Sydney Harbour Island to Be Returned to Traditional Owners

Sydney Harbour Island to Be Returned to Traditional Owners
Kooma Aborigines (L to R) Lez Beckett, Ronnie Guivarra and Les Daniel dance for the first time in two centuries on Goat Island, or Mel-Mel in Sydney Harbour on April 18, 2010. (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)
Steve Milne

The New South Wales (NSW) government has commenced the first step towards returning Sydney Harbour’s Me-Mel (Goat Island) to its Indigenous traditional custodians through a $43 million (US$30 million) commitment to restore the island’s infrastructure.

This comes as one of the first announcements of the NSW Budget 2022-23, with Premier Dominic Perrottet saying he made the handover a personal priority.

“Returning Me-Mel to the Aboriginal community is the right thing to do, and it helps deliver on my commitment of improving outcomes and opportunities for Aboriginal people across all parts of government,” Perrottet said in a release on Sunday.

“A big part of my commitment is ensuring the island is remediated before it’s transferred to the Aboriginal community.”

Listed on the NSW State Heritage Register, Me-Mel, which means “eye of the Rainbow Serpent” in a local Aboriginal dialect, has a diverse range of significant Aboriginal, historical, and natural heritage values, including more than 30 buildings and structures dating from the 183os to the 1960s.

According to NSW treasurer Matt Kean, the funding will be put towards maintenance and safety work to ensure that the island can be safely enjoyed by future generations.

“This funding over four years will go towards work such as repairing seawalls and buildings, improving the wharf and access, upgrading services such as water and sewers, and removing contaminants like asbestos,” he said.

A Transfer Committee made up of Aboriginal community and government agency representatives will be set up to make recommendations for the transfer to Aboriginal ownership, as well as determine how the island is managed and used in the furture, said Ben Franklin, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

“Me-Mel holds great significance to Aboriginal people, including in the creation story Boora Birra, where the great eel spirit created the water courses known today as Sydney Harbour,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yvonne Weldon, deputy chair of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, which will support the committee, said acknowledging and respecting all histories so they can be appreciated by everyone, will help the nation’s healing process.

“Me-Mel is a place where we can go to be within our culture, pass culture on to our younger generations and share with other people,” she said.

“Me-Mel is an opportunity for truth telling, and it’s about recognising the past and unlocking the future.”

The island will remain under the management of the National Parks and Wildlife Service until the transfer is finalised.

Steve is an Australian reporter based in Sydney covering sport, the arts, and politics. He is an experienced English teacher, qualified nutritionist, sports enthusiast, and amateur musician. Contact him at [email protected].
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