Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has pledged during a meeting with Indian mining magnate Gautam Adani to "fix" Native Title laws, in a move that has left traditional owners feeling vulnerable.
The PM met overnight with Adani, the head of the eponymously titled mining company that's looking to build Australia's largest coal mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin, during his three day visit to India.
The future of Australia's Native Title laws has been in doubt since a Federal Court ruling earlier this year found that any decision to relinquish a Native Title claim must have the support of all traditional owners, not just a majority.
The traditional owners in the Galilee Basin, the Wangan and Jagalingou people, are fiercely divided over the mine, with a slim majority voting in favour of Adani late last year. That decision is currently the subject of a court challenge, with the mine's opponents claiming Adani stacked the deck in its own favour.
It is understood Adani raised the Native Title issue in his meeting with Turnbull as a significant hurdle to building the mine, and that Turnbull assured him that the issue would be "fixed".
Acting prime minister Barnaby Joyce has also given the mine his strong backing, saying the government wants to "get this thing moving".
"We’re gonna get about 3000 directly employed, [and] about 10,000 people indirectly employed [as a result of the project]," he told the ABC on Tuesday morning. "We’re going to have the capacity to open up a new coal precinct in the Galilee Basin."
Adani is expected to announce that it plans to proceed with the mine later this month, but is also asking the Australian government for a $900 million loan to make the project viable.
The loan would be used to build a rail link between the mine and the Point Abbot coal terminal (also known as Adani Abbot Point Terminal), allowing the coal to be shipped to India to produce electricity for up to 100 million people.
Scientists and activists have slammed the mine, saying its construction will be the final nail in the coffin of the Great Barrier Reef.
Native Title lawyer Colin Hardie, who represents some of the Wangan and Jagalingou in their fight against Adani, said traditional owners are feeling vulnerable.
"They feel like everybody – all the big powers – are ganging up against them," he told BuzzFeed News. "They’ve had the state government against them, now the federal government, they’ve got this huge multinational mining company against them."
Hardie accused the government of lying about its intentions on Native Title laws by saying any changes would be about making the system run more smoothly, not getting the Adani mine off the ground.
"I find that extraordinary that the prime minister would intervene at this level," Hardie said. "All along they’ve been saying that the court decision has created a problem for the Native Title system as a whole, and then when it gets down to tin tacks, it’s the prime minister saying, ‘It’s not really about the system, it’s really about whether you can have this large coal mine in central Queensland'.
"I’ve got to say this for the prime minister, at least he’s being honest at long last. It would have been a lot better if the government had come out at the start and said, 'Look, this isn’t a question of the system, we’re just using this as an excuse. It’s really about the Adani mine'."