This is a guest post by Northern Land Council media officer Murray McLaughlin
Ron Merkel QC was into the second day of his opening address in the Federal Court at Melbourne, arguing that Aboriginal people — other than traditional owners of the 255 hectares of land at Muckaty earmarked for use by the Commonwealth to store nuclear waste — had been locked out of negotiations.
The engagement of the trial judge seemed remarkably injudicious: “I’m not sitting here and reflecting on the morality,” said Justice Anthony North. “If it was so, I would have an easy answer.”
In the end it was morality that triumphed, when the Northern Land Council announced yesterday it had agreed to settle the legal challenge to its nomination of the Muckaty site in 2007, in order to end the discord which had festered among the Aboriginal clans which comprise the Muckaty Aboriginal Land Trust.
The passage of the legal case has been tortuous since it was first lodged four years ago.
The applicants, led by Mr Merkel, had not even settled their pleadings when the case opened on June 2.
A proposed fourth further amended statement of claim was set for legal argument in the Federal Court today, and Justice North had extended every indulgence, in spite of misgivings by the Commonwealth Government and the NLC, to allow the case to meander and metamorphose.
The NLC and the Commonwealth had first proposed a settlement back in April, but it was rejected.
Then, the day before trial opened in Melbourne on June 2, the applicants offered to settle, on the basis that the Commonwealth abandon the Muckaty site, that there be no admissions of liability and that the parties bear their own costs.
It took several days to effect the decisions of the NLC and Commonwealth to accept settlement. Government Ministers had to be consulted, and the NLC’s executive council had to convene an extraordinary meeting.
The wisdom of that decision was confirmed during an on-country sitting of the Federal Court last Saturday at Muckaty.
A senior man who’d first supported the storage of nuclear waste at Muckaty, and who’d advised the NLC in 2007 about ownership of the site, told the court during cross-examination that he’d received advice some years later that he’d named the wrong people as traditional owners.
It now falls to Joe Morrison, four months into his job as NLC Chief Executive Officer, to reconcile the clan groups at Muckaty. He will hit the Stuart Highway next week to begin that salving process.
Photo: Justice Anthony North hearing evidence ‘on-country’ at Muckaty.