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Federal funds for Aboriginal talks missing

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Millions of dollars promised by the Morrison government for Northern Territory traditional owner talks about Beetaloo Basin oil and gas production have not been received, a Senate inquiry has been told.

The basin is one of five gas fields the government plans to develop to support exports and manufacturing, under its “gas-led recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has caused concern among many Territorians, who fear it would not only jeopardise efforts to meet the nations’s emissions reduction target but also contaminate groundwater.

Northern Land Council manager Greg McDonald says he heard the federal government would provide more than $2 million for on-country consultation with traditional owners and native title holders over three years when the last year’s federal budget was released.

But less than a month until the next budget, nothing had been received.

“We do not yet have a funding agreement,” he told the environment and communications committee hearing on the issue in Darwin on Tuesday.

“We have received some correspondence by email as to the particular reasons for the delay. I think we will have to take that on notice. I cannot recall the specifics.”

Senator for the NT, Malarndirri McCarthy, said she found it odd the NLC had not received the money given the government was trying to urgently develop the basin and had granted $19.4 million in February for drilling.

On March 7, Minister for Resources and Water Keith Pitt issued a press release stating the funding would ensure traditional owners were empowered to make informed decisions about development on their land.

Lock The Gate’s Dan Robins said traditional owners were worried about gas companies not seeking free, prior and informed consent before working on their country.

“The number of exploration wells approved and the number of new proposals is exposing the failure of the regulatory system,” he said.

He also raised concerns about taxpayers’ money being spent on the development of gas projects, estimating it was about $2 billion.

“They are scarce public funds that are urgently required in the territory for basic necessities such as remote housing, health and other needs,” he said.

“Instead they are going directly into the hands of multi-national gas giants.”

Johnny Wilson, Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation chair, lives in the basin at Lighting Ridge.

He said traditional owners do not want gas exploration or production on their country and their designated representative body, the NLC, was not listening to them.

“We want to make decisions for ourselves on our country. We do not want fracking full stop,” he said.

“We have seen the photos where fracking has done so much damage. Water is our life. What is going to be left for use on our country?”

Earlier, Australian Petroleum Exploration and Production Association chief executive Andrew McConville said the Beetaloo Basin has the potential to supply domestic gas needs and export markets.

“This is both an export and domestic opportunity,” he said.

Mr McConville said 30 per cent of gas produced in Australia was used for electricity generation and 70 per cent to manufacture everyday goods.

“The simple reality is that those products do not have a substitute,” he said.

Cattleman Rohan Sullivan told the committee he had been dealing with a gas exploration company on his 76,000 hectare property in the basin for about a decade, saying it had helped build gates and roads that the government had neglected to.

“We really do not care who builds it or what the justifications are, we just want a decent road and telephone that works when you need it,” he said.

The hearing continues.

– AAP

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