Australian politics, society & culture

Dividing the Territory

Kimberley Politics

Goolarabooloo law man Joseph Roe on Cable Beach in Broome. © Simon Penn

Victoria Laurie

Medium length read4700 words
 

A small white spout appears in the sea, and disappears as quickly. Moments later, there’s another tiny plume. On a clear breezy afternoon, lolling about in warm waters off James Price Point, two humpback whales are spurting water, oblivious to their rapt audience on land.

October 2010

A saronged camper points to where he paddled his kayak out earlier to greet the whales. Another man has scrambled up the orange pindan cliffs and stands watching; he and his partner are anthropologists who have worked in the Kimberley for years. “We thought we’d camp here for a week – before it all changes,” he says, eyeing a boat that is trawling up and down the stretch of water before us, taking seismic surveys of the ocean floor.

The anthropologist knows Walmadan is the Aboriginal name for this spot on the Kimberley coast, a 60 kilometre drive north of Broome along a bone-jarring dirt track; James Price Point is the whitefella name. The men in the off-shore boat use a different name again to describe this place: Browse, where the company they work for – Woodside Energy – intends to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant. In the precise waters they are mapping, a dredged harbour, a jetty and gas super tankers may one day materialise. On  shore, a fenced industrial compound will obliterate up to 2500 hectares of hardy scrub and low vine thickets.

In the deep ocean north of James Price Point, huge reserves of oil and gas lie trapped in the Browse Basin; were these to be brought to shore, processed and sold, Australia would become one of the world’s leading LNG exporters by 2015. What’s planned here is a repeat of what was done in the Pilbara, 830 kilometres to the south, in the mid 1980s. There, Woodside and its joint-venture partners built their first gas plant on a remote coastal stretch to process offshore North West Shelf gas; a profusion of pipes and gas tanks was nestled into a cove strewn with Aboriginal rock art, and edged by teeming tropical ocean.

While the Pilbara LNG plant was built in an era when environmental protection and Indigenous rights were radical notions with little legislative backing, industry plans for Browse – or Walmadan, or James Price Point – are emerging in a post-Mabo, conservation-minded Australia.

*

Ask people in Broome what they think of the proposed LNG plant on their doorstep and you’ll hear many divergent opinions – it’s far less clear-cut than a ‘greenies’ versus ‘greedies’ ideological divide of the kind that characterised Tasmania’s “No Dams” campaign to protect the Franklin and Gordon Rivers. An anti-gas poster on a wall in town reads, “Who’s looking after country?” Beneath it, someone has scrawled, “Not you, you black cunts.”

The tourist season, ‘dry’ season, is in full swing but the big-spending tourists have dropped off this year. Cruise ships that sail the spectacular Kimberley coast are offering huge discounts, and cut-price deals abound at Broome’s seemingly endless string of new resorts. “The pearling industry is very much in the doldrums, and our tourism suffers from lack of marketing and the Australian dollar,” says Broome Chamber of Commerce president Tony Proctor, sipping a coffee in a quiet café. “An Australian family of four can go to Bali for two weeks for the same price as their airfares to Broome. So it drives you to the conclusion that Broome needs another economic base, and that’s where we see the benefit of the LNG facility.” Proctor is clearly comfortable with the Woodside proposal, and keeps in personal touch with Colin Barnett, the state premier who has staked his reputation on making the Kimberley gas plant a reality. “I’ve said [to Barnett], ‘I will not let you off the hook.’”

Woodside has just erected an office in town and is rapidly hiring staff. The company’s aim is to remain low key and “not get in the way of the business of the town”, one Woodside employee tells me. It’s a ludicrous statement, given Woodside and its gas joint-venture partners are on the verge of making the greatest single impact on Broome in its 126-year history.

“It will have a huge impact, and we need to manage it,” says a worried Graeme Campbell, president of the Shire of Broome. New businesses and residents are welcome, he adds hastily, especially now that a native title deal with Broome’s traditional owners has unlocked land for housing. But Campbell believes nobody has truly grasped the magnitude of the gas footprint: take a town of 15,500 residents, and add 6000-odd construction workers. Consider also the ancillary staff, such as the security guards – who could number around 100 – or the dozens of drivers and mechanics needed to operate a fleet of buses ferrying shifts of 1500 workers back and forth. “That’s hundreds of people there alone when you add in their families.”

“With industry workers coming to town, you’re looking at a 40% increase in population over a one- or two-year period. We don’t want what happened in the Pilbara to occur here. Rents in the Pilbara can be as much as $1500 or $2000 per week or, in Karratha, $3000 per week. If you own a café, how are you going to employ someone to serve a cup of coffee, because they can’t afford to live in the town?” Tourism in Pilbara towns has virtually died, he says, because fly-in, fly-out workers occupy all the beds: “there’s nowhere to stay.”

The dread spectre of the Pilbara hangs over the Kimberley gas project. For four decades, iron ore and gas giants have ripped out billions of dollars’ worth of resources from the Pilbara, while its towns have suffered badly from transient workforces and chronically poor infrastructure. Broome is understandably determined to avoid making the same mistakes but the proposed solution is a bizarre form of apartheid between Broome town and Woodside workers. A restricted-access industrial ghetto for up to 6000 people will be built at the end of the rutted dirt road (which will be sealed) leading out to James Price Point.

“Ghetto?”, bristles Campbell, who supports the notion. “That’s an abysmal use of the word. I have seen the plans and I’ve heard anecdotally that when it’s finished it could well be a tourist resort. You’ve got football ovals, swimming pools, restricted taverns, gymnasiums, shops. This isn’t a donga [demountable] city, this is a village for industrial workers.” And it’s designed already? “I’ve seen the plans.” Like many people around town, Campbell talks and acts as if the gas plant project is a certainty, even though Woodside’s final investment decision is not scheduled until mid 2012, and the premier’s recent declaration that he will compulsorily acquire the site could take even longer to resolve. Currently, Woodside has no customers signed up for Browse gas.

Campbell shrugs at this and observes that it would be extremely unwise of the shire to presume the project won’t proceed. “You can only be guided by the world’s appetite for gas. By the time the Woodside document goes to the board, they will have spent over $1.5 billion dollars. That’s an awful lot of money to spend if you don’t believe the project’s going ahead.”

*

At the Broome markets on a Saturday morning, tourists are milling around the stands of fresh doughnuts, hand-dyed silk, reiki healings and homespun remedies. At the Environs Kimberley table, two young German backpackers are discussing the gas issue with conservation volunteers. “And is it true there are Aboriginal tribes who want the gas plant?” asks the pigtailed female in a scandalised tone. “It’s the government that wants the plant,” a middle-aged woman in a bright floral shirt corrects her. “They want to industrialise the Kimberley.”

“We’re seeing the gas as a symbol of what’s proposed for the rest of the Kimberley,” says Martin Pritchard, director of Environs Kimberley. “Barnett sees it as the next Pilbara, and he’s spoken about irrigation along the Fitzroy River.” Pritchard cites recent news of a company exploring for copper near Horizontal Falls, a scenic spot popular among tour groups because of its pristine aspect. The argument from tour operators is that unsightly industry kills tourism; a more sinister prospect, it’s said, is that locating an abundant gas energy source on the Kimberley coast could encourage Rio Tinto and Alcoa to mine and smelt bauxite further north on the Mitchell Plateau, destroying a unique palm forest and the serenity of some of the most remote Kimberley wilderness.

These concerns are greeted impatiently by some locals, who point out that the biggest single source of income in the Kimberley (constituting 36% of the total) is resource extraction. They say that stopping an LNG plant will not prevent future exploitation of Kimberley deposits of uranium, coal, bauxite and Australia’s largest deposit of vanadium (used to make a very strong steel). Others argue that the Kimberley is already ‘industrialised’: for five decades, iron ore has been shipped by giant ore carriers out of Koolan Island and Cockatoo Island – their ugly gouged-out sides now starkly contrast with the jewel-like scatter of Buccaneer Archipelago islands up the coast from Broome. And how does the image of untouched wilderness sit with the sight of the world’s biggest diamond mine at Argyle, in the east Kimberley, where a huge scar in the landscape is mined with the express permission of traditional owners?

Yet even the miners concede one thing. In a policy paper on Kimberley resource development, released in June, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA noted that “the nature and functioning of ecosystems and biodiversity in the Kimberley are inadequately described and understood.” It observed that the Kimberley is a National Biodiversity Hotspot, one of only 15 listed in Australia. Not mentioned was the fact that, to date, there has been no systematic inventory of its ecology, and in many areas not even proper plant or animal surveys.

That much of the jagged Kimberley coastline remains uncharted – its famous tidal surges and the sea life that depends on them almost entirely unstudied – makes the recent Montara oil spill particularly alarming. Coral life off James Price Point may prove to be part of a vast, patchy fringing reef system believed to lie along the Kimberley coast; scientists suspect it may rival the famous Red Sea reefs in its extent.

Ironically, the gas project has prompted a spate of state, federal and industry ecological surveys, which began in February 2008, when the WA and federal governments agreed to launch a study of environmental and heritage values of the Kimberley in parallel with their plans to select a land site for the extraction and processing of LNG from Browse Basin. We may learn much about dugongs grazing in beds of seagrass off James Price Point or humpback whales calving just offshore, but that knowledge may come as part of a process of massive change to the local environment. One anti-gas observer characterises the process thus: “Let’s talk about the environment while the bulldozers move in.”

In an echo of the “No Dams” era, when Tasmania’s wild rivers became World Heritage listed in the fight to prevent dam construction, the Kimberley may also achieve heritage listing as a result of a gas-related focus on the region. In June, the Australian Heritage Council sent its recommended list of areas deserving of cultural and environmental heritage protection in the western Kimberley to Peter Garrett, the same minister whose duties include signing off on crucial environmental approvals to allow the gas plant to go ahead. The Council’s list included many stretches of coastline but excluded James Price Point.

Such omissions are viewed cynically by anti-gas campaigners, as are recent state government plans to create a whale sanctuary on the Kimberley coast. The new interest in Kimberley ecology by government and industry is a “greenwashing exercise”, says Pritchard. He notes that time lines for the delivery of crucial environmental reports have blown out by many months, and hopes such delays eventually lead Woodside to abandon its Kimberley plans in favour of piping Browse gas south to the Pilbara for processing in its existing LNG plant. Josh Coates, a marine biologist and former Wilderness Society spokesperson living in Broome, echoes that hope. “As North West Shelf gas runs out, the Browse gas could be piped down to backfill Woodside’s operations,” he says. “The roads, the ports, the power stations all exist there.”

Coates articulates a radical proposal to designate large parts of the Kimberley as mining-free zones. “Back in the ’70s, we decided as a nation not to allow oil and gas mining on the Great Barrier Reef. We created the biggest marine park in the world for its time, and we’ve never looked back on that decision – the marine park brings in $6.9 billion dollars per year of sustainable revenue and supports thousands of jobs.”

Some sectors of the conservation lobby – perhaps sensing a losing battle and little statutory power – have adopted another tack, stepping in behind Aboriginal claimants who oppose the gas hub and want to stop negotiations between Woodside and the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), the native title representative body that receives statutory funding from Canberra and acts on behalf of traditional owners. The most prominent among them is Joseph Roe, a member of the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr group, which lodged a native title claim over James Price Point in 1994. Charismatic and argumentative, Roe has become a full-time litigant; in August, he launched a Federal Court action to stop the KLC from negotiating on behalf of traditional owners with Woodside and Barnett in relation to the plant. He lost, but is appealing the decision.

As Roe and his backers portray it, native title rights and James Price Point have been sold out in a $1.5 billion deal signed by Barnett, Woodside and the KLC. “The only people who are saying it’s the right thing to do have dollar signs flashing around in their heads,” declares singer Missy Higgins in a ‘Save the Kimberley’ video clip. “And if that’s your only way of justifying it, then I’m sorry that’s just wrong.”

*

This is just the sort of comment that makes Wayne Bergmann furious. As executive director of the KLC, he’s taken a swipe at the “new paternalism” of green groups seeking to pit ‘noble savage’ against ‘greedy blackfella’. “This new paternalism underpins the actions of individual green activists from the east coast who have played politics in our communities and helped split native title groups,” he told a native title conference in Canberra in April. “Save the Kimberley and the Wilderness Society are pretending to champion the Indigenous cause in order to bolster their own positions and credibility. But our future does not lie in a contrived alliance with bogus green groups; our future rests with Aboriginal people stepping up and taking control.”

Five months later, Bergmann is angry on two fronts: at Colin Barnett, for embarking on the compulsory acquisition of James Price Point land when no final agreement on its use has been delivered by the KLC; and at those people he believes provoked a rift in the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr group, which is now making it impossible to get those critical approvals.

Bergmann’s critics say he should never have attempted to make the multi-billion-dollar deal. Many were appalled when, back in April 2009, Bergmann – standing under a marquee on the beach at James Price Point – took turns with Barnett, Woodside CEO Don Voelte and federal energy minister Martin Ferguson in signing a heads of agreement. It signalled that the Aboriginal men and women gathered around Bergmann gave in-principle approval for the gas hub; behind them, a white protester held up a placard: “This signing is illegal.”

If history decides that the job was botched, Bergmann will cop the blame. If it determines that signing up for one of Australia’s most lucrative Indigenous land deals helped Kimberley Aborigines, the credit will be his. Unsurprisingly, Bergmann focuses on the latter possibility. “We can’t live in paradise while our community lives in dysfunction,” he says.

The gas deal, worth up to $1.5 billion over the next 30 years, delivers reams of cash to Indigenous people in instalments, including $3.6 million per year to native title holders and $18 million for every project milestone met. Job targets will lock in work opportunities for Indigenous people, and there are promises of at least $5 million to be allocated each year to Indigenous business contracts or joint ventures. Money in an annual $4 million regional fund will be distributed more widely to Aboriginal communities along the coast, plus $2.6 million per year will be put towards Indigenous education and training.

The gas deal has been widely criticised as a form of entrapment of Indigenous people, and has also been labelled an escape clause for governments that should have provided jobs, schools and clinics to the citizens in these communities. “The problem is we have a dysfunctional system of government in Australia that does not provide decent services to people who should have them, particularly in remote communities,” argues Howard Pedersen, a Kimberley historian and Environs Kimberley member. “They are excluded, so a lot of people believe that the only way to get decent houses, health services, education is if they trade off what they have. People have been trapped into it.”

Bergmann swivels idly in his chair when I put this view to him in his glass-partitioned office in the KLC’s cluttered Broome headquarters. He smiles wryly, “There are all these people who make throwaway lines about ‘selling out’. I don’t see any of those people turning up to the funerals I go to, or knocking on my door and saying, ‘What can we do about the homeless people in Broome?’, or the high suicide rates or the people on dialysis machines.”

Bergmann is in his early 40s, a man of mature years relative to the average life span of Kimberley Aboriginal men, which is 58 years. On his desk is a photograph of his younger self in full tribal law regalia amid a group of elders, some of whom are now his bosses on the KLC executive. Youthful misbehaviour led to a year spent working out bush with his Austrian-born stepfather, whom he credits with setting him straight and encouraging him to get a boilermaker’s certificate. Eventually, Bergmann headed to Perth, graduating from the University of Western Australia as one of the state’s first Indigenous lawyers.

The gas deal has been the trickiest and most personally testing of his career, he admits. He likes to remind people that it was the gas proponents who came to him, not the other way around. As far back as 2005, Woodside’s Voelte sat under a bark–bough shelter in a bay north of Broome and asked a group of traditional owners if they would consider approving a gas plant on their land. The elders consulted and said “No”. Voelte politely withdrew, saying that unless Woodside was invited back, they wouldn’t proceed. Arguably, it was the last time anyone accepted the word ‘no’ from the Aboriginal groups. In 2007, as oil and gas exploration off the Kimberley coast increased, the Labor state government decided it needed to pick a site for a single gas hub, to avoid the risk of several plants springing up along the coastline.

“We said rather than us select a site, let’s examine the whole of the west Kimberley and look at it from the points of view of Indigenous heritage, environmental, technical and industry concerns,” says state Opposition leader Eric Ripper, who was the minister for state development at the time. “Let us together select the best site and seek consent from traditional owners. There was always the theoretical possibility that they might say ‘no’ to every site. But I was of the view that the majority of traditional owners would support development, and I think I’ve been proven right.”

The KLC agreed to hold meetings with senior law bosses across the Kimberley to see whether any community was prepared to host a multi-billion-dollar gas plant in its backyard. Bergmann and his deputies began crisscrossing the Dampier Peninsula and venturing up the coast to tiny communities such as Bidyadanga, Beagle Bay, One Arm Point, Mowanjum and, at the tip of the Kimberley, Kalumburu. With a whiteboard and marker, Bergmann went through the proposal as conceived by the state government and its main Browse proponent, Woodside.

The KLC’s staff ranks swelled rapidly, like its coffers, which have received government and gas company funds of $16 million. The symbiotic relationship was unconventional: the KLC was funded to study the potential impacts of the gas plant, while also brokering deals over final approvals. Bergmann was, and remains, unapologetic about taking money for a ‘proper process’. “These are some of the biggest companies in Australia, with budgets bigger than nations and access to the best legal and environmental advice,” he comments. “Why shouldn’t Aboriginal people be entitled to the same kind of expertise, so we can make the right decision?”

But ‘Blackfella’ consultation and Bergmann’s ‘process’ had loose time lines, which tried the patience of resource executives and bureaucrats. After Labor was booted out in the state election in September 2008, the incoming Liberal premier, Barnett (also a former resources minister), wasted no time in making his feelings clear. The gas plant would happen on his watch and the process needed to be hurried up. He nominated his preferred sites on the Dampier Peninsula, and said he would move to compulsorily acquire land if the KLC couldn’t deliver a timely outcome.

Bergmann complained that a gun was being held to the heads of traditional owners. The pressure was certainly on when Aboriginal leaders gathered in April last year, just before the historic signing ceremony; Woodside executives and government bureaucrats waited in their Broome hotel rooms while traditional owners gathered to discuss James Price Point as a site for the plant. Bergmann put the issue to a vote and a majority voted in favour. Roe would later argue that Bergmann had ignored his rights as a law boss to veto the process, contending that majority voting is not the traditional Aboriginal way.

Heightened emotions led to the daubing of the KLC office, poster campaigns, verbal abuse and an unravelling of the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr claim group, which had been central to negotiations over the gas plant. In April this year, Roe (a Goolarabooloo law boss) again declared a native title claimants’ meeting invalid; inside the room, his pro-gas Jabirr Jabirr opponents signalled their frustration by vowing to split off and lodge a separate native title claim.

Subsequently on ABC TV’s Four Corners, Bergmann found himself cast as a manipulator of events and a stacker of meetings. Roe’s dissenting view was given prominence, yet dozens of people had voted against him. The complex issues involved in the attempts to reach consensus were downplayed, yet they are in evidence, even within individual families. Sitting on his porch wearing an Akubra hat, Frank Sebastian, an ex-stockman and current executive member of the KLC, describes how he once manned the barricades at Noonkanbah, a Kimberley cattle station where, in 1980, an American oil company tried to break into sacred land. This time, though, he’s giving the nod to the big project; he says: “We’ve got something on the table that gives us hope and money. Why not take it? Everything Wayne [Bergmann] said, we want it.”

His 19-year-old grandson, Peter, agrees. “I’m in favour of it, because my grandfather says there’ll be apprenticeships and a whole lot more jobs.” But Frank’s son, Neil McKenzie, is on Roe’s side. He stands on a cliff top at James Price Point, scanning the horizon for whales. “There will be devastation to this coast, and whatever’s out there, you can live off,” he says. “I want to leave what I experienced when I grew up in this country.” But wasn’t Roe recently outvoted by a majority of other native title holders, including McKenzie’s father? “The people that were supposed to be there [to support Roe] didn’t turn up,” McKenzie responds. “It’s their fault as well.”  Barnett’s declaration that he will forcibly acquire land has energised every opposing force in the debate. Ironically, it has thrown pro-gas and anti-gas groups into the same camp – Bergmann says he feels betrayed by Barnett’s government while the conservation lobby sees an opportunity to turn the controversy into a major public campaign for Kimberley wilderness, particularly as Greens politicians and independents are on the ascent in Canberra.

“We’ll be lobbying them all to say the process needs to be put on hold,” says the Wilderness Society’s Peter Robertson, adding that corporates, banks and Woodside’s gas partners, such as Shell and Chevron, will also be lobbied. When environmental reports on the proposed site are released for public comment in the coming weeks, “there’ll be literally thousands of submissions”. Robertson argues “Barnett has painted himself into a very tight corner with just about every group; you’d think all the ex-Woodside executives working in the premier’s office would have warned him [against it].”

Barnett is clearly gambling on being able to guarantee Woodside access to James Price Point and, eventually, to restore relations with Aborigines; he insists Indigenous communities will benefit from the compensation package. He must negotiate “in good faith” with traditional owners under the terms of the Native Title Act, before he can make the move to compulsory acquisition. Experienced hands suggest matters could drag on for 18 months or more; Eric Ripper says nobody should believe it’s a straightforward step: “It’s not. There’s enormous capacity for legal action and delay. Compulsory acquisition also seriously inflames divisions within the community and offends traditional owners, and makes people more resistant to future developments.”

For now, at least, Bergmann has lost control of the process. Government cheques have stopped paying for any form of negotiation, he says. “We’re on the playing field with our hands tied behind our backs, and now they’ve taken away our footy boots as well. But I’m ready for a fight. And I won’t let people get steamrolled.”

The spectre of the Pilbara looms again, and there are glimpses of the era in which nothing stood in the way of big business. And it sets a bad precedent in the Kimberley, where – whether environmental groups like it or not – more deals will be broached between state government, industry partners and Aboriginal traditional owners – whose recognised native title rights cover half the Kimberley landmass. “If you didn’t have a KLC, you’d have to invent one,” observes one government negotiator with a background in native title deal-making. “It will get ugly – if Barnett tries to crush the KLC, the next deal will be like herding cats.”

15 September

Victoria Laurie

Victoria Laurie is a Perth-based journalist and feature writer. She has written for the Australian and the Bulletin, and is the author of Design by Nature.
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