Traditional owners ‘sick of being bullied’ by gas firms

Rudi Maxwell |

Greens Senator Dorinda Cox with Tiwi elder Therese Wokay Bourke and Munupi law man Pirrawayingi.
Greens Senator Dorinda Cox with Tiwi elder Therese Wokay Bourke and Munupi law man Pirrawayingi.

Emotional traditional owners have told a Senate inquiry that they feel heartbroken, ignored and disrespected in the approval process for offshore gas projects.

Tiwi Islander Antonia Burke, who has been campaigning against Santos’ Barossa gas project, said there are 47 offshore leases current in the Northern Territory that had been granted without Indigenous input. 

“And when we find out about these types of things, and we decide to stand up and do something about it to protect our home, we are bullied,” she said.

“We are labelled trolls – this is by politicians who feed the media – we are called puppets, we are called fringe activists, we are called liars and patronised.

“But we are not being puppets for the environmental movement, we are leading our own campaigns.”

The Federal Court dismissed a Tiwi challenge to Santos’ gas pipeline in the Timor Sea in January, with the judge delivering a scathing assessment of how the Environmental Defender’s Office had run the case for the islanders. 

“We were not manipulated or coached because it was the Tiwi people’s decision,” Ms Burke said.

“We all stood up together, made decisions for ourselves and we made sure we included all other Tiwi people.

Melville Island
Tiwi Islanders have been campaigning against Santos’ plans to drill in the Barossa gas field. (HANDOUT/ENVIRONMENT CENTRE NT)

“We are sick of being patronised by white people telling us that we can’t think for ourselves or stand up for ourselves and bullying us and calling us names.”

Earlier in the hearing, gas companies and Australian Energy Producers told the inquiry that the industry was seeking clarity and certainty around the offshore approvals framework and, in particular, consultation requirements. 

“It’s clear and it’s been recognised by the government, and it’s been recognised by NOPSEMA as the regulator that the ambiguity and uncertainty is leading to significant delays,” Australian Energy Producers chief executive Samantha McCulloch said.

“It’s leading to significant expense for the industry, but it’s also leading to consultation fatigue from traditional owners.

“It’s clear that we need to find a way to ensure that we can retain meaningful and comprehensive engagement including with traditional owners that provides that certainty going forward to enable projects to move forward.”

Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper, who won a court challenge against Woodside’s offshore gas development in northern Western Australia, said First Nations people were being sidelined.

“I am heartbroken, devastated and furious that our governments continue to allow Woodside’s Burrup Hub to destroy our sacred rock art, our songlines and our precious marine sanctuaries,” Ms Cooper said.

“The government has been falling over itself to fast-track oil and gas approvals and reassure industry that they won’t have to wait to build massive new projects like the ones destroying my culture on the Burrup.”

Greens senator Dorinda Cox accused the government of abandoning First Nations people in deference to the resources industry.

“The gas cartel are making super profits while people who contribute least to natural disasters are being silenced,” she said.

“The government’s consultation with First Nations communities is already woefully inadequate, and this will just make it easier for massive fossil fuel projects to destroy over 65,000 years of culture with the government’s go-ahead.

“The environmental approvals process for gas already has massive legislative loopholes that allow projects to go ahead without declaring First Nations people as relevant people. We should be closing these loopholes, not opening up more.” 

Tiwi elders Munupi law man Pirrawayingi and Therese Wokay Bourke said, in their experience, Santos had rushed consultation and conducted it at inappropriate times.

“At times it was offensive to us in wanting to come during sorry business times,” Pirrawayingi said.

Ms Bourke said Tiwi people had worked hard to have their legal and human rights respected.

“When we use your law to stand up for ourselves and win, then you want to close that gap so you can keep ignoring us by allowing Santos and the media to disrespect us,” she said.

“It’s a real shame.”

The inquiry is due to report by March 22.