Weaponising Modern Aboriginal Myths and Legends

On November 2, 2023, the Federal Court ruled that Santos could not commence work on the pipeline from the Barossa Gasfield, located north of Darwin, because it might damage a Tiwi islander’s Sea Country and cultural sites. Once again, an Iindigenous protestor and taxpayer-funded environmental-activist lawyers have interrupted work on a gas development project of national importance at a potential cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.  This, at a time of worsening gas supply problems and rising energy costs. The Scarborough Gasfield offshore Western Australia is currently being delayed by the same legal firm and another Aboriginal complainant, as discussed in Fair Warning from Scarborough in the November Quadrant. (Financial loss by Woodside shareholders is now estimated at $300 million.)

This is the latest ploy in a very well organised movement to stop the development of the Barossa Gasfield. Barossa was discovered in 2005 by US company ConocoPhillips and its partners, Australian company Santos and SK E&S, a Korean conglomerate.  Five appraisal wells confirmed the field, and the development proposal was approved by the federal authority NOPSEMA in 2018. Six development wells were to be drilled, with the gas delivered to the Darwin liquified natural gas (LNG) processing facility by a 260 km pipeline. Liquid condensate will be processed aboard a floating facility (FPSO) at the field.  Santos became project operator in October 2019 after purchasing ConocoPhillips’ interests and now holds a 50 per cent interest, having sold 12.5 per cent to JERA, Japan’s largest power generation company in 2022.

In preparing their Environmental Plans (EP) for the field development, ConocoPhillips began consultations with the Tiwi Land Council (TLC), which represents the eight clans living on Bathurst and Melville islands near Darwin, and with the Northern Land Council, the Native Title representative body for the Tiwi Islands. Consultations relating to the Barossa pipeline commenced in August 2018 and involved numerous workshops, meetings, and discussions over subsequent months. TLC concerns about the potential impact on marine life and the risks of discharges or spills were addressed by ConocoPhillips, who were advised by the TLC on March 18, 2019, that they had no further concerns. The pipeline EP was submitted to NOPSEMA on August 2, 2019, and accepted on March 9, 2020. The EP for the development drilling and other activities was initially lodged on October 5, 2021, with the second revision submitted on February 11, 2022, and accepted by NOPSEMA on March 14 of that year.

Environmental opposition, simmering for several years, increased markedly in 2022, fronted by dissenting Tiwi Islanders but backed by various environmental groups, including Jubilee Australia, Project Sunrise and Environment Centre NT, and with some high-profile supporters, including Twiggy Forrest, who described Barossa as ‘an atrocious project’. The main criticism relates to the high percentage of carbon dioxide in the Barossa natural gas deposit, but all the carbon dioxide will be taken by pipeline to the depleted Bayu Undan Gasfield and sequestered underground.

In June 2022, Tiwi Island lawman Dennis Tipakalippa, despite having been a party to the successful consultations, challenged NOPSEMA’s approval of the development drilling EP in the Federal Court, arguing that the Santos consultations had not adequately included his Munupi clan. They were concerned, he claimed, about the potential threat to Tiwi food sources and interference with their ‘continuous spiritual connection to Sea Country that had existed for millennia’. Tipakalippa was represented by the legal firm Environment Defenders Office (EDO), whose funding with taxpayer’s money had recently been re-instated by the newly elected Albanese government. Use of the term Sea Country is very clever, of course, building on the Capital-C Country terminology now used ubiquitously for residential areas of Aboriginal clans and tribes, regardless of the period of residency involved. 

In August 2022, the Federal Court ruled in favour of Tipakalippa, ordered that all activity cease and a new EP be prepared. Santos/ConocoPhillips might have consulted with all Tiwi Islander representative bodies, the Court said, but they had not consulted with each Tiwi Island person.  The appeal against this ruling was unsuccessful and Santos has initiated a new round of consultations with ‘traditional owners’ and other affected parties.

The Barossa opposition also took an international approach, with court action in South Korea seeking to prevent the Export Bank of Korea and the Korean Trade Insurance Corporation from funding loans for the project. While this seems more in the tradition of legal activism than Tiwi Island culture, it was fronted by Jikilaruwu clan leaders Daniel Munkara and Francisco Babui who claimed that their people weren’t properly consulted on the project from the ‘jump’. The Koreans expressed serious reservations about the funding because of the carbon dioxide content of the Barossa natural gas but these concerns have reportedly been alleviated by the planned sequestration.

In December 2022, the latest opposition initiative was launched by the EDO, acting for Simon Munkara, the trustee for the Jikilaruwu clan and their representative on the Tiwi Land Council. An EDO letter to NOPSEMA claimed, among other points, that sacred rocks, burial sites, and sites associated with the Rainbow Serpent were threatened by the pipeline. In response, NOPSEMA directed Santos to conduct anthropological and archaeological field surveys to investigate these claims and to modify the EP if indicated. Mr Munkara had been a party to the original consultations with the TLC about the pipeline but had not raised any concerns at that time.

Extensive anthropological, submarine archaeological and related surveys were conducted for Santos by Dr Brendan Corrigan of ABMC Consulting Pty Ltd and by Wessex Archaeology, both renowned authorities. Dr Corrigan, who holds degrees in both anthropology and archaeology and has worked for decades with Aboriginal communities in northern Australia, found no evidence of cultural sites of significance on the seafloor which, in any event, has been extensively eroded and redeposited over thousands of years. This entire region was submerged beneath rising seas about 18,000 years ago as the ice melted at the end of the so-called Last Glacial Maximum. Specifically, a review of the seafloor topography by world-renowned sedimentologist Dr Henry Posamentier found that the so-called burial mounds were natural sedimentary features. This new work included interviews with over 170 Tiwi islanders, none of whom reported any sites of relevance along the pipeline route. The opposition’s claims are based on conflicting reports by EDO’s consultants, archaeologist Dr Mick O’Leary from the University of Western Australia and anthropologist Gareth Lewis of GL Anthropology, Darwin, both also experienced professionals. 

Based on the Corrigan/Wessex findings that the pipeline posed no threat to cultural heritage sites, Santos did not seek to revise the EP and began to mobilise vessels, materials and personnel for the pipe-laying program.  This work was well underway and the pipe-laying vessel enroute to the Barossa site when the EDO applied to the Federal Court on October 30, 2023, on behalf of Mr Munkara for an injunction to stop all work on the pipeline. The EDO argued that Santos’ ‘underwater pipeline would damage Sea Country, dreaming tracks, songlines and areas of cultural significance’ for Mr Munkara.  Their consultants’ reports had revealed significant new cultural information, they posited, and Santos must be ordered to submit a new EP to NOPSEMA to properly assess the pipeline’s impact on, and risks to, this newly discovered important underwater cultural heritage.

Santos responded that the Corrigan and Wessex independent experts had concluded, based on the many interviews with Tiwi people and extensive archaeological and anthropological surveys and studies, that there were no such underwater cultural heritage places. Nonetheless, the Court ordered the Santos vessel to return to Darwin and issued a temporary injunction preventing any work by Santos until a further hearing on November 13.  Justice Charlesworth accepted that her decision would involve financial loss to Santos but said this had to be balanced against the ‘irreparable’ damage Mr Munkara could suffer to his Sea Country, dreaming tracks and areas of cultural significance.

Other Australians might struggle with Justice Charlesworth’s sense of balance. After the announcement, Santos shares dropped $0.25, representing a loss of over $800 million by shareholders in the company. Major shareholders of Santos provide superannuation and other investments for Australian workers and retirees, including Vanguard Corporation, Colonial First State Investors, and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, which covers government employees and ADF personnel. As of the time of writing, Santos shares are down in value by over one billion dollars in total and, while that also reflects other factors, the coincidence of the court’s decision and the precipitous share price fall is clear.

At the November 13 hearing Justice Charlesworth let the injunction remain in place until a case-management hearing on November 15, at which time the injunction against pipe-laying activities was lifted for the northern area near the Barossa Gasfield itself but reinstated for the southern section nearer the Tiwi Islands. The full case will be heard by Justice Charlesworth on December 5, with her decision to be handed down on 12 January 2024.

With the earlier Federal ruling delaying the development drilling, this new initiative was clearly – and successfully – designed to delay the pipeline construction. If the legal challenge is successful, that delay could be substantial, with significant implications for the national energy supplies and economy.     

This issue highlights, yet again, the increasing weaponising of Aboriginal cultural sites by well-funded activists serving environmental or anti-development agendas. The trend to halt Australian development projects, specifically those related to oil and gas production, is clearly now the top priority for many environmentalists. The Scarborough and Barossa cases show that the current strategy is for legal challenges to the regulatory approvals processes, based on indigenous issues about cultural heritage and claims of inadequate consultation.

The prevailing romanticism about Aboriginal culture in Australia, which accepts that any associated site or song is sacred beyond the Anglo-Celtic imagination, makes this an easy ploy. If there is one Aboriginal dissenter who claims his sacred sites are threatened then, regardless of expert or Aboriginal community views to the contrary, the prospect of a sympathetic court looms large. When damage to the site is said to carry the danger of spiritual and physical harm, even death, to the affected community, public sympathy swells and judicial caution prevails. At Barossa, the ‘sacred’ claims are being taken beyond the modern landscape and applied to features drawn from ‘deep time’ memories of a landscape submerged for millennia.  

This issue also calls into question, yet again, where the rights and views of the majority in a democratic society are to stand in relation to the rights and views of a small dissenting minority, both in the local context of the Tiwi Islands and more broadly in the Australian national setting.

24 thoughts on “Weaponising Modern Aboriginal Myths and Legends

  • March says:

    Enough of this BS!

    • lbloveday says:

      This goes to the highest degree of BS I can imagine condoned and promoted by Federal Courts. Australia is f’d; Thank God I am old – “I have no fear of death; it brings no sorrow”.
      Santos/ConocoPhillips might have consulted with all Tiwi Islander representative bodies, the Court said, but they had not consulted with EACH Tiwi Island person.
      sacred rocks, burial sites, and sites associated with the Rainbow Serpent were threatened by the pipeline
      Mr Munkara had been a party to the original consultations with the TLC about the pipeline but had not raised any concerns at that time.
      ‘underwater pipeline would damage Sea Country, dreaming tracks, songlines and areas of cultural significance’ for Mr Munkara.
      properly assess the pipeline’s impact on, and risks to, this NEWLY DISCOVERED important underwater cultural heritage.
      Justice Charlesworth accepted that her decision would involve financial loss to Santos but said this had to be balanced against the irreparable damage Mr Munkara could suffer to his Sea Country, dreaming tracks and areas of cultural significance.

      • alanhoward05 says:

        “Australia is f’d; Thank God I am old – “I have no fear of death; it brings no sorrow”.
        Exactly ‘lbloveday’, it is both in and disturbing how often one finds such a sentiment among ‘the elderly’ .
        Otherwise put the- “whole joint has gone to the doghouse in SO many ways and well past anything we can do. It remains for our children, grandchildren and their children to suffer and lament .”
        Absolutely tragic.

      • Rossini says:

        What a rich country we are……..
        Did the judge not think of where the money to pay his over generous salary and benefits come from.

      • David Isaac says:

        What a corker! This is why, when we were a serious people, judges were drawn only from the mature male ranks of the gentry.

  • grpalmer1911 says:

    1. The Australian Constitution expressly prohibits religious laws being made and applied to non-believers.
    2. A religion is any belief be it cultural, secular or sectarian.
    3. Imposing one person’s belief on another person violates their personal own beliefs.
    4. Forcing someone to physically act against their own best interests to comply with someone else’s beliefs is a violation of fundamental human rights.

    So just how does an Australian Court make such legal determinations?

    • March says:

      I argue the same for closure of Mt Warning which has been done on grounds of Aboriginal religious beliefs. Unfortunately this is a state case and that clause does not apply to the States. Bob Hawke tried to change this in referendum 1988 but it failed.

  • grpalmer1911 says:

    The Australian Constitution provides for compensation for financial loss caused by the actions of Government.
    Santos may have a legal right to recover all costs caused by this ruling.

  • DougD says:

    Justice Charlesworth is just continuing with the rot that started in the Federal Court with the Swan Brewery re-development case in 1993. The court stopped work there because it said the minister who approved the project hadn’t given proper weight to the claim by Bropho, a Local aborigine, that the work might disturb the rainbow serpent that travelled over the brewery site in the Dreamtime on its way to creating the Swan river.

  • Robert Kennedy says:

    I can’t believe this crap!!! Didn’t the Australian people just say NO to this type of rubbish in a referendum. Surely the benefit to the majority should hold sway over one persons “religious beliefs”.
    Like an earlier responder, I’m glad that I’m old and won’t see the final outcome of all of this bullshit.
    What we really need is another “war to end all wars”, it seems to be the only way to bring some sanity back to the country.

    • Rebekah Meredith says:

      I assume that neither of you has any family? Or, for that matter, any love for this country?
      What a rotten, SELFISH outlook!

      • lbloveday says:

        Terry Barnes wrote for Quadrant “…people only care about aged care when they’re confronted with it themselves. Instead they’re more worried about their inheritance”.
        In reply to my objection to that unqualified assertion, he wrote “I don’t resile from my cynical view…. If your family is an exception that proves the rule, I envy you”.
        I am 99.9% sure I will not allow myself to be admitted to aged care, nor have my wife or daughter look after me if I become mentally or physically incapable of living what I consider a sufficiently independent life; how could they possibly find tending to a shell of a man who had worn the old football club allocated nicknames “Muscles” and “Loophole” with pride all the time they knew him anything but unpleasant? Why would they want to extend my misery? Nor under any circumstance will I let the government determine when, how and by whom I will be killed.
        So I pray for a quick (as distinct from soon) death while still having my pride (“the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep” -The Gambler.
        One particularly close friend in aged care told me of wanting to go to the toilet but no-one answered the buzzer, so he involuntarily defecated in his bed. He did not blame the staff – she had a number to tend and could only handle one at a time. “Embarrassing for me, embarrassing for her” he said. No thanks!
        If I’m not granted my prayer, I presume I will die like PM McEwen, but quicker.

      • David Isaac says:

        Well said. It is an all too common refrain from men over seventy but let’s not be too harsh on them They are presented only with problems and never solutions and unless one is prepared to accept that the entire framework of society developed post 1945 is faulty, there really is no escaping the maelstrom

        • lbloveday says:

          The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

        • lbloveday says:

          A doctor friend told me that when he started, men with a prognosis of death within a short timeframe would accept that and prepare for their end, but nowadays they expected treatment that would keep them alive “forever”.

  • Robert Kennedy says:

    What rock do they keep getting judges like Justice Charlesworth from under. She may be termed justice, but there is no justice in her ruling on this matter.

    • DougD says:

      The rot metastasizes in our courts. Here’s a judge of the WA Court of Appeal in 2022 refusing permission for a pastoral company to build weirs on a river in its property: “We have found that interfering with the natural flow of the River will cause spiritual harm to the Thalanyji people, by virtue of their concern that the water snake may die or leave the River, or become angry, and because the Thaanyji people will feel that they have failed in their duty as the custodians of the River.” The judge dismissed a submission that belief in a creation myth was irrelevant: “ With respect, in the context of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, it is nonsensical to suggest that the impact of the use of an Aboriginal site should be assessed only by reference to secular analysis.”


    The unfortunate thing about fostering myths is that they can come back and bite us in th’yarse. Some may remember that WW2 myth that Japanese soldiers could not shoot straight because of poor eyesight. The popular notion, (and hope),was that their poor eyesight correlated with eyelid shape which was why, apparently, most Japanese soldiers wore glasses. Well, that myth soon proved wrong. The Japanese soldier proved to be a pretty good shot, and they’d had plenty of practice as too. Japanese naval gunnery was also highly proficient, especially during night engagements when they employed search lights with intense blue beams as in that notable allied fiasco The Battle of the Badung Strait where the ABDA forces took a drubbing and a painful end to the myth of inferior Japanese eyesight.
    Digressions aside, what about those modern Aboriginal myths, as weaponised largely by the Aboriginal Industry? Sooner or, probably a lot later, these myths will become an embarrsassing furphy for all thinking Australians when our woke and warm romancing of Aboriginal cultural myths fades into the hard facts of stone cold reality.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Peter Purcell,
    Back in 1986, the High Court had this to say about a set of circumstances where access was denied to us in favour of (mainly) satisfaction of deep, shadowy, powerful people riding the wagon of aboriginal concerns. There might be words in this judgement that help one to understand the workings of the top legal minds of the time. (We were never offered compenation). Geoff S

  • Searcher says:

    For the woke, any weapon will do.

  • lbloveday says:

    From Gary Johns:
    The Queensland University of Technology is to establish a Faculty of Indigenous Knowledges [sic] and Culture.
    .The word ‘merit’ will be deleted from their selection policies, and they will hire staff based on ‘suitability’ instead. Job applicants will have their achievement rated against ‘opportunity’ and achievement will be assessed ‘relative to opportunity’.
    On the one hand, the poor must be looked after because they are oppressed, but on the other, their culture, which may well keep them poor and oppressed, must remain unchanged.

  • lbloveday says:

    The Northern Areas Council in SA’s Mid North has voted to stop reading an Acknowledgement of Country at meetings, and remove it from all official council correspondence.

Leave a Reply