for a further four years.

The recent Federal Budget allocated $5.8 million - equating to $1.6 million a year - for pastoralists and other groups, such as the commercial fishing industry, to respond to native title claims through the Native Title Respondent Scheme.

A further $200,000 a year has been set aside to fund native title officers.

Funding to assist respondents in their legal representation was abolished by the Gillard Government in 2013, but reinstated by the Abbott Government as of January 1, 2014.

In his adjournment speech to the Senate in March, WA Senator Dean Smith called for the extension of the funding through the scheme.

He said continuing the funding was the first step in securing greater equity in handling native title claims.

"A system that had provided a measure of stability and certainty for nigh on two decades was ended by the stroke of a pen, on 1 January 2013, when the Gillard Government withdrew funding assistance for respondents in Native Title claims," he said.

"This meant that henceforth, respondents were required to find their own legal representation and to pay for their own legal costs.

"At the same time, the Gillard Government withdrew its funding for native title officers, which had a huge impact on the pastoral and commercial fishing sectors in WA, and forced some primary organisations to withdraw from Native Title proceedings."

Senator Smith said without continued funding support, pastoralists and their representative organisations would be unable to continue in their role as co-ordinating the pastoral response to native title claims.

"Ultimately, this will disadvantage both pastoralists, native title claimants, not to mention the native title process, which is at its most effective when conducted in a non-adversarial manner," he said.

"Resolving this issue in a manner satisfactory to all parties will be challenging, but is not impossible given the genuine goodwill that I believe exists on all sides."

Senator Smith welcomed the announcement of the funding extension, saying it was tremendous news, especially for pastoral respondents who were faced with the possibility they would be required to fully fund themselves the costs of any native title determinations on their pastoral leases.

He said about 85 per cent of the State had either been subject to a native title claim, or had already received a Federal Court determination that recognised the existence of native title rights and interests.

According to Senator Smith, there are about 100 unresolved native title claims in the pastoral region of WA, of which 85 are active claims that affect 513 pastoral leases.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association President Tony Seabrook also welcomed the announcement.

"The reintroduction of the scheme by the Coalition in 2013 was welcome, however the changes to the funding for native title respondents and its expiry in 2015 created great uncertainty for pastoralists involved in native title," he said.

"The continuation of the scheme and the increase in funding is seen as a major step forward and the PGA will continue to lobby the Government to address the inequities in the native title system."

Anna Plains station owner David Stoate said the funding provided money for legal support to negotiate a land use agreement with indigenous groups.

In 2012, a combined native title rights claim on Mr Stoate's 380,000ha Roebuck property, from the Nyangumarta and Karajarri groups, was amicably resolved between the parties.

"Funding is essential for native title applicants and essential for the whole native title process to move forward," Mr Stoate said.

"Now, affected pastoralists can negotiate with traditional owners on equal footing and equalise the position for all parties involved.

"The funding support we received was an integral factor in enabling us to settle the matter and conclude the whole process for all those that were involved."

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