Leaders urged to call out racism, false claims in heated WA marine park debate

Leaders urged to call out racism, false claims in heated WA marine park debate

Aboriginal leaders in Esperance say a concerning surge in racist commentary and conspiracies in the debate about the proposed South Coast Marine Park is causing hurt and division in the community. 

The proposed marine park would run from Bremer Bay to the WA border, ban fishing in specified sanctuary zones and be jointly managed by traditional owners.

But the proposal has become divisive in Western Australia’s south coast communities, with a hastily planned protest a few weeks ago drawing a crowd of about 300 people.

People against the creation of the park said it was not necessary, would have a devastating impact on the commercial fishing sector and would lock recreational fishers out of key areas. 

Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Peter Bednall said the release of the draft joint management plan had generated hundreds of racist comments and reactions.

Peter Bednall says people can find accurate information about the marine park if they try. (ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

The corporation said claims from Esperance residents on social media community groups included false accusations that Aboriginal people had “planted” artefacts on nearby islands and that research of cultural material in the Recherche Archipelago would be used as a political tool to expand the marine park.

While commercial and recreational fishing would be restricted in parts of the park, customary fishing and hunting rights for Aboriginal people would remain – an issue which emerged as a key grievance of people who opposed the park.

Hunting and fishing rights for Aboriginal people are enshrined in pre-existing laws and are in place across Western Australia, recognising the rights of Aboriginal people, who have a traditional connection with the area, being able to fish for personal, domestic, ceremonial, educational or non‐commercial needs.

Mr Bednall said the proposed “special purpose zones for cultural management” would not exclude anyone from fishing but were areas where traditional owners wanted to focus research attention. 

The proposed marine park would have different areas set aside for different purposes.(Supplied: DBCA)

He said misinformation and racism had been shared across multiple online forums.

“And even offline within the broader Esperance community, perpetuating a hostile and unsafe environment for Aboriginal people,” Mr Bednall said.

Moderators on Esperance community Facebook pages have put up multiple posts calling for respect in marine park debate, with one saying he would be declining any posts about the marine park due to the number of responses it was attracting. 

Calling out racism

Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation put out a letter on Friday calling on political leaders to denounce racism. 

“You cannot lead this community if you are silent in the face of racism and conspiracy, allowing this behaviour to flourish,” the letter states.

“We call on leaders to urge all sides to make their case through the submission process — and to leave racist slurs out of the debate.”

Esperance Tjaltjraak chairperson Gail Reynolds-Adamson said community leaders had opportunities to call the behaviour out. 

“Our leaders, the non-Indigenous leaders in our community have not stood up and spoken out against racism,” she said.

“No longer is it subtle, it is now overt.”

She said recent debate about the proposed Voice to Parliament and Aboriginal Cultural Heritage laws had also fuelled racism in the south coast town.

“It is incredible how much racism has come through our community,” she said.

Areas of the planned marine park are home to species such as the leafy sea dragon.(Supplied: Karen Milligan)

Mr Bednall believed many people were remaining wilfully ignorant about what Aboriginal involvement with the park would entail.

“”There should be no confusion about this because we’ve talked about it for two years,” he said.

“It is incredibly disappointing for there to be any suggestion that there’s misinformation or miscommunication about what a cultural management zone is, what joint management means, or what is the role of Aboriginal people in managing country.”

The letter urged the community to ensure “respect and tolerance” were at the heart of the marine park debate.(ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

He also said leaders should speak up about the opportunities the park would create for Aboriginal people. 

“Aboriginal people are five times more likely to be unemployed in this town than non-Aboriginal people,” he said.

“The wealth discrepancies are stark, we need these sorts of long-term opportunities if, as a community, we are to close the gap in life outcomes.”

‘It has to stop’

Esperance Shire President Ron Chambers last week wrote a letter that was published in the local paper, the Esperance Weekender, which did not explicitly call out racism but said “respect and tolerance” should be at the core of the marine park debate.

A shire spokesperson also said the state government needed to distribute “easily understood information” about the park, and follow up with further communication if needed.

Lori-Ann Shibish, Meredith Waters and Kelly Brady say the marine park debate needs to be far more respectful. (ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

Esperance Compassionate Community Charter group members Lori-Ann Shibish, Meredith Waters and Kelly Brady said Esperance had plenty of room for improvement.

They said calling out racism, intimidation, slander and fearmongering was not up to politicians alone, but school leaders, sporting groups, the shire or anyone willing to show leadership. 

“We are seeing more and more online comments that are just blatantly racist and it has to stop,” Ms Shibish said.

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