On 17 August 2006, the Land Right Legislation Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006 was passed into law. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth getting your head around because it’s going to have a big impact on the lives of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory.
It’s an Amendment of a pretty important Act passed in 1976, which was the first law that let Indigenous people claim possession over land—a big moment in reconciliation. It meant that most land that was already part of Aboriginal reserves, plus other land that wasn’t owned or being used by other people, was given to Indigenous communities. The land was administered by newly formed Land Councils, and managed communally on behalf of all Aboriginal people.
The 2006 Amendment is going to shake this up quite a bit. It’s much more than a tweak of the 1976 Bill.
What do the federal government want?
The federal government wants to encourage economic development. It believes that at the moment, most remote communities in the Territory have a limited economic future. For example, right now, most jobs are funded by the government. Whilst some commentators have called for some of these communities to be abandoned, the government doesn’t want to do anything quite so drastic. But it does want the status quo to change, and thinks that emphasising the potential of the land is the best way.
At present, townships in the Territory operate differently to other land in Australia. All the land is owned communally through the local Land Council. People rent properties from the Council. Under the changes outlined in the law, the land will move into private ownership, like in every other Australian town.
The government hopes that two things will come from this strategy. First, it thinks it will make it easier for locals to start their own businesses. There aren’t as many conditions on using privately-owned land as there are on land rented from the Land Council. When there are fewer regulations, business people can focus on doing their thing—business.
Second, home ownership is being encouraged. At the moment most households in these remote communities rent. But the government argues that a family owning their own home gives people a foundation to build a life on. To promote this they will subsidise low interest loans so families can take out 99 year leases.
Why don’t others want this?
Not everybody thinks the new law is that crash hot. For example, Professor Jon Altman of ANU thinks it’s unlikely that banks will give loans to people with low income to buy property in remote communities with no real estate market. With average incomes in remote NT communities of $13,500 a year—far below the national average—it will be tough for many households to keep up with mortgage repayments, even with low interest.
The new law makes it possible for land to be bought by people who don’t live in the community. Before, non-Indigenous people couldn’t buy properties from the Land Council. It’s difficult to guess what the effects of this will be. Will ‘outsiders’ come in, buy land, and start businesses which generate new jobs for locals? Or will they come in, drive up land prices but not generate any positive side effects?
Some critics of the new law argue that communities are being ‘bullied’ into signing new land agreements. For example, the federal government has agreed to fund 50 new homes in Galiwin’ku, in north-east Arnhem Land, if the community agrees to a 99 year lease and full school attendance campaign. Few would disagree that new funding for homes isn’t a good thing. In Galiwin’ku there is a big shortage of decent housing. But debate gets a little more heated on the larger issue—should this funding depend on whether the community conforms to the new policy? Labor and the Democrats have asked the big question: if there are towns that don’t have enough houses to shelter all of the people living in them, shouldn’t the government provide for them either way?
Is there agreement on anything?
Not everything about the new law is controversial. One part that seems agreeable to all sides is changes to mining negotiations. Both Indigenous communities and mining companies are pleased, plus Labor. The changes will straighten out some bumps in the negotiation process, making it much quicker for agreements on royalties to be reached. Communities will get paid sooner and new mines will get into production with fewer headaches.
At the moment, these new arrangements are just for the Northern Territory. The federal government is responsible for making decisions about all land rights in the NT. The arrangement will be first rolled out in the main town of the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin.
But don’t expect these arrangements to be kept to the Territory. The Coalition wants this to spread to every state. So keep your eyes open…
How do I know this?
ABC Online 2006, New Aboriginal Land Deal for Galiwin'ku: Brough, June 22, http://www.abc.net.au/message/news/stories/s1670619.htm
Law Council of Australia, Submission—Inquiry into Land Right Legislation Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006, http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/a...
Parliament of Australia, Inquiry into Land Right Legislation Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006, http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/a...
Parliament of Australia 2006, Senate Hansard, August 9, http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/Repository/Cha...
Rothwell, N 2006, ‘Days of Promise in Tiwi Plan’, The Australian, August 19-20, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867...
Wikipedia Free Enclyclopedia, Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Territory_Le...