NATIVE TITLE: Butchulla Dancers had their spirits cleansed at the smoking ceremony last April while celebrating Fraser Island's 25 years of world heritage listing. Now a new fight for traditional ownership rights begins.
NATIVE TITLE: Butchulla Dancers had their spirits cleansed at the smoking ceremony last April while celebrating Fraser Island's 25 years of world heritage listing. Now a new fight for traditional ownership rights begins. Alistair Brightman

Fight for K'gari: Court case begins after historic win

ONE of the most significant court cases since Mabo.

This was how Christine Royan, Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation's secretary, described the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples' recent, historic victory.

In a landmark ruling, the High Court decided the Northern Territory owed the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples $2.5million for the loss of their Native Title rights over about 1.26 sq km of the outback town of Timber Creek.

Now, Ms Royan, along with other members of the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation, is taking up a similar fight over K'gari, also known as Fraser Island.

"The decision on Timber Creek was based on cultural loss, which is exactly what we have also lost here," Ms Royan said.

"A year ago we put in for a grant from the government to fight the government with their own money.

"We were the first ever group to do that."

Ms Royan said her people had lost access to significant cultural areas including those with a spiritual and dream time connection.

She said the Butchulla people were not looking for government handouts - they simply wanted recognition of what had been lost.

"We believe we could have had compensation in 2014 when we won Native Title rights but instead they gave us a photo," she said.


Christine Royan (Sec. Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation).
Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation secretary Christine Royan. Alistair Brightman

The BAC's claim to the Queensland Government to be compensated for cultural loss on K'gari was lodged in 2017 but was stalled, awaiting the outcome of the NT case.

Principal of Just Us Lawyers Colin Hardie, who is representing the BAC as one of three groups who have lodged similar claims, said the Butchulla people wanted payment for lost rights on the prominent tourist attraction known as Fraser Island.

"There are a number of objectives to come from this case," Mr Hardie said.

"The big issue is there are the traditional owners of K'gari have no resources to do their traditional duties in terms of conservation and looking after the island.

"We are hoping the state government sits down to negotiate over the compensation claim. The state government raised some preliminary points already.

"They have said they believe the claims should be reconstituted on technical grounds, we don't agree that is the case."

The case could go to the Federal Court of Australia if not settled beforehand.

In the Timber Creek ruling, the High Court settled on $2.5 million in compensation, divided into economic loss, interest and non-economic loss related to the "spiritual" harm caused by disconnection.

"The compensation for loss or diminution of traditional attachment to the land or connection to country and for loss of rights to gain spiritual sustenance from the land is the amount which society would rightly regard as appropriate for the award for the loss," the majority judgement said.

Mr Hardie said his clients wanted economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

"At the moment they rely on a small grant to keep an office open for native rangers on K'gari from the state government," he said.

"There is a huge tourism market on Fraser Island and they would like financial security for their operations."

Ms Royan agreed, saying the Butchulla people wanted to be the face of K'gari.

"We want to be able to have more junior and senior rangers to address things like myrtle rust and visitor management," she said.

"We want part of the permit levy to come back to caring for our country with education programs.

"We would like some business opportunities with Kingfisher and Sea Link, to build on our existing relationships and bring a cultural aspect to the island.

"If there is no value for the cultural heritage and land management on the island, then they have no respect for the Aboriginal people.

"We would co-manage the island and have our own business which we will run alongside QPWS.

"That means we will have our rangers living on our country and caring for it."

"My thoughts are no one wins by going through a long court battle, we want to sit down and negotiate without going through the courts and we are hoping the government comes to the table."