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Voice of Real Australia: When culture is a crime

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75-year-old Yuin elder Kevin Mason has been charged with Fisheries offences multiple times, but he won't let that stop him practicing his culture. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

75-year-old Yuin elder Kevin Mason has been charged with Fisheries offences multiple times, but he won't let that stop him practicing his culture. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A motion was passed last week, quietly, in the New South Wales upper house. It was passed unanimously.

This motion, brought by the opposition, calls for the enactment of Section 21AA of the Fisheries Management Act.

It's a little piece of legislation that provides a cultural fishing defence against fisheries offences. But the amendment was approved in 2009. It's been almost 12 years since the government of the day was meant to proclaim it.

This motion provides no extra power that the current government doesn't already have (not to mention past governments).

For over a decade 21AA has sat on the unpublished list.

And what does that mean?

Well, it means hundreds of Aboriginal people on the South Coast of NSW have been fined and even imprisoned for practicing their culture.

First Nations people have been fishing on the South Coast, the Yuin Nation, for millennia. There's evidence of mittens dating back 20,000 years.

On this week's episode of the Voice of Real Australia podcast, I went to Salt Water country where Aboriginal people are fighting for their right to fish. They told me they feel persecuted and harassed by Fisheries officers. They're afraid to go diving.

Recent crime data collated by Oxfam found that of the jail terms handed out for Fisheries offences since 2009, 80 percent went to Aboriginal people. Since they make up just 4 percent of the South Coast population that's a huge overrepresentation.

The conflict is usually over abalone. It's a traditional bush tucker but also worth up to $170 per kilo commercially.

Cultural fishing is protected under the Commonwealth Native Title Act. It's recognised in NSW law but needs that 21AA amendment to defend it.

The South Coast people are in the middle of a Native Title claim on land from south of Sydney to near the Victorian border, up into the mountains and three nautical miles out to sea. The claim was registered without objection from the state.

Cultural fishing advocates are calling for a halt on prosecutions of Aboriginal fishermen until that local Native Title claim is determined. They say the government is just racking up a hefty compensation bill if they keep at it.

But it's not just about the money. It's about the lives ruined, the jobs lost, the community left without its main provider, about two-year-old James whose dad can't take him swimming because he's forbidden to carry goggles in his car.

Alongside the recent motion there's also been an inquiry launched looking into why 21AA failed to be enacted.

I'm very interested to see what that inquiry reveals.

Listen to the full story on the podcast, search Voice of Real Australia on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred platform.

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