• "We want land not handouts" (Ken Middleton, National Library of Australia)Source: Ken Middleton, National Library of Australia
This week marks the 37th anniversary of the The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, also known as the Woodward Royal Commission, which was created to find 'appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory'.
Natalie Cromb

8 Feb 2017 - 12:25 PM  UPDATED 9 Feb 2017 - 10:08 AM

On 8 February 1973 Gough Whitlam announced the Woodward Commission Inquiry into appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory and appointed Justice Edward Woodward as Land Rights Commissioner.

Justice Woodward was considered an apt appointment as he had argued his first land rights case in 1968 and was well versed in the struggle for land rights of Aboriginal people. He was also known as a strong advocate for the law to be an instrument of social justice.

The Northern and Central Land Councils were formed in the same year to assist with the work of the Commission.

In the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission Report 1974, Justice Woodward recommended legislation to restore traditional land to the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. Justice Woodward’s report was the basis of the Aboriginal Land (NT) Bill, which was introduced into the Commonwealth Parliament in October 1975. However, with the dissolution of Parliament in November 1975, the Bill lapsed.

Following the change of Government, a further Bill was introduced into the Commonwealth Parliament in June 1976 — the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Bill 1976. It was passed in December 1976 and was proclaimed on January 26 1977.

In spite of the previous initiatives taken by state governments, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA) is often regarded as the first real land rights settlement because of the rights associated with it and the amount of land transferred.

Like all land rights victories in Australia, ALRA has faced regular attacks by various governments and corporate lobby groups to diminish the rights of Aboriginal people on their traditional lands.

The Land Rights Commission Report also recommended;

  • A creation of a land trust to hold title to Aboriginal land;
  • A grant of inalienable freehold title to all Northern Territory Aboriginal reserves, the Hermannsburg and Santa Teresa mission areas, and several small portions of vacant Crown land near Darwin (about 19 per cent of the Northern Territory) to Aboriginal people;
  • Lands Councils to act as agents for Aboriginal people on land claims;
  • Traditional owners to control mining and other activity on their land, except where it is in national interest to explore or conduct mining;
  • In the event that mining does occur on Aboriginal traditional land, royalties to be distributed as 30 per cent to communities within the areas affected by mining, 40 per cent to the Land Councils, and up to 30 per cent to be available for the benefit of Aboriginal people throughout the Territory.

The intent of the recommendations of Justice Woodward and the subsequent ALRA was to have a national model for land rights to provide uniformity and equity, however, opposition from State Governments and the mining industry defeated that objective.

Like all land rights victories in Australia, ALRA has faced regular attacks by various governments and corporate lobby groups to diminish the rights of Aboriginal people on their traditional lands.

The Northern Territory Government have made land claims by Aboriginal people and groups increasingly difficult  with protracted process and extensive legal challenges to claims, so much so, that many people that have made claims have passed away before they are decided. Such challenges have ignored the obvious strength of claimants’ cases, the efficiency of the Land Councils’ approach and the failure of many of their challenges. Whilst wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, this policy delayed the outcomes of land claims and delayed or denied Aboriginal people their rights to reclaimed land.

Despite having to fight for decades, the Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory have won almost half of the land mass of the Northern Territory back. The land may be controlled by traditional owners now, however, it remains subject to ‘agreements’ made with the government that conducts underhanded negotiations where land is purchased by the government and leased back to the traditional owners, but then the government often fails to offer basic development in some communities despite assurances to do so and mining licenses are being granted on traditional lands despite community objections.

Notwithstanding the ground-breaking stance of Justice Woodward on land rights in Australia – land rights in Australia have been diminished greatly and many have suggested that if equity and reparations of the past are ever going to be addressed, a national overhaul of land rights would need to be conducted.

Justice Woodward’s report would be a good starting point.

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