Labor pledges to return Goat Island to Aboriginal people of NSW

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Originally published: The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2015

By Kirsty Needham

Opposition Leader Luke Foley has pledged to return Goat Island to the Aboriginal people of NSW if elected, in recognition of the "fierce connection" that Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo had to the Sydney Harbour island.

Public access would continue, under the Labor policy to be outlined on Sunday, but the NSW Land Council would be encouraged to develop a plan of management and explore tourism, education and economic opportunities.

"The significance of Goat Island is that it is the only place in early colonial Sydney, following white settlement, that was recorded as belonging to a particular family – Bennelong's family," Mr Foley said.

"One the eve of January 26, this policy commitment signals my determination to further true reconciliation between the indigenous and non-indigenous people of the state."

Mr Foley said returning the island would be an act of restitution.

The policy has been developed in consultation with the NSW Land Council and the Tribal Warrior Association, which offers maritime training to disadvantaged Aboriginal youth and operates a harbour cruise business, he said.

The ship repair businesses using the island, which is 600 metres north-west of Balmain and the second largest island on Sydney Harbour, would continue to operate there.

Goat Island has been owned by the NSW government since 1908. It was first used by Europeans as a sandstone quarry, then a gunpowder storage facility for the Imperial infantry. It has been managed by National Parks and Wildlife Services since 1993, and become part of Sydney Harbour National Park, excluding the slipways, wharves and ship repair buildings.

Labor says the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act allows the NSW government to transfer ownership of Crown land, by an act of parliament, to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

Mr Foley said the island, called Me-mel, was part of the traditional lands of the Wangal people when the First Fleet arrived in 1788.

The journal of the secretary of the Colony, David Collins, records the island was owned by Bennelong and his family.

The diary reads: "Strange as it may appear, they have also their real estates. Bennillong, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was his own property; that it was his father's ... To this little spot he appeared much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo feasting and enjoying themselves on it."

The island has significant potential as a community asset for heritage and tourism, the Labor policy states.

The NSW government's current plan of management for the island notes that it is rare for a place to have a documented association with a prominent Aboriginal person in Sydney.

Originally published as: Labor pledges to return Goat Island to Aboriginal people of NSW