Less than a fortnight before the day (11 November 1975) the Whitlam Government lost office, its statutory authority, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), joined with Peko Mines Ltd and Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia to form Ranger Uranium Mines Pty Ltd. Ranger's uranium deposit was one of four in the Alligator Rivers (NT) region. To its south was Koongarra (over which Noranda Australia held an exploration licence), to its north and north-east, Jabiluka (Pancontinental Mining) and Nabarlek (Queensland Mines). Sensitive to the interests of Aborigines and conservationists, Whitlam set up an inquiry under Justice Fox in July 1975, to consider the environmental impact of the Ranger Uranium Mine. Fox's hearings commenced 9 September 1975.
While the Ranger Inquiry was sitting, the Whitlam Government lost office and it fell to the Fraser Government to pass the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act after modifying it. In Section 11(2) the Act empowered the Fox Inquiry to ascertain the Aboriginal ownership of the uranium-rich lands. But what powers would their 'ownership' allow? Woodward had recommended in 1974 that ownership include the right to veto mining, except where the Governor-General declared the proposed mine to be in the 'national interest.' In Fraser's Act, Section 40 pre-empted the Governor-General's judgment in respect of some projects. That is, certain mining projects did not have to obtain the Land Council's (and therefore the owners') consent. The Ranger Project Area was among those so favoured. The Land Rights Act was, in this way, also a Mining Enabling Act.
The second report of the Ranger Inquiry, released 25 May 1977, acknowledged Aborigines' wish to protect themselves from the mining developments which they had no statutory right to refuse. Justice Fox and his colleagues thought that 'Aboriginal morale' could improve if there were controls on liquor sales in the uranium province, if an Aboriginal constabulary were formed, and if Aborigines were involved in managing the recommended Kakadu National Park. As well, Fox recommended that the non-Aboriginal population of the region be limited and its residence confined to the planned town. The mines should be developed one after the other, not all at once. While welcoming the Fox report, the Fraser Government refused to restrict development to one mine at a time.
The Aborigines of the region thus faced immediate negotiations over the terms of both the Nabarlek and Ranger mines, and on the other two mines soon after. The traditional owners of the Nabarlek area came to an agreement with Queensland Mines in August 1977. Ranger's negotiations came to a head in the period August-November 1978.
In 1977, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a Yolngu man raised at Yirrkala Mission, was elected the first chair of the Northern Land Council (NLC). Other Yolngu, including kin of Yunupingu, put pressure on him to negotiate government concessions in exchange for signing an agreement on Ranger. For example, some argued that coastal Yolngu should be given the legal right to control entry into the seas over which they asserted their customary rights. However, Yunupingu was also under pressure from the Fraser Government to conclude an agreement quickly. On 15 September 1978, he told NLC delegates that government officials had pointed out that, if the Ranger agreement were not signed soon, the government could always change the Land Rights Act further to restrict owners' negotiating powers. To firm the NLC's position, some NLC delegates took out a court injunction against signing Ranger until land owners had been properly consulted. After further consultations, ordered by the court, the NLC endorsed the Ranger agreement in November 1979.
Ian Viner, Fraser's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, celebrated the agreement in a newspaper article (Northern Territory News 8 November 1978) in which he acknowledged that 'Aborigines would have preferred that the Ranger proposal not be developed. But the Aboriginal viewpoint was put before the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry and that inquiry decided it should not prevail...The approach of the NLC delegates and their contribution to the final debate was based on an intelligent appreciation of the reality of the situation.'
Others thought that the principles laid down in Woodward's 1974 report had been betrayed not by the Fox report but by the government itself in its legislation. The government's laws had loaded the negotiations in favour of a mining company owned by the government; and traditional owners had been bullied by advice that, if they continued to stand up to the government, their 'land rights' would be further diluted by amendments to the Act. The Australian Government's commitment to land rights, these critics argued, had failed its first test.
Keywords: Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory)(1976), Arnhem Land, Fraser, Malcolm, Kakadu National Park, land rights, mining, Northern land Council, Northern land Council, Northern Territory, Northern Territory, Ranger Uranium Mine, Whitlam, Gough, Yolgnu, Yunupingu, Galarrwuy, 1975-1979
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor