The Guardian August 29, 2001


Hindmarsh Island decision
Ngarrindjeri People yet to see justice

by Bob Briton

Justice John von Doussa of the Federal Court has revived discussion of the 
Hindmarsh Island bridge issue with the handing down of a 318-page 
judgement. In Adelaide last week he ruled that the developers of a marina 
on the Island were not entitled to compensation due to delays in the 
bridge's construction and virtually overturned the 1995 Royal Commission 
finding that the Ngarrindjeri women's beliefs regarding the Island were 
"fabricated".

The $20 million compensation claim  directed against the Federal 
Government, former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner, Victorian 
constitutional expert Cheryl Saunders and anthropologist Dean Fergie  was 
dismissed on a number of grounds.

Among his rulings were that Professor Saunders and Dean Fergie had been 
wrongly sued under the Trade Practices Act and that the developers had not 
suffered immediate losses after the announcement of a 25-year ban on the 
construction of the bridge was announced by the Federal Government in 1994.

Justice von Doussa found the $20 million claim from Binalong Pty Ltd 
Directors Tom and Wendy Chapman unsupportable in view of the fact that 
theirs was a "hopelessly insolvent company in the hands of receivers and 
managers, about to have its assets taken from it by a secured creditor and 
about to be placed in liquidation" at the time the ban was applied.

During the Court proceedings Justice von Doussa was able to examine the 
materials relating to the Ngarrindjeri women's beliefs concerning the 
island and which became the subject of a Royal Commission in 1995. 

He concluded,"I am not satisfied that the restricted women's knowledge was 
fabricated or that it was not part of genuine Aboriginal traditions".

Naturally the Ngarrindjeri people and their supporters are delighted that 
such notable recognition has been made of the injustices perpetrated by the 
Royal Commission into their spiritual and cultural beliefs.

A community has been divided, its beliefs held up for public ridicule, 
reputations put under a cloud, people's health undermined and a priceless 
cultural and environmental legacy put at risk as a consequence of that 
Royal Commission's findings.

Ngarrindjeri elder Dr Doreen Kartinyeri was left shaking with emotion after 
the handing down of the Federal Court judgement. "This is a victory for all 
indigenous people in this country. I'm only glad I'm alive today to see 
this decision be passed down", she said.

Still, so much of the damage cannot be repaired. The bridge is in place 
against the wishes of the indigenous people. The bill for court inquiries, 
which have turned into inquisitions, has now exceeded $25 million.

The marina on the island is expanding. Stage three of the seven-stage 
development has just commenced on the 380 ha site "The Advertiser" reports 
that $2.3 million worth of taxpayers' money has been ploughed into roads, 
pipes and sewerage treatment for the development.

Asked whether justice could be restored by last week's decision by the 
Federal Court, Stephen Kenny lawyer representing the Ngarrindjeri women put 
it squarely. "I'd like to say that it could be but the damage has been 
done, the horse has bolted. Unfortunately all we can do now is to peg back 
that ground to make sure we re-establish their credibility in the eyes of 
all Australians."

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