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Indigenous land rights in the Northern Territory

Find out about changes to Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.

Submitted 9/6/2006 By nickcox Views 78100 Comments 6 Updated 11/25/2006

Big changes

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.

What’s next?

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,

Law Council of Australia, Submission—Inquiry into Land Right Legislation Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006,

Parliament of Australia, Inquiry into Land Right Legislation Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006,

Parliament of Australia 2006, Senate Hansard, August 9,

Rothwell, N 2006, ‘Days of Promise in Tiwi Plan’, The Australian, August 19-20,,20867...

Wikipedia Free Enclyclopedia, Northern Territory Legislative Assembly,

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Shelleyw 01-Nov-2007

Listen to this recent story about Indigenous Policy Shift.

John Howard recently announced he would, if re-elected, hold a referendum as to whether we should add a statement of reconciliation to our constitution. It's a backflip of more than a decade of policy that hasn't recognised reconciliation through symbolism. The PM has admitted he's struggled with Aboriginal Policy over the years, but he's also reassured us he won't being saying sorry. The proposal to amend the constitution has been widely met with a mixed reaction ...some have welcommed the change but others are sceptical saying it's nothing but a vote buyer. Labor has said they'll give support to the proposal. But are these just words? Or does Howard's announcement mean something more?



Sidney Blitner-Watts 22-Aug-2007

Why did the federal government have to abolish the permit system in order to protect Aboriginal children. The Aboriginal Land Rights (1976) Act was originally amended to provide Aboriginal people with economic independence. However, now it appears that it was amended to abolish a permit system to allow access that had already existed.

There appears to be a long-term strategy based on destroying the collective self-esteem and confidence of Aboriginal people. This is being achieved with a media- propagated frenzy that is focused on defaming the character of Aboriginal people.

Is the television now the credible big brother who dictates our every day lives. Are we now so bound to conforming, as consumers, income receivers and parents of children. Is our fear that great that we refuse to step outside our comfort zone and stand up for something we believe.

Indigenous Land Rights in the Northern Territory is a test of the power, the unity and the intelligence of all Australians. We are such clever people, but we are afflicted with a disease called “apathy” and yet there is so much to do.

Sidney (Ngarritj) Watts



Sidney Blitner-Watts 29-Jun-2007

The Australian Federal Government has amended the Land Rights Act (1976) - WHY? They say it is to allow Aboriginal people economic independence, however, the real reason is far more sinister. You must remember that the Australian Federal Government has a long-term goal of ensuring Australia has Nuclear-Based Power Sources and is a recognised "storer" of Nuclear Waste.

The easiest way to do this is to destroy the things that are standing in their way: and they are the Aboriginal peoples of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and the Land Rights Act (1976). Once you allow low socio-economic people who are impoverished to sale, lease or mortgage their land - guess what, they will sell it to the highest bidder, they will lease it to mining companies and they will attempt to mortgage their land for cash. We are the majority land-holders and the government is currently using the age old art of "divide and conquer" in order to pit land owners against each other.

One of the main issues is the continued degradation of tribal customary law and the "blurring" of tribal land ownership and management. The custodians who cared and belonged to the land are now land-owners who posses her use her natural resources for economic gain.

Tribal Law is really, really specific and it states that we must care for our earth, we must protect her and we must teach our children their responsibility to ensure she is protected – AT ALL COSTS.

So what happens to Tribal Customary Law? Well I am Yitija and I am Ngarritj and it is my responsibility to remind Arnhem Land Aboriginal people that we cannot sell, we cannot lease and we cannot mortgage - because that would be a change in roles and we would then believe that we own earth and once we believe that - what is the point of being an Aboriginal person.

Sidney Watts (Ngarritj)



nickcox 15-Sep-2006

thanks for your comments boys...I'm glad you've had a think about this kleo.

1. To put this diplomatically - the disadvantage of Indigenous Australians is the most significant issue facing Australian society (climate change too)
Yet, I think we all need to shift the debate.
Of course, that is easier said than done, especially for someone who isn't Aboriginal. It's ridiculous and trite to remark that people should 'move on'. It's a touch more complex.
Still, we all really need to shift the debate elsewhere. That guilt-trip approach hasn't had a great record, so we should be trying to do something else.
Instead, the focus should just be that a distinct segment of our society is going through severe pressure. Both economic and cultural. I think that touch a damn lot more Australians if we take out the blame, the colonialism etc.

2. Good distinction mate. After having a real good think about this Amendment, I concluded it was actually half decent. I think the Coalition is actually providing this choice, because this opportunities simply weren't there before hand. The most affected communities are, to put it crudely, whoop whoop. It seems pretty clear to me that there's seriously few chances for remote communities to diversify their economies apart from tourism.
Whatever the dangers of opening up the most vulnerable Australians to the free market, we can both agree that things need to change. It'll be interesting to watch either way..

3. too right. decided not to talk about this in the Bill as I didn't want to whinge about the Government non-stop, whatever there failings. I want to educate about what the actually Bill does and what it will do.
Now I've got a was pretty ordinary of the Government.

4. The thing that worries me most about the Bill. I find it abysmal. As I say, these are the most vulnerable, and disadvantaged people in the country.
See the bit where I talked about the houses in Galiwin’ku. At the moment, most houses have 10-15 people in them. They aren't mansions; there two or three bedrooms places. If that was in the suburbs of Melbourne, would that be happening??



Kev - Lives - Here 13-Sep-2006

Agree with Trappleton - good on you Nick for keeping the tone neutral too.

Just a quick comment:

1. Anyone else think its ironic that Indigenous peoples have to rent or buy homes on land that was stolen from them in the first place?

2. Issues of economic development are important, but what is more important is that Indigenous people and communities will have a choice to pursue economic development. We have to remember that economic development is not welcomed by all communities, and those communities who wish to remain as they are should not be bullied otherwise.

3. The biggest issue with the new laws is that many traditional owners were not consulted and had not been for many years (paragraph 1.29-1.31 of the Senate Committe's Report) and in fact the time allowed for public scrutiny and submission was totally inadequate (paragraph 1.3 of the Senate Committee's Report). I think that Indigenous persons and communities should be the first people consulted about laws that affect them.

4. Another big concern was that this bill allowed the government to tie funding with doing what the government wanted, funding on services and things that should have been provided anyway. Funding should not be tied to whether someone agrees to a 99 year lease. It should be tied to whether a community needs the funding or not.

Why not split up the bill so that the parts everyone agrees on can be made law, while the parts everyone wants to think about can be discussed and made better? (As suggested in paragraph 1.32 of the Senate Committee's Report).