STATEMENTS BY SENATORS - North, Hon. Justice Anthony Max, QC

 

I rise today to acknowledge Justice Anthony North of the Federal Court and his contribution to the judiciary and his role in the native title context over the past two decades particularly in Western Australia. Last week, I had the privilege to travel to Beagle Bay, which is north of Broome, where Justice North delivered an on-country determination for the Bindunbur, the Jabirrjabirr/Ngumbarl and the Nyulnyul native title claims.

These claims were the last Justice North delivered before his retirement from the Federal Court in September. The judgement recognised the Nyulnyul, the Nimanburru and the Jabirrjabirr/Ngumbarl people as the native title holders over a combined area of approximately 12,000 square kilometres of the middle Dampier Peninsula of Western Australia's Kimberley region. The determination extends from Willie Creek in the south to Pender Bay and Disaster Bay in the north. It includes the Lacepede Islands, the Beagle Bay community, pastoral stations and unallocated crown land.

The judgement brought to an end the first litigated native title claim to occur in the Kimberley in the past 10 years. Approximately 80 per cent of the Kimberley region is now recognised as native title land. Justice North and the Federal Court have played a significant role in this process.

It was through the Karajarri native title claim back in 2002 that I first got to meet Justice North and his family. Subsequently, I had the honour of showing him the outcomes from a determination of native title for my own people, the Yawuru people, in Broome. I showed him the Nyamba Buru Yawuru offices in Broome and the work they are undertaking as part of the implementation from a successful determination. Judges don't often get to see that part of their work.

In this Bindunbur claim, each of the native title claimant groups put aside their differences, focused on the common good and worked for the better outcome. The pride they brought to all of us at Beagle Bay when the determination was delivered gave us all a sense of great joy and hope for their future—even though we know there'll be challenges that come their way. For First Nations peoples, native title can be a very vexing process. Justice North has demonstrated leadership, respect and understanding throughout his career. He will be sadly missed, but I hope that future lawyers and jurists continue his impassioned contribution to native title and demonstrate a true capacity to listen to First Nations peoples in their proceedings.

It is a credit to the Federal Court that it has adopted procedures to allow hearings on country and adapted their practices to enable the court to listen to applicants in the most respectful way. To see the court sitting in a remote location and trying conditions for staff and for litigants but honouring the claimants is something that all Australians can be proud of. As I stood watching Justice North deliver the judgement, I reflected on the fact that, while native title determinations recognise First Nations people's ancient connections to country, the bigger picture of this nation—our parliament—is yet to recognise first peoples in our founding document.

In the words of the Nyul Nyul traditional owner and native title holder Mary O'Reeri:

We have lost a lot of our old people who have advocated and fought very hard to see this day of recognition. Having our native title recognised is a welcome achievement for the Nyul Nyul people. Native title gives us as Traditional Owners a much stronger position at the table to negotiate agreements for our country. Native title for us is a tool to work together and aim to bring prosperity in many ways for our people. Our apical ancestors' spirits will be with us every step of the way. We owe it to them and our future generations moving forward.

Justice North made it clear at the hearing that this would be his last determination. He thanked the many different groups that he'd had to work for and he certainly thanked the community of Beagle Bay for the hospitality that they extended and, in particular, the young people, who waited patiently for the formalities to be concluded and then sang in Nyul Nyul, of all things, the Lord's Prayer. It was a great occasion for all involved and truly an occasion where the court, the advocates, the state and the representatives celebrated something.

Justice North also indicated that he had carried around with him in his proceedings an old Akubra hat that his father had bequeathed to him, and on it or around it were many feathers that people had gifted to him as a consequence of his participation in the work of recognising their native title. This indeed was a great occasion and certainly a difficult area, a difficult path for traditional owners to tread down, but it was a great occasion to see native title applicants, with their diversity, coming together, recognising the need for a common approach and a focus on the future of their generations going forward.

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