Land council power struggle not over?

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

A failed court action by Maurie Ryan, Chairman of the Central Land Council, against one of its councillors and former Deputy Chairman, Michael Liddle, does not seem to have settled an apparent power struggle between them, but for the time being it’s Ryan 0, Liddle 1.

 

Magistrate David Bamber this week dismissed Mr Ryan’s application for a personal violence restraining order against Mr Liddle for want of evidence.

 

Right: Mr Liddle outside court earlier this year. 

 

A statement, “Bring it on”, which Mr Ryan alleged Mr Liddle had made to him at a CLC meeting at Ross River last year, with his right fist smacking into the palm of his left hand, could not be seen as “an unambiguous threat of violence”, said Mr Bamber.

 

A text message received by Mr Ryan that included the sentence “Meet me out the back” could “in certain parlance” be construed as threatening, but Mr Liddle denied having sent it and it was only assumed by Mr Ryan to have come from him. “An assumption is not evidence,” said Mr Bamber.

 

Mr Ryan, unrepresented and ill-prepared for the kind of processes required in the Magistrates Court, at the start of the hearing asked for an adjournment until after next week’s meeting of the land council at Lajamanu.

 

“People want to be judged under their own law,” he said, in an apparent signal that he would be bringing up matters regarding Mr Liddle at the meeting. He said that “two laws” were relevant here – obviously a reference to the continued existence of Aboriginal law outside of Australian law.

 

He said he had tried to contact people about “what had happened to them in the past” – presumably with regard to Mr Liddle – and “some wish to do it under their own law”. He mentioned Rosalie Kunoth-Monks as one person he had hoped to have appear in court. (At the last Federal election Mrs Kunoth-Monks ran in Lingiari for the Australia First Nations Political Party founded by Mr Ryan. She is not on the land council but her daughter Ngarla is the executive member for the Eastern Sandover region.)

 

Whatever Mr Ryan does at the meeting, Mr Liddle can be expected to give as good as he gets. In court he was represented by former CLC heavy-hitter, past senior lawyer with the organization, David Avery. Of course, Mr Avery had it all over Mr Ryan as far as court processes go and he threw in his best hectoring voice.

 

Mr Ryan had provided a very vague account of the context for Mr Liddle’s “Bring it on” statement. We learned a lot more from Mr Avery. Their conversation took place after the land council meeting was attended by members of the Bray family – “not members of the land council” – who made “a number of disparaging remarks directed towards Mr Liddle”.

 

“They did and vice versa,” said Mr Ryan.

 

(The background to this is that the Brays claim that recognition of their native title has been blocked by, among others, Mr Liddle.)

 

Mr Avery said Mr Liddle approached Mr Ryan asking whether he had had anything to do with the Brays attending the CLC meeting. Mr Ryan denied this. Mr Avery said Mr Ryan had signed fuel vouchers for them to attend.

 

That was only after they had shown up, said Mr Ryan.

 

Mr Avery suggested that Mr Ryan had had photocopies made of letters from the Brays for distribution to the meeting.

 

Mr Ryan denied that. But as chairman, doesn’t he set the agenda, Mr Avery asked.

 

Left: Mr Ryan with supporters Marie Elena Ellis and Frank Ansell after the January mention of his application.

 

“I’m supposed to but what happens is that the administration sets the agenda and has been doing so since your time,” countered Mr Ryan.

 

With this, Mr Avery moved on to the text message, asking Mr Ryan to produce a copy of it.

 

Agonising minutes went by while Mr Ryan searched for it in his phone. Mr Bamber, acknowledging the difficulty of Mr Ryan being unrepresented and doing his best to give him a fair hearing, stood the matter down while Mr Ryan went next door to the police station and got a photocopy of the message that had been made when he took the matter to Superintendent Don Fry.

 

There was to-ing and fro-ing about the date on which the text was sent and the mobile phone it was sent from – apparently not Mr Liddle’s.

 

Mr Avery suggested that no text had ever come from Mr Liddle but he had made two phone calls to Mr Ryan. One was to commend him after he had given an interview on the ABC about the issue of leasing on Aboriginal land; the other, on November 19 last year, was of a different character.

 

It again related to the Brays attending the meeting at Ross River. Mr Liddle had said, in words to the effect: “What’s this bullshit about you getting the Brays come to land council and have a go at me?”

 

According to Mr Avery, Mr Ryan had countered with: “What’s this about you encouraging a vote of no confidence in me?”

 

Mr Avery said Mr Liddle came back with: “Yes, it’s true and I’ll be doing it. It’s when, not if it happens.”

 

To this Mr Ryan replied, words to the effect: “Look out, I’m going to fix you up with a vote of no confidence.”

 

Mr Ryan said he couldn’t recall the conversation.

 

Mr Avery’s decibel level increased and to his credit Mr Ryan’s did not, but he did try to have a go, asking Mr Avery whether in representing Mr Liddle he had a conflict of interest, as a former senior lawyer with the land council and still doing work for it as a consultant.

 

“You can’t ask me questions,” retorted Mr Avery.

 

Mr Bamber tried to get the hearing back on track: what had happened to cause Mr Ryan to infer that the text had come from Mr Liddle?

 

Nothing very clear emerged about this from Mr Ryan; he fell back of feeling stressed, being on medication, sleeping badly, and seemingly unrelated incidents with Mr Liddle and assumptions about what he was “thinking”. He said he had been going to “chuck it in” but, having put his hand up to be a spokesperson for the CLC, he was sticking with it.

 

Mr Avery said Mr Ryan had no reason to expect anything from Mr Liddle except his ongoing participation in the CLC, which Mr Ryan doesn’t like because he criticises him.

 

Mr Ryan said Mr Liddle brings up the same things “over and over”, when all he, Mr Ryan, wants to do is “get on with the job”.

 

After the hearing, the Alice Springs News Online asked Mr Liddle whether he would bring a motion of no confidence in Mr Ryan at next week’s meeting in Lajamanu. Mr Liddle said he didn’t want to comment.

 

We will have to wait and see.

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