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HomeNewsTiwi Island and environmental protesters fight Santos gas project at Federal Court

Tiwi Island and environmental protesters fight Santos gas project at Federal Court

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Protesters have rallied outside the Federal Court in Melbourne to voice their concerns about a $4.7bn gas project they say will destroy their land and culture.

Gas company Santos is trying to overturn a historic decision which invalidated its drilling approvals after Tiwi Islanders successfully argued they were not properly consulted about the project in the Timor Sea, north of Darwin.

A Federal Court judge ruled in favour of Tiwi Island elder Dennis Tipakalippa in September, which put a stop to Santos’ plan to drill in the area.

But the company is now appealing that decision via a two-day hearing before the full bench of the Federal Court.

Opening addresses began on Tuesday, with a peaceful rally held outside court demanding “justice” for the Tiwi Islands.

Dozens of people gathered with signs which read: “Don’t destroy the Tiwis. Stop Barossa gas.”

Another sign read: “Fund our future, not gas.”

A third sign said: “Stop trying to make gas happen.”

Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe was among the protesters who gave a passionate speech.

“This country should be ashamed of itself,” she said.

“Don’t talk treaty, don’t talk voice to parliament if you can’t talk about saving country and sea country for our old people and our young people who are begging you, who are fighting every system in every way they possibly can to maintain their survival.

“It’s an absolute shame on this country.”

The protest also included a traditional dance, led by 25-year-old Michael Coombes, who is a member of the Munupi Clan from the Tiwi Islands.

Mr Coombes said people had been hunting on the land for generations.

“I’ve been hunting since I was a little boy, since I could walk,” he said.

“I now have a kid that’s on the way. My kid … will be hunting, will be dancing on that land, he’ll be singing on that land.

“He’ll be teaching his son, the son after him and so on.”

Mr Coombes said the gas project would impact the land and hurt the ancestors.

Antonia Burke said the Tiwi people should have been consulted about a project which posed a threat to culture and Country.

“But Santos doesn’t think it should have to consult with the people who own the Country it wants to destroy,” she said in a statement.

“We have to sit here, thousands of kilometres away from the place that is being impacted, and listen to lawyers for a gas company argue that we do not have functions, interests and activities in our own sea country, off our own beaches.

“I can tell you right now, we have been governing this sea country in a sustainable way for thousands of years.

“Santos’ Barossa gas project threatens this millennia of connection, it threatens our lore and the marine life that is so important to Tiwi culture and kinship.

“Tiwi Islands could be uninhabitable in two generations due to the rising sea levels and temperatures caused by gas projects like this one, not to mention the immediate marine impacts and risk of a devastating oil spill.”

At the time of the original court decision, the Environment Defenders Office successfully argued the approval granted by the National Offshore Petroleum and Safety Environmental Management Authority was unlawful.

Santos said the decision was disappointing and damaging for investor confidence in Australia.

“Given the significance of this decision to us, our international joint venture partners and customers, and the industry more broadly, we consider that it should be reviewed by the full Federal Court on appeal,” the company said at the time.

Santos said it had engaged with the Tiwi Land Council and Northern Land Council about the project.

In court on Tuesday, Santos’ barrister, Christopher Horan, argued the traditional owners had not needed to be consulted because they were not people with relevant interests.

He said a relevant person was someone whose “functions, interests or activities” may be affected.

Mr Horan said while their connection was “genuine”, it did not constitute the “interest” detailed in law.

He also said a community could not be a legal person, so Santos would have to identify individuals, which would be difficult.

The appeal hearing before Justices Susan Kenny, Debra Mortimer and Michael Lee continues.

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