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Balmoral Beach Aboriginal land claim one of 40,000 in NSW


The head of an Aboriginal land council which made a bid to claim a $100 million chunk of land in one of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs says nearly 40,000 similar claims for “recompense” are awaiting determination across the state.

Mosman Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to oppose a native title land claim over the 2500 square metre Lawry Plunkett Reserve on Balmoral Beach, a popular area of parkland between Botanic Road and Plunkett Road sitting just off of the Esplanade.

The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council first lodged a claim for the land 14 years ago under NSW’s 1983 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which allows land councils to claim unused crown land.

While the claim — first revealed by 2GB radio on Tuesday — was made in 2009, it has only now entered the assessment phase when council is notified and given one month to respond.

The final decision will be made by NSW Crown Lands, which administers the Act.

Former Mosman deputy mayor Roy Bendall, who was deposed from that position at Tuesday’s meeting, told 2GB’s John Stanley overnight that the council was “amazed this is even subject to a claim” as the reserve was “highly used” and maintained by bush care groups.

“It’s really quite astounding, to be honest,” he said.

“Everyone is amazed. If the standard is applications for unused land, then Balmoral Beach and the escarpment behind is not unused land.”

Cr Bendall said the NSW government had decreed that it remain confidential until just prior to the closed-door council meeting.

The notice of the debate about an “item of Aboriginal significance on community land”, recommended to be “closed to the press and the public”, was listed on page 176 of the 177-page agenda for the council meeting.

“We were a little bit surprised, we spent a week trying to find out what was the legal basis of the confidentiality,” Cr Bendall said.

“But in the documents we were originally given, we had to agree to not put in the media, not put it to the public, not even tell the residents who are next to the claim that this was happening.”

Nathan Moran, chief executive of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, joined 2GB’s Ben Fordham on Wednesday morning to defend the move.

Mr Moran said he was a “bit bewildered” by councillors saying they “didn’t know about it” as council would have been notified in 2009 when the application was made.

“Claims are available under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act — all local land councils are able to make claims on crown land,” he said.

“The Act in 1983 was set up as recompense for the loss of the state. For all the resources, minerals, freehold private land, pastoral lands, licensed lands, all lands other than crown lands were off the table. But what was left in land rights was the ability to make claims on it. We’re only allowed to receive land that’s not required by either the state or local governments … for essential public purposes.”

Under the Act, crown land not being used in accordance with its gazzetal may be up for grabs. “We’ve got cases where crown lands have assets that are not being used in accordance with its original approval — that’s when it becomes claimable,” Mr Moran said.

Fordham noted that Mosman Council’s position was that “this land is being used so keep your hands off it”.

Mr Moran blamed the state government for not allowing land councils access to government data until 2018, meaning many had been playing “pin the tail on the donkey” making claims based only on a “suspicion”.

Fordham asked what the “cultural significance” was for this piece of land.

“Aboriginal land claims are not based on cultural significance, that’s not the actual factor,” Mr Moran said. “It’s about, is it able to be claimed? Is it in the name of the crown?”

Fordham said that “sounds like a land grab”.

“The Aboriginal Land Rights Act was set up as recompense for all lands that have been removed from us,” Mr Moran said.

Fordham asked, “So if there’s an opportunity there to get your hands on it, you may as well?”

“That’s exactly it,” Mr Moran said. “The land councils are here to try and acquire what land we can get back within our boundaries to really form the asset base that will pay for … to sustain our councils.”

Mr Moran said his council had “in excess of 2500, closer to 3000” undetermined claims, out of nearly 40,000 in total across the state.

“I’m glad we’re having this discussion, it’s been one of the very sad points of NSW land rights,” he said. “We haven’t been able to realise a right, we’ve made the claims, we just hope they can be assessed. Not all claims are successful, there’s a great number not granted to us because they’re still used in accordance with their legal gazettal.”

Fordham asked whether he could “understand why a lot of people listening will be shocked hearing this”.

Mr Moran said he was “saddened” that people in the state weren’t more aware of Aboriginal land rights. “If more people knew about it I think it could work better and people could understand it and therefore we’d get along a lot better,” he said.

2GB host Chris O’Keefe, who first revealed the news on Tuesday, said two local real estate agents both estimated the Lawry Plunkett Reserve land would be worth “at least $100 million”.

On its website, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council says it “researches and makes claims on vacant crown land within Metro’s boundaries of the greater Sydney metropolitan area”.

“This work has enabled Metro to become the largest single landholder in a number of Sydney local government areas,” it states.

“Land, alongside culture and heritage, is Metro’s greatest asset. For this reason Metro is continuing its land claims process to ensure its asset base continues to grow for the benefit of its members … Our main purpose will continue to be claiming land because it is the land that gives us cultural and economic wealth, with a focus on cultural survival and far-reaching generational benefits for Metro members.”

In April, the NSW government announced it was transferring the heritage listed Goat Island in Sydney Harbour back to the Aboriginal community at a cost of $43 million.

Crown Lands says on its website it granted 443 Aboriginal land claims in the 2021-22 financial year — the highest number in a single year to date — covering more than 2600 hectares.

Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and Crown Lands have been contacted for comment.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.