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The City of Onkaparinga’s approach to land-related reconciliation

Des Fowles, Corey Turner

City of Onkaparinga

The location

The City of Onkaparinga lies some 25 kilometres south of the Adelaide CBD on the upper reaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula. It is an urban/rural Council with coast, hills and hinterland. It is commonly regarded as being within the traditional lands of the Kaurna people. It also has strong associations with the Ramindjeri people (southern Fleurieu area) and the Peramangk people (east through the Adelaide Hills). There is currently some debate regarding the final setting of boundaries between these respective areas.

Reconciliation (Corey Turner)

Reconciliation doesn’t seem to have the benefit of a commonly understood meaning.

I personally feel that reconciliation is the acknowledgment of past injustices to Aboriginal communities across Australia. I feel it is the need to understand past events and the true history of this country. I believe reconciliation should be the recognition of traditional people prior to settlement. Too often we overlook the pain of the past. We were never taught the real history of slavery, mission life and the issuing of permits for people to visit their homelands. It was only 25 years ago that Aboriginal people were considered citizens of Australia. We really miss the real picture and truly lack the understanding of Australia’s real history.

Over time I hear many Aboriginal people comment that reconciliation isn’t the way of the future, that it’s conciliation that will lead people to take the first step towards a solid future. We need to start acknowledging the past to enlighten the future, learning from our mistakes, black and white. There is an opportunity to create value from our history by encouraging the next generation to seek knowledge and understanding, good or bad.

I also believe that every person in Australia today feels in one way or another that they hold a small but significant piece of Australia close to their heart. This could be in the form of the town where they grew up, it could be the house and land where they now live or it could just be a little spot down the road where they find themselves enjoying nature. Now picture 40,000 years of connection to Australia. Aboriginal people place great cultural significance on the land and its environment. It has become a piece of them; they feel it to be their soul, their life, and their survival.

Some reference points

At a conference such as this, we freely acknowledge the need to better understand and respect the environment as a vital part of sustainability and our continued survival. It is at this very basic level that one of the major foundation stones for reconciliation can be set into place. This paper examines some aspects of reconciliation emerging through the City of Onkaparinga relating to land and environment.

In order to do this, some further reference points are useful. There are many that can be used, but for the purposes of this paper, we have chosen to touch on some aspects of prevailing law.

Two systems of law

It would come as a bit of a surprise to many to learn that two systems of law legitimately exist within Australia today — traditional Aboriginal law and Anglo-Australian law. Our City of Onkaparinga awareness of this fact occurred through a Native Title training course conducted by the Australian Local Government Association. These two systems of law are very different in nature, in that Aboriginal law is much more infused with all other aspects of culture. Even so, both still apply — it is just that Anglo-Australian law, through cultural domination and social imposition, achieves its ascendancy over traditional Aboriginal law.

Aboriginal culture and law (Corey Turner)

Aboriginal culture is an interesting concept, it is said to be heritage and history, others call it traditional law, and some believe it to just be the society that Aboriginal people belong to. I believe it to be a combination of all of these. It is Aboriginal law, history and heritage all connected through Aboriginal society.

I believe Aboriginal culture takes the shape of a circle, it could be described as the circle of life. Connection from one place to another, from family to marriage rights, from food to rituals, from traditional place to Aboriginal law.

Culture could also be described as a sense of significance we attach to a place, this place we call Australia. Therefore cultural significance is a value that one holds to place. It could take the shape of a social value, a spiritual value or an economic value. It’s the acknowledgment of history and also that sense of connection to something that you value. We continually teach others, so that our next generation can know and acknowledge our mistakes and our successes to create a brighter future. This I believe lays purpose for cultural black or white.

Culturally significant places are held in knowledge through the connecting of story or dreaming. This is the basic purpose why over time Aboriginal people meet, hold ceremonies or gather to conduct levels of Aboriginal law. Aboriginal law is the base core behind Aboriginal culture. It is the creation of life, it is the stories and dreamings, it is the force that holds Aboriginal relationship to their environment, the land. The land is the generator of life and dreaming is a term used for Aboriginal law that lays the foundation for the community, to which Aboriginal people live by. It is the rules and regulations for Aboriginal society. My belief is that Aboriginal law is the whole package. The Circle of Life.

Some Anglo-Australian laws (Des Fowles)

There are many pieces of State and Commonwealth legislation that deal with various aspects of cultural heritage and traditional use, as it relates to land and waters. Two pieces of legislation feature prominently from Council’s perspective and the Aboriginal communities it works with. They are the Aboriginal Heritage Act, 1988 (State) and the Native Title Act 1993 (Commonwealth).

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 affords the ability to protect Aboriginal relics, remains and sites from undue interference, and to recognise the legitimate pursuit of traditional customs and rights.

While its purpose may seem laudable, the Act seems to set itself a difficult task in respect to cultural heritage protection. Section 3 of the Act contains the following interpretations:

‘Aboriginal site’ means an area of land (a) that is of significance according to Aboriginal tradition; or (b) that is of significance to Aboriginal archaeology, anthropology or history, and includes an area or an area of a class declared by regulation to be an Aboriginal site but does not include an area or an area of a class excluded by regulation from the ambit of this definition;

‘Aboriginal tradition’ means traditions, observances, customs or beliefs of the people who inhabited Australia before European colonisation and includes traditions, observances, customs and beliefs that have evolved or developed from that tradition since European colonisation.

On the surface, it is difficult to see how any place or location would fail to be potentially viewed as an Aboriginal site within the meaning of the Act. I do not pretend this to be an authoritative comment on my part, but the holistic relationship Aboriginal people have with the land would tend to suggest this observation is correct. Couple to this the duty that any person who discovers, or seeks to damage or destroy an Aboriginal site, has the responsibility to notify the Minister and seek direction, and the workload of the Act seems enormous.

Maybe there are other dimensions to this legislation that make things clearer in terms of its coverage and effect. Certainly, the executive powers the Act grants in the Minister can serve as an effective filter. However, the selectivity afforded by this centralised power and discretion can also be a cause of great anxiety and tension for Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike.

While the Aboriginal Heritage Act goes very broad, the Native Title Act has a much narrower focus. Through a gap left in our common law revealed by way of the Mabo decision of the High Court in 1992, Native Title rights remain attached to certain remnants of unallocated Crown land. These rights do not assign exclusive ownership of land to Aboriginal people, but do allow access and use for traditional pursuits. In the wake of the Mabo decision, the Native Title Act was invoked with the aim to clarify the effect and operation of these rights. It also facilitates the translation and/or modification of these rights through negotiated and registered agreements. Native Title claims under the Act are a difficult and resource hungry process. Time will tell whether it has managed to serve the best interests of Aboriginal people.

So, what’s the plan?

When these matters are considered in all their various dimensions, a number of conclusions emerge.

Firstly, Aboriginal culture is a continuum. It is not fair or reasonable to say that it is lost to the past, even where massive disruption has occurred. In the case of the Kaurna people, they are restoring profile and reconnecting their links, past and present. Just like the rest of us, they need the opportunity to freely express their culture, not only through special projects but also on a more regular, everyday basis.

Secondly, the culture can only be fully and properly understood by Aboriginal people.

It is problematic for non-Aboriginal people to make judgment on what might constitute legitimate Aboriginal culture. The stated presence of Aboriginal sites can have significant implications for the vested interests of other parties and rigour does need to be applied. Wherever possible, this should be done within the Aboriginal community, where culturally appropriate practices can be maintained.

Thirdly, non-Aboriginals need to know the operating parameters of things they can do without detrimentally affecting the culture. At all times, though, cultural property should remain that of the Aboriginal owners for them to reveal or conceal as they see fit. Non-Aboriginals should not automatically choose to pick over and expose the culture in search of evidence to satisfy themselves that there is something of substance to consider.

Furthermore, the culture should be given its own space to exist, both physically and socially. We should aim to minimise further displacement and seek opportunities for Aboriginal people to have their own patch, at least in terms of retaining custody of their culture.

The relinquishment of some control might be seen as a risk by the dominant culture. However, reconciliation is about creating equality and domination does not fit this scene. Trust needs to be built. The City of Onkaparinga has come to view that this will be best achieved by establishing an effective working relationship with the Aboriginal community and this forms the core of our strategies.

Other strategies arranged around this core include:

  • Compliance with white man’s laws regarding heritage protection and Native Title.
  • Perhaps more of a duty than a strategy, but Local Government has struggled with compliance aspects. This is partly due to the difficulty in identifying where on-ground exposure exists, given the issues relating to the knowledge and disclosure of sites.
  • Gaining access to information that will give a better understanding of on-ground exposure and attendant responsibilities.
  • This extends beyond the records that are held by the normal Government institutions. The creation of an advisory service offered by traditional owners would be an ultimate aim.
  • Strengthening the working relationship with Aboriginal communities on a project by project basis by building on the initiatives undertaken to date.
  • Council currently has a number of projects under way with Aboriginal groups, ranging from urban design and landscape projects through to the potential establishment of a community centre.
  • Developing a joint management approach on selected sites through Memoranda of Understanding or other forms of agreement.
  • Sites have already been identified and joint management frameworks are being prepared.

The longer term view

It is still early days and the working relationship is in its infancy. Already though, the plate is full with ideas, new initiatives and productive dialogue. These partnerships will create the exchange needed to help build confidence, understanding, recognition and respect. As the relationship matures, the strengths of the respective culture and knowledge sets will combine to create new ways to better manage and improve our environment. Sustainability will seem more tangible and benefits will accrue all-round.

Out of this, the partnership will be strong and secure between the oldest, continually surviving culture on Earth, and the more recent phenomenon of Australia’s vibrant new multi-culture.


Australian Local Government Association et al (2000) Training Workshop Overheads & Completed Exercises

Aboriginal Heritage Act, 1988 (South Australia)

Native Title Act, 1993 (Commonwealth of Australia)

About the author

Des Fowles holds the position of Manager, Integrated Planning at the City of Onkaparinga. He is a white person who has lived and worked in the area for many years. Corey Turner holds the position of Area Planner, Cultural Development at the City of Onkaparinga. He also lives in the area and is a Kaurna person. In the joint preparation of this paper, certain sections are attributed more specifically to only one of the authors. Where this is the case, it is acknowledged with the respective subheading.

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