THE last time the ICAC turned its attention to Newcastle, the result was a chain reaction of such political consequence that it is still being felt in the corridors of power today.
While the ICAC’s latest investigation – Operation Skyline into the behaviour of the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council – is unlikely to be as explosive as the previous matters, it may help to bring about a resolution to one of the Newcastle CBD’s greatest embarrassments: the state of the former Newcastle post office, one of at least two properties under the ICAC microscope.
The other is a parcel of land owned by the Awabakal at Warners Bay.
The statement announcing the investigation on Wednesday said the ICAC was examining the conduct of Awabakal board members – and those they were dealing with – in schemes to sell or develop these properties.
As worthwhile as such an examination may be, it may well prove more beneficial to broader community relations if the ICAC looks at the mechanism by which the Awabakal gained control of the post office, and indeed, the wider operation of state land councils in general.
While federal native title legislation requires Indigenous claimants to prove a continuous connection with the land in question, no such restriction applies to the NSW laws, which exist, the state government says, “to redress past injustices when Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land by colonisation”, leading to “many social, economic and physical problems for Aboriginal people”. Under the 1983 legislation, “Crown land not lawfully used or occupied, or required for an essential public purpose, or for residential land, is returned to Aboriginal people”.
As admirable as these sentiments may be, there are obvious questions about how much the legislation has achieved in practice. And the fault does not lie all one way. The state government could have objected to the Awabakal claim in 2014, but chose not to, effectively getting a problematic building off its books. In doing so, it must surely have known that it risked consigning arguably the city’s most important heritage building to further decline. In other words, it saddled the Awabakal with a building they would find very expensive to preserve.
The ICAC will hopefully consider these issues when it rakes over the coals of what is from any angle a lamentable history.