By Joe Bourke
Luke Foley’s State Labor party along with former Prime Minister Paul Keating have announced the return of Goat Island to the Aboriginal people if Labor wins the upcoming NSW State election.
The island is the second largest in Sydney Harbour and has been under state ownership since 1908.
Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Linda Burney, said that the move is important due to the island’s place in Sydney’s history.
“It’s a significant part of Aboriginal Australia. Me-mel means the ‘pupil of the eye’ and if you are on the island you can look around and see how it links up the harbour.
“It was also of course, if you look at the documentation in colonial writings, the only land mentioned at all that had a connection to particular Indigenous people. In this case it was Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo.” said Ms Burney.
Heritage expert Phillip Jenkyn was one of ten members of the Goat Island Reference Group in 2009 along with Paul Keating, and said that he would welcome the move.
Mr Jenkyn said that as a strong supporter of the Aboriginal people and their land rights, he would be keen to see Goat Island used as a place of reconciliation.
“I think that we’ve reached a time in our history where everybody has got to stand up for the truth of our history: good, bad and indifferent, and the present generation has a responsibility to call it correctly because of the knowledge we now have.
“In my view, that means proper reconciliation and proper respect for our more than 40,000 year Aboriginal history and there’s now legislation in place that with goodwill existing by everybody that these kinds of things can be dealt with under Land Rights legislation.” Mr Jenkyn said.
Ms Burney said that this has not just been a ‘thought bubble’, but in fact is something of which discussions have been taking place for a period of time.
“We’ve had this vision for a very long time – we’ve spoken about it up to two years ago… The Tribal Warriors Association had been talking for a long time and had a ten to 15 year wish of aspiration that they could see Me-Mel as a place for everyone but also for developing Aboriginal and eco-tourism plus a training facility on the island.” Ms Burney said.
Goat Island has a vast history, first being used for many colonial uses and then becoming an integral part of the Maritime Services Board and the control of Sydney Harbour.
Mr Jenkyn said that due to this history, Goat Island presents a unique opportunity and could become one of Australia’s most important sites.
“It embodies very directly our whole history in one island and so if it does go back to being under the control and ownership of the Aboriginal Land Council,” Mr Jenkyn said. “I’d be very keen for it to be looked at slightly differently to just handing back land so that this land was felt by everybody.”
“If everybody feels that this place is a part of them, then that place could be – of course if the Aboriginal people wanted it – a place of reconciliation with everyone, and that would be very special.” Mr Jenkyn said.
Premier Baird reportedly said he will consider the proposal as more details emerge, and Mr Jenkyn said that a bipartisan approach would be good for everybody.
The State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, issued a statement on the matter, saying “I have a strong working relationship with the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council and my door is always open to them to discuss policy proposals.”
Phillip Jenkyn said, “I would think that now that it’s been raised, that what the Liberal party should be saying is that they’ve had discussions with the NSW Aboriginal Land council and these matters have been around for some time.”
“[If] we can get a bipartisan approach to this, it would be great for the country, for Sydney, for tourism, for Aboriginal culture, for the environment, for everybody.”