Indigenous groups in Australia are suing state governments for tens of billions of dollars in compensation for loss of ancestral lands in a move that experts warn could dent public budgets and force miners and other industries to make pay outs.
Court documents show the Bigambul and Kooma Aboriginal peoples are each claiming A$25bn ($17bn) compensation from Queensland for economic and cultural loss related to land on which they were granted native title, a form of legal recognition over rights to land or water. The lawsuits, filed on December 23, follow a similar claim made by a group claiming to represent the Noongar people for A$290bn lodged against Western Australia — a sum that is more than the value of the resource rich state’s entire economy.
Aboriginal people have been registering native title claims for decades since a 1992 High Court decision that overturned the concept of terra nullius, the declaration made by British colonisers when they first arrived 250 years ago that Australia was unoccupied. The claims now cover around 2.8m sq km of Australia.
However, there has been new interest in seeking compensation following a landmark ruling by Australia’s High Court in March. The so-called Timber Creek judgment helped to establish how native title compensation claims should be assessed and decided.
“Timber Creek was by far the most significant native title decision since the Mabo case in 1992, which first recognised the land rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Tony Denholder, partner at Ashurst, a law firm, which is not involved in the Western Australian case but could yet be commissioned by a party in the Queensland one.
“It is now triggering claims from the hundreds of native title holder groups, which could potentially cost states tens of billions of dollars in compensation.”
Mr Denholder said New South Wales and Western Australia had already passed legislation that would enable state governments to demand that companies occupying disputed land help pay out on compensation claims — a move that could leave miners and other private companies liable to cover some of these costs.
The Timber Creek ruling relates to an A$2.9m award for the loss of 1.26 sq km of land in a town in Northern Territory. The ruling only covers compensation claims on traditional lands that were taken over by governments for other uses such as mining, agriculture or public works since 1975, when Australia passed a racial discrimination Act.
David Stevenson, the lawyer who filed the compensation claims on behalf of the indigenous groups in Queensland and Western Australia, said the multibillion dollar claims lodged in Western Australia and Queensland covered much larger land areas than Timber Creek.
“I know the Western Australia government and other governments say this is over the top, but my view and that of my experts is that the claims are probably conservative . . . the Timber Creek decision set a precedent,” he said.