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Issue #1666      November 26, 2014

Land Rights under attack

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.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam shakes the hand of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari at the historic August 16,1975 first act of land restitution to Aboriginal people – handing over the pastoral lease to 1250 square miles at Wattie Creek, NT, part of Vestey’s Wave Hill Station, successful end to a mammoth struggle which involved Wesley–Smith, his wife, Jan,and many others from near and far, including crusading editor Jim Bowditch, author Frank Hardy and veteran Communist campaigner, Brian Manning.

After a meeting in Canberra of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on October 10, NT Chief 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”.

“I firmly believe that the protracted and complicated processes for approving development projects on Aboriginal land are prohibiting Indigenous Territorians from pulling themselves out of poverty through economic development,” Giles said.

“I am pleased that the Prime Minister has agreed to work with the Northern Territory on ways to remove those barriers to the development of Aboriginal land.”

The announcement came in the wake of two official reports which attacked Aboriginal land tenure.

First, on August 1, came the review of Indigenous training and employment programs, called “Creating Parity-the Forrest Review”. Then, on September 4, Federal Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia tabled its final report, “Pivot North”.

The Forrest review was led by the West Australian billionaire miner, Andrew Forrest. His commission by the Australian government was to “hear breakthrough ideas that will end the disparity in employment for Indigenous Australians”.

“Seismic, not incremental, change is required and the time for action is now,” reported Forrest and his team. Their final chapter, “Empowering people in remote communities to end the disparity themselves,” is ominous reading. It represents rousing support for the Commonwealth’s plans for 99-year leases over Aboriginal communities (under section 19 A of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act) and its plans to devolve the powers of land councils in the Northern Territory (under section 28A).

The report singles out the Northern Land Council as an impediment to long-term leasing for private investment and says the Commonwealth needs to consider how it will “ensure” that land councils “participate in and support the new arrangements”.

It identifies the ability to purchase and use available land for home ownership and business as “the key to prosperity, empowerment and financial independence for first Australians and their families”. It talks about “unlocking ... chronically under-utilised” Indigenous lands to achieve “significant sustainable economic advantages to first Australians”.

And it suggests that the Commonwealth should exercise the “significant leverage” it holds in the Northern Territory, and favour spending on housing and infrastructure within those communities which agree to surrender control of their land under a Commonwealth lease.

It also recommends that the Commonwealth use its powers (under s28A) to devolve land councils’ powers to more regional structures, “to ensure land councils are responsive to the wishes of traditional owners who have requested to freehold or lease their land to enable business investment and/or home ownership”.

In early September, the parliamentary Joint Select Committee (comprised of members of both the Senate and House of Representatives) on Northern Development tabled its final report, titled, “Pivot North”.

“Pivot North” also identified land tenure (Aboriginal Land Rights NT and Native Title Acts) as an impediment to development in the north.

But the committee did record that it had heard no evidence that Aboriginal people wanted to alter the underlying inalienable freehold title over Aboriginal land in the NT; “On the contrary, evidence from the land councils in the Territory was that Traditional Owners were happy to use the current provisions of the (Land Rights) Act for both commercial and private development proposals”.

The committee recommended that governments and business work with Indigenous people and land councils, “to maximise the economic development and employment opportunities on Aboriginal and/or Native Title land”.

It noted difficulties of obtaining land tenure for residential or commercial purposes under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act that “this is having a significant impact on the ability of (Indigenous) communities to pursue economic development”.

The Northern Territory government’s submission to the Select Committee vigorously pursued that theme, and went a lot further. One consequence of the federal government’s 2007 Intervention has been that governments now pay rent to Traditional Owners for their use of Aboriginal land in communities. The NT government’s submission noted that “paying rent for Indigenous land is a major step in seeing land owners derive economic benefits from their land”.

But the submission seemed to say that paying rent was now a bad idea because it had set a new benchmark and caused “unintended and undesirable consequences”. Chief among them was the “near total absence of private investment and development, which had been a primary reason for the changed practice or the new way of doing business”.

And the NT government yet again pressed the Commonwealth to surrender functions of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to the Territory. It called for the Act to be reformed, including consideration of “which government is best placed to administer Northern Territory Lands. This should include potential delegations and timing of modifications”.

It also wanted the existing model of land councils to be examined, “from the perspective of developing options that might better support traditional land owners in their continuing efforts to gain economic advantages from their vast land holdings.”

But 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).”

A sharp-eyed reporter in the ABC Darwin newsroom realised that this primary recommendation had been omitted from the final submission to the Select Committee which the NT government had published online.

The government’s reaction was to plead (unsuccessfully) for the ABC not to report the draft recommendation, and Chief Minister Adam Giles later said he himself had ordered it to be removed.

The controversial recommendation may have been erased from the final draft, but its revelation indicated at least what’s on the mind of some high-flying policy maker within the NT government’s ranks.

Land Rights News – Northern Edition

Next article – Marchers vent deaths fury

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