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Byron Shire
December 7, 2023

Community first – and the commons

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Jo Faith, Newtown.

We live in an era where the colonising power of land grabs still occurs. At the same time we witness the rights of communities standing up to the rusted pistons of democratic political representation as their rights for negotiation are diluted by the strategies of vested corporations; the latter basically controlling state political representation.

In NSW we witness communities standing up to the government demanding that land not zoned within the West-Connex development be handed back to the various communities whose rights have been violated by this development. In the Byron Shire we witness ‘land grabbing’ at Brunswick and at Mullum Hospital which is having an adverse effect on community living…but not community spirit.

By a strange co-incidence MLC Ben Franklin (Nats) was fortunate enough to obtain 28 days grace for the community to get its act together. At the same time David Shoebridge Green Upper House Representative released a Press Release titled Commons across NSW saved.

It reads.

‘Green amendments to the Crown Land Act secured in NSW Parliament last year (2016) will continue to protect Commons across NSW as the Coalition Government has abandoned its plan to abolish Commons. This will leave precious parcels of community land safe for the enjoyment of their local ‘communities’ for generations to come. The government is forced to reverse their proposal to convert all land in NSW held as Commons to Crown land. This proposal was a literal land grab from the state government and one that we vigorously defended.’

Shoebridge noted that many Commons across NSW are ‘extraordinarily well managed’.

Whist having different histories, research reveals the extraordinary role of social capital: volunteers for many decades cared for the land at both the sites in current contestation with the NSW government. Notably, Brunswick foreshore and Mullum Hospital.

So how do we define the Commons? In political economy terms the Commons stands as the cultural and natural resources that are accessible to all members of society, including natural materials such as air, water and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not privately owned. Each stakeholder has an equal share.

Mullum Hospital has an interesting history of ‘land grabbing’. This history is over 100 years old so the magic of oral tales and the shifting land grabs makes dynamic reading. We learn that the Mullumbimby Hospital Action Group with support from other groups have written to the state government clearly stating that they do not want to buy back something that was previously gifted to them. Indeed, the community has invested money in same. In terms of the long history of this gifted community asset it is possible to argue that the role of the Commons, in terms of legal community contract has always held legal dominance, by the fact, and evidence that an exchange did take place. Exchange of land and ongoing community action/care confirm a legal contract. The gift is legally honoured by the community, despite the ongoing arguments related to its current status.

It is in subsequent times that legislation has imposed ‘murky legalities’, such as the transfer in 2010 of the site from Crown land to freehold title after a community trust was dissolved by the government. Through research one can view the dismal lack of genuine community consultation by the state government.

Is it possible that the communities can argue their rights within the historical articulations that surround the Rights of the Commons? I would argue, yes they have a very strong case historically, as pointed out above, an ongoing obligatory Contract of Exchange has been honoured. The gift is acknowledged and community care enables it to live and function.

Naturally, the NSW state government will attempt to clutter the debate with other legislation but I would further argue, as the ‘ordinary person’, the community are entitled to more than a menstrual cycle of time to address the above and seek remedy for all.

Perhaps this issue is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. We live with the legacy of colonial contradictions. Pre-Mabo and post Mabo…and the ongoing role of colonial land grabbers. The Earth suffers from this mentality. Time to return to the Commons and continue sharing and caring for all life and embrace the essence of the commons and a caring community.

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