Image: Perth, Australia
Paul Kane  /  Getty Images file
Perth is the capital of Western Australia state.
updated 9/21/2006 5:28:18 PM ET 2006-09-21T21:28:18

A federal court judge has given a tribe of Aborigines a limited land title claim over the major Australian city of Perth.

It was the first such ruling that Aborigines, the indigenous people who lived in Australia before white settlers arrived, were the traditional owners of an urban area. The potentially precedent-setting decision could apply to other large cities.

The ruling determined that the Noongar people were the traditional owners of a 2,300-square-mile area of Western Australia state that includes the state capital of Perth, a city of 1.7 million people.

But Tuesday’s ruling by Judge Murray Wilcox only grants Aborigines limited rights to the land, and indigenous people say the issue is about recognition of their rights, not moving homeowners out.

The ruling means the Noongar people can now exercise rights such as hunting and fishing on land where their native title — a claim on land Aborigines held before settlers arrived — has not been usurped by freehold titles, those where the government has passed all interest in the land to the owner, or leasehold titles, where a person leases property from the owner.

Power over unallocated land
Wilcox said the outcome was “neither the pot of gold for the indigenous claimants nor the disaster for the remainder of the community that is sometimes painted.”

Homeowners and businesses, for instance, normally hold freehold titles and will therefore not be affected by the ruling, officials said. But unallocated land, such as national parks and reserves, may be.

The decision came as shock to most observers since previous such claims over metropolitan areas have failed because under Australian law a freehold title overrides a native title.

In part to win their case, the Noongar people had to prove they had maintained their culture and customs since European settlement in 1829.

The Western Australia state government said it would appeal the ruling to a higher court — a move welcomed by Prime Minister John Howard’s government.

Howard said Wednesday the ruling was “of some considerable concern.”

“Many people will regard it as somewhat incongruous (that) there could still be some residual native title claim in a major settled metropolitan area,” he said.

Western Australia State Deputy Premier Eric Ripper disputed the ruling, saying there had been too much disruption to Noongar society for it to have survived in any meaningful way, and therefore their native title claim was not valid.

“The evidence clearly supported this argument,” said Ripper, whose government has three weeks to appeal.

Glen Kelly, chief executive of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, which represented the Noongar people in the three-year court battle, described the ruling as a long overdue recognition of the traditional owners’ identity.

'Not after people's backyards'
Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson said the decision was “absolutely extraordinary” because it demonstrated that native title was not confined to the unpopulated areas, where most previous successful claims have occurred.

Indigenous leaders appealed for calm and said they were “not after people’s backyards or their farms.”

“We’re after recognition and if we get any type of benefit, it’s to run businesses and train our people,” Ted Hart, also of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, told The Australian newspaper.

But Australia’s Attorney General Philip Ruddock warned that open spaces in major cities could be up for grabs and white people could be shut out.

“In a major capital city where you do have very extensive areas of parkland, water foreshores, beaches ... you could well find that if a native claim were found to be a bona fide claim and lawful, ... native title owners would be able to exclude other people from access to those areas,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Thursday.

Federal opposition leader Kim Beazley, a Perth resident, supported a state government appeal because the ruling seemed inconsistent with other court decisions that have been delivered since Native Title Act was passed in 1993.

Beazley did, however, underscore that Perth residents should not be overly concerned about the ruling.

“People ought to understand completely there is no threat entailed in any of this for anybody’s property rights,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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