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Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976

 Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976

- C2012C00612  - Act No. 191 of 1976 as amended, taking into account amendments up to Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2012 ... - please click here

Commonwealth Consolidated Acts - please click here

Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Act 2006- C2007C00447: please click here or here
Commonwealth of Australia Explanatory Memoranda: please click here

Info about the Aboriginal Land Rights Act:

The Land Rights Act + changes made simple (pdf): please click here

Background information in German (pdf): please click here



In 1963, provoked by a unilateral government decision to excise a part of their land for a bauxite mine, Yolngu people at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land sent a petition to the House of Representatives  demanding that their land rights be respected.
The bark petition provoked a government inquiry and later the Yolngu launched litigation, but the mine went ahead and today the Yolngu are still fighting to be a party to the agreement between government and the multinational company extracting the bauxite.

… In 1966, Vincent Lingiari initiated a workers’ strike to protest against the poor conditions on Wave Hill Cattle Station and a claim for their traditional lands. The Gurindji campaign went on for nine years until Prime Minister Whitlam’s visit [in 1975] …

1967 Referendum: By the largest majority ever recorded, 91 per cent of Australians voted ‘Yes’ to amend the constitution to give the Federal Government the constitutional power to make special laws on Aboriginal affairs which could over-rule any state legislation.

… Whitlam argued in his 1972 election campaign speech: "All of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in the nation."
On taking office, Whitlam created a department of Aboriginal affairs and appointed the first full-time federal minister for indigenous affairs, who was advised by the National Aboriginal Consultative Council, an elected body set up to give indigenous people a say in the policies affecting them. …

… In February 1973 the Government appointed the Commission on Aboriginal Land Rights to inquire into means whereby Aboriginal people might be given freehold title to their traditional lands. In the Commission's second and final report, it recommended the creation of an Aboriginal Land Commission for the Northern Territory which would prepare a register of traditional claims to pastoral lease lands, and investigate and make recommendations concerning Aboriginal claims to pastoral lands and Crown lands.

In February 1973 he appointed Mr Justice Woodward to inquire into appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.

1973 - 1974
…the Woodward royal commission, … operated in 1973 and 1974 …upon which the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act is heavily based.

In April 1974 Woodward presented his second and final report.

Justice Woodward reported that the aims of land rights were:

In 1975, Gough Whitlam famously arrived in Gurindji country with the leasehold title and symbolically poured soil into Vincent Lingiari's hands.
It marked the beginning of the modern land rights movement, and the end of a long, hard campaign by the Gurindji, who walked off Lord Vestey’s cattle station in 1966 and went on strike for equal pay and the return of their land.

16 August 1975
In Gurindji country Gough Whitlam proclaimed: “Finally, to give back to you formally in Aboriginal and Australian law ownership of this land of your fathers. Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands this piece of the earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.” …
This event was a defining moment, which led to the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, generating momentum for the broader Aboriginal land rights movement.

An Aboriginal Land Rights Bill was drafted but not put into effect before the Whitlam Government lost office in 1975.

An Aboriginal Land Rights Bill was drafted but not put into effect before the Whitlam Government lost office in 1975. The Government of Malcolm Fraser supported the issue and in May 1976 Ian Viner, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, sent a submission to Cabinet recommending the implementation of land rights legislation.11 Cabinet approved the recommendation on 25 May 1976, and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill was introduced into Parliament. Although there was strong opposition from the pastoral lobby, the legislation passed in 1976. It provided for Aboriginal land trusts to have inalienable freehold title to traditional land on Northern Territory Aboriginal reserves, and other vacant Crown land. It also provided for a series of Councils to administer the land, and for the payment of royalties for the privilege to mine on Aboriginal lands. …
The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory was appointed by Federal Parliament in December 1976 …

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act is the first national land rights legislation. Initially prepared by the Whitlam Labor government, it is passed with minor modifications by the Fraser Liberal/National Party government. The Act recognises 'traditional Aboriginal owners' for the first time in Australian law and it provides for 'the granting of Traditional Aboriginal Land in the Northern Territory for the benefit of Aboriginals, and for other purposes'. Although the Act has been amended more than 15 times since 1976 it remains substantially the same as passed in 1976.  …

4 June 1976
Viner’s original reading of the Act: Hansard
Excerpts from the Second Reading Speech on June 4, 1976 by Ian Viner, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill:
“This Bill will give traditional Aborigines inalienable freehold title to land on reserves in the Northern Territory and provide machinery for them to obtain title to traditional land outside reserves. The coalition Parties’ policy on Aboriginal affairs clearly acknowledges that affinity with the land is fundamental to Aborigines’ sense of identity and recognises the right of Aborigines to obtain title to lands located within the reserves in the Northern Territory. The Bill gives effect to that policy and, further, will provide Aborigines with the opportunity to claim and receive title to traditional Aboriginal land outside reserves. The Government believes that this Bill will allow and encourage Aborigines in the Northern Territory to give full expression to the affinity with land that characterised their traditional society and gave a unique quality to their life.
“ ... the creation of ... Land Trusts will achieve the primary objective of any Land Trust scheme which is the vesting, under Australian law, of rights corresponding with traditional Aboriginal rights, without risk that the rights conferred are not sufficient to cover traditional Aboriginal rights. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this last mentioned aspect of land rights. It is a fundamental change in social thinking in Australia to recognise that within our community there are some people, the Aborigines, who live by a unique and distinct system of customary law. …
This bill is a major step forward for Aborigines in the Northern Territory not only for this generation but also for future generations who will benefit from it. They will have a land base that will be preserved in perpetuity. The introduction of legislation to grant land rights in the Northern Territory is an essential, progressive measure in the social and political history of Australia.”
Land Rights Act must not go to the Territory: The original policy architect

Aboriginal land rights were first enshrined in commonwealth law in 1976
... about 50 per cent of the Northern Terri¬tory’s landmass and 80 per cent of its coastline have been handed back to traditional owners…

In March 1977 the Aboriginal Lands and Sacred Sites Bill was tabled in the Assembly …
Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

As a result of an amendment to the Aboriginal Land Rights act by the Hawke Government, no more land claims could be lodged after June 30 1997. However some claims before then are still outstanding.

Former Aboriginal Affairs minister, Ian Viner QC, discusses his opposition to the Reeves Report into the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. …
The real point about the recommendations of the Reeves Report is that it would really destroy traditional ownership of the traditional owners …
they would recommend is free access to understand exploration. Now they talk about low level exploration and so on, but anybody who know anything about mining operations so-called low level exploration for minerals can do a lot of damage to countru sp they would recommend to give miners, the right to just walk in and have a look at the country without the consent of the traditional owners and the people themselves. Quite frankly I can't find very much good about the Reeves Report and I've recommened to the Commonwealth Parlimentary Committee that they just reject it out of hand. …

… The 2006 law amended the Land Rights Act to make it possible for Land Councils to hand over some of their main functions to other groups of residents or traditional owners who applied for them.
These functions included the granting of township leasies and other leases and permission to mine on Aboriginal land. But up until this year, no such groups have applied. …

In 2006, just before the Intervention the Commonwealth Government added another section to the Land Rights Act, called 19A. 19A allows the Government to lease whole townships on Aboriginal Land.
Land Rights News  - Northern Edition – October 2014 -

Most Aboriginal communities "prescribed" under the NT Intervention are situated on Aboriginal Land, won back under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976. The ALRA grants private freehold title, held collectively by traditional Aboriginal owners.
Prior to the Intervention, under the law of fixtures, most housing stock and administrative and other building constructed on Aboriginal land were owned and controlled by traditional Aboriginal owners.
… in 2006, the Howard government passed amendments to ALRA, creating a new category of lease called a "township lease" (Section 19A). The primary function of a "township lease" is to centralise all power over decision making on township land in the hands of the government.
… In 2006, the government began pushing NT communities with large populations to township leases for 99 years - threatening to with hold funding for housing, health and other services.

Following consistent failure to secure these leases, the Commonwealth compulsorily acquired all Aboriginal township land through the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, for a period of five years. This required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
The Howard government initially justified compulsory leases as necessary to allow for the quick construction of housing. But it soon became clear that no new housing would be built on Aboriginal land until 40-99 year leases were signed.

...In 2008, the Australian Government released a two volume report called Making Land
Work, in an attempt to better understand the complex issues affecting customary land
reform in the Pacific. The report drew on the input of around 80 experts and practitioners
in land reform and development. ...
During the same period in which this report was prepared, the Australian Government
began its involvement in Aboriginal land reform in the Northern Territory. It did not
commission a detailed report, nor call on the advice of experts. It did not establish a
steering group, it did not even prepare or publish a land reform policy. It simply
implemented a series of reforms as if the task were self-evident: starting with township
leasing, followed soon after by five-year leases, then new rules in relation to housing,
and finally the application of so-called ‘secure tenure’ policies more broadly.
The result has been an ad hoc, confused, expensive and at times contradictory
approach to the implementation of land reform. On the whole, the outcome of these
reforms has been very poor. ...,d.dGc

… In 2012, the compulsory five year leases will expire. Communities are being pressured to sign long-term township leases before this time, though most have refused. The government has kept open the possibility of extending punitive Intervention powers beyond 2012, which could include further compulsory land acquisition….

THE Northern and Central Land Councils have welcomed the further protection of traditional owners’ rights following the disallowance by the Senate of regulations made under s28A of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. …
Mr Morrison said the proposals were problematic on a number of fronts, including handing over disproportionate powers to the Minister over the exercise of land council functions.
“There is a real risk to Traditional Owners here – the proposal to invest powers in corporations which may be unstable or unaccountable; those powers would end up in the hands of an administrator if the corporation failed,” Mr Morrison said. …

The Australian Senate has rejected proposed new rules to make it easier for new Aboriginal corporations to be set up on Aboriginal Land.
Land Councils believe the regulations proposed by the Federal government would have given the government more power over Aboriginal land and created confusion and uncertainty for companies seeking to use the land….

The Government wants First Nations People's country for 99 years. In exchange it will gives them an upfront loan from ABA money.
If Traditional Owners sign any s19A lease it means:
-    Government officials keep full control of First Nations People's land and how it’s developed for the next 99 years
-    The Executive Director of Township Leasing decides who can lease First Nations People's land and for what purpose
-    Government officials keep some of the Traditional Owners’ rent money to pay back the upfront loan to ABA and also money for running the Office of Township Leasing and wages for public servants working in that office.
Government officials talk to Traditional Owners but Government officials have the final say about First Nations People's land and how it’s developed in the future for 99 years and might be another 99 years.
... poster produced by the Northern Land Council to educate communities on Aboriginal-owned land about implications of the Commonweahlth’s push to secure 99-year township leases, under section 19A of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
Land Rights News  - Northern Edition – October 2014 -

1 August 2014:
“Creating Parity – the Forrest Review” (review of First Nations People’s training and employment programs)
Final chapter, “Empowering people in remote communities to end the disparity themselves” supports the Commonwealth’s plans for 99-year leases over Aboriginal communities (under section 19A of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act) and its plans to devolve the powers of land councils in the Northern Territory (under section 28A).

The Forrest Review recommendations make it plain that the objective of Commonwealth land tenure reform policies in the Northern Territory should be to smash traditional ownership by making Aboriginal land “tradeable and fungible” as it says in Chapter 8. History tells us that land grabbers will quickly move in and Aboriginal land will be traded away forever and Aboriginal people left on the fringe once again.

The CLC has accused Andrew Forrest of not doing his homework and parroting government ideology about Aboriginal land ownership.
His recommendation to allow individual ownership of Aboriginal land ignores the evidence and the significant progress already achieved, said the CLC. …
Mr Forrest overlooked these major land tenure reforms of the last five years because they rival the government’s preferred approach to lease whole communities. Traditional owners in the CLC region have so far rejected the 99 year leases. They believe this “township leasing” is unnecessary and allows the government to control their decision making on Aboriginal land.

… The evidence shows a township lease is not required to facilitate economic development (including home ownership) on Aboriginal land. The NLC points to the hundreds of examples of original Section 19 (of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976) processes being successfully utilised by Traditional Owners working with Land Councils to secure existing and future development in Aboriginal communities. …
… neither the report by Mr Forrest or any other commentator suggest a viable model aside from Township leasing (wherein Traditional Owners legally lose all formal decision making capacity for 99 years) that empower Aboriginal people and fast-track economic development in communities. …

… Uninspiring catchphrases such as “Creating Parity” and “Developing the North” cannot become a reality without the participation of Aboriginal people. The economic wealth of the Territory depends on Aboriginal participation, including that of Aboriginal lands. That responsibility is not one that we will give up lightly under pressure from the commonwealth, the Territory or vested interests. …

The Federal Government wants to encourage more development in Northern Australia, including projects on Aboriginal land. …
For a start, it says the Government needs to understand that the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) should not be changed in order to increase development.
In a submission to the inquiry, the CLC says the ALRA already allows for businesses to lease Aboriginal land … despite claims in the media that the Land Rights Act is a barrier to development. …

Submissions for the Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia

4 September 2014:
“Pivot North”
(final report by the Federal Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Northern Development in Australia)
The report identifies land tenure (Aboriginal Land Rights NT and Native Title Acts) as an impediment to development in the North

… Second, the Report identifies land rights and native title as impediments to developments, acknowledging that the simplifications of land tenure arrangements were mainly raised by non-Aboriginal interests. There is a specific recommendation (p.194) that calls for the ‘harmonisation and simplification of land tenure arrangements’.
At the same time the limited range of rights under native title tenure is identified as an impediment to the maximisation of economic development and employment opportunities on Aboriginal land. One suspects ‘harmonisation’ might actually mean dilution of the gold standard ‘free, prior and informed consent’ rights embedded in Northern Territory land rights law. …
If Indigenous people are to equitably benefit from any development in Northern Australia, then their property rights in land and resources need to be strengthened and not weakened so that they can exercise ‘free, prior and informed consent’ to any proposals.
It is critically important to consult properly and take proper account on a place-by-place basis of Indigenous aspirations and to realistically market test various possibilities.
It is politically expedient, but ultimately unconscionable, to just cherry pick Indigenous views that merely mirror dominant views about risky forms of capitalist development.

10 October 2014:
Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra:
Minister Adam Giles announced that his government, with the Commonwealth and Queensland, would urgently investigate Indigenous land administration and land use, “to enable Traditional Owners to attract private sector investment and finance for development”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced a review of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The review will be part of his government’s plan for northern Australia…
The Abbott government is also trying for the second time to bring in new regulations designed to weaken land councils. …
We all have to stick together. This is the fight for our identity, for our culture and for our souls as Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Once this government starts eroding some of the powers of the land councils where are they going to stop?”

Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory and Native Title rights across Northern Australia are under attack on several fronts, all in the name of promoting economic development, home ownership and employment. …
…the NT Government’s real agenda may well lie in a draft of its submission which was mistakenly sent to ABC News. In that draft, the very first recommendation read: “At the very least there needs to be capacity to compulsorily acquire ALRA land for government/strategic purposes (Territory government including independent agencies and authorities, and local government).” …. This primary recommendation had been omitted from the final submission to the Select Committee which the NT government had published online.

Article: The plan to undermine the Land Rights Act – by Ian Viner
Ian Viner was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Fraser Government (1975- 1978). He still practises as a barrister in Perth, and retains a keen interest in Indigenous issues.
Here is his take on the Government's push to obtain 99-year township leases on Aboriginal owner land in the Northern Territory.

This article is extremely important and topical as there is a move to 99 year whole of township leases [over Aboriginal townships] in the NT.  It is also relevant as we remember the passing of Gough Whitlam who led the path to inalienable land rights - now under threat like never before. Gough is highly respected amongst all Aboriginal peoples.

WITH the Commonwealth Government’s push for 99-year leases, the Forrest Report call for Aboriginal land to be privatised so as to be bought and sold, and attacks upon the Northern Land Council in particular over their defence of traditional ownership and their responsibilities under the Land Rights Act, the iconic 1976 Land Rights Act is under threat like never before….
99-year town leases turn traditional ownership upside down. ...,7052

The Australian - Land rights push ‘a risk to vote’, say elders  - 14 October 2014
... State and federal leaders agreed at last week’s Council of Australian Governments meeting that federal, territory and Queensland governments would urgently review indigenous land administration following a push by NT Chief Minister Adam Giles to “stop talking about land rights and start talking about economic rights”. ...

ABC - Traditional owners farewell Gough Whitlam at the site of the 1975 Wave Hill hand back - - 22 October 2014    
… Gurindji elder Michael George said that as a mark of respect Gurindji people would now refer to the former prime minister as "kulum Whitlam".
Kulum is a traditional word used as mark of respect for the deceased.
"This great man helped us get better wages, health, education and housing, and most importantly, gave us our land back," he said.