Contested possession

By Sophie Suelzle, MLS Digital Communications Officer

A passion for working with Aboriginal communities drives former Richmond footballer and Melbourne Law School alumnus Sean Bowden.

Sean Bowden
Sean Bowden speaking at Garma. Image credit: supplied.

Sean Bowden (LLB(Hons) ’95) appears relaxed for someone preparing to sue the Commonwealth Government.

During this year’s Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, Aboriginal leader Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM announced plans to lodge a Native Title compensation claim against the Commonwealth for mining Aboriginal land on the Gove Peninsula.
Having represented Dr Yunupingu in prior negotiations with Rio Tinto regarding the renewal of the Gove Bauxite Mine and the development of the Gulkula Bauxite Mine, a new 100 per cent Yolngu-owned mine, Bowden is looking forward to the challenge.

“Law is a relentless business,” he says. “It doesn’t let up, and if you want to practise it at a high level you have to be constantly alert, focused and ready to work. If you’re not doing something that you enjoy or are getting satisfaction out of, then you won’t last.

“Look for something that has meaning to you and commit to it”.
When Bowden was 13, his family moved to Central Australia to live in an Aboriginal community. It was here he first experienced traditional Aboriginal culture and saw the detrimental effects of Western society on Aboriginal people. This left a deep and lasting impression on him.

It is non-Aboriginal people who have created the current social, economic and political environment and the challenges facing many rural Aboriginal communities. We made it, we run the system, we’re responsible and we have to own the problem. And part of that is making the conscious decision to stand back and let Aboriginal people fix it.

After finishing high school, Bowden moved to Victoria to pursue his two loves: playing football and law. He admits that it was difficult to do justice to both. “I played in six games for Richmond Football Club. But I had some injury troubles and Richmond put me off the list at the end of 1991. I think my law degree thrived once Richmond terminated my services,” he chuckles. “Up until that point I had failed every second subject!”

It was at Melbourne Law School he met his greatest love, his wife Denise. Hailing from the NT herself, and feeling homesick, they decided to move to Alice Springs after graduation, “much to the gasps and sighs of our friends in Melbourne”. It was in Alice that Bowden met the “two most important people” in his professional life – Aboriginal activists Charles Perkins AO and Leigh Bruce ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth. Through them, he learned about mining negotiations and Native Title, areas that continue to be a driving force in his legal career.

“Those two men gave me access to the type of work I wanted to do – to assist Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal landowners, in being part of the modern world and using their assets to better the lives of themselves, their families and their communities,” he says.

Now based in Darwin, Bowden plays an active role advocating for and representing Aboriginal people and Traditional Owners. As well as acting for Dr Yunupingu and his clan, he is currently working with the Jawoyn people who are in negotiations with the Mt Todd Mine.

He also works closely with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, of which Denise is CEO. Among many projects, the foundation organises and hosts the annual Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, which sees 2500 political and business leaders attend the festival’s Key Forum each year. Alongside Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Professor Marcia Langton, the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, Bowden helps organise the Key Forum, facilitating discussion on issues such as Indigenous education and achieving constitutional recognition.

The relationship between the University of Melbourne and the Yothu Yindi Foundation was strengthened further this year with the launch of the Global Indigenous Knowledge Institute. “The University of Melbourne’s partnership with the Yothu Yindi Foundation in launching this institute is really, really important and something that we really value,” Bowden says.

“We need to recognise Aboriginal people’s inherent rights as First Australians, whether those rights are by way of Native Title or by language or culture or otherwise, and we need to empower Aboriginal people and traditional landowners in finding economic pathways to benefit themselves and their communities.”

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 22, November 2019