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Thursday, 16 October 1975
Page: 2222

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

In the field of Aboriginal affairs, this is undoubtedly the most important legislation ever to be introduced into the Australian Parliament. While several States have moved towards the recognition of Aboriginal land rights, this legislation goes much further than has previously been contemplated in Australia. This Bill will give effect to the recommendations of the second report of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission- the Woodward report- and grant land rights to Aboriginals in the Northern Territory. It will provide for freehold title over all reserves and certain other lands to be vested in Aboriginal ownership and give Aboriginals control over what happens on their land, including control over mining developments.

This Bill will establish in our law those aspects of Aboriginal traditional law relating to land which Mr Justice Blackburn could not uphold in 1971 in the Gove land rights case: It creates for Aboriginals proprietary interests in, and communal title to, land, and makes that title inalienable. Although title to the land to be transferred to Aboriginal ownership will be vested in a number of Aboriginal land trusts, the land will be administered by land councils, which will be obliged to follow the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal land owners. The power to decide what happens to the land thus rests with the traditional owners whose representatives, the members of the land councils, will have available all necessary specialist advice and assistance.

Honourable members may recall that in August 1968 the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam)then Leader of the Opposition- described the 1967 referendum as 'the most massive expression of the general will ever known in this country'. It was, he went on, 'a virtual command by 5 700 000 Australians that the national Government should take a lead to promote (among other things) the land rights of Aboriginals'. Early in 1972 he pledged a Labor government to the establishment of community freehold ownership of land in the Northern Territory by identifiable Aboriginal communities or tribes. He further stated in his policy speech before the national election in December 1972 that a Labor government would legislate to give Aboriginals land rights, 'not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aboriginals are denied their rightful place in this nation'.

Mr Chipp - The Attorney-General is behaving like an idiot.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Innes (MELBOURNE, VICTORIA) -Order! If the honourable member for Hotham continues that sort of behaviour he will be doing it outside.

Mr Chipp - You try it.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -The honourable member for Hotham will withdraw that remark.

Mr Chipp

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -I warn the honourable member for Hotham. Will you withdraw that remark?

Mr Chipp - Which remark?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -The remark: 'You try it'.

Mr Chipp - If you wish me to withdraw it, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will withdraw it.

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) -Specifically the Government is pledged to legislate to establish a system of Aboriginal tenure based on the traditional rights of clans and other tribal groups for land which is reserved for Aboriginal use and benefit and to vest such land in Aboriginal communities. That the Australian Parliament may only legislate in this direction in the Northern Territory is a matter of regret, but we have made it clear to the various State governments that we support similar recognition of Aboriginal land title in the States.


On 8 February 1973 the Government established the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission and appointed Mr Justice A. E. Woodward as the Commissioner to inquire into and report upon the most appropriate means to recognise and establish the traditional rights and interests of Aboriginals in and in relation to land in the Northern Territory. The Commissioner was required to report on possible arrangements for vesting title to Aboriginal reserves in an appropriate body or bodies, and on the desirability of establishing suitable procedures for the examination of claims to Aboriginal traditional rights and interests in land outside reserves. He was also to report on the effect of already existing commitments, such as Crown leases, Government contracts, mining rights or otherwise, on the attainment of Aboriginal land rights.

Mr JusticeWoodward was most thorough in carrying out his commission. Following initial hearings and consultations with Aboriginal communities, he presented a first report on 19 July 1973 setting out his preliminary findings for comment and criticism by the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory. To this end 2 Aboriginal land councils were set up, one based on Darwin and the other on Alice Springs. The land councils consisted of representatives from all large Aboriginal communities in their area. They were supplied with independent legal advice and asked to consider the various points raised in the first report and to raise any other relevant matters which they wished. Mr Justice Woodward prepared his second and final report, which was presented in May 1974, in the light of their submissions and further hearings and consultations.

The Prime Minister announced on 2 July 1 974 that the Government had accepted in principle the recommendations made in this second report, and had authorised the drafting of the Bill to which I am now speaking. The Government also authorised the appointment of an Interim Land Commissioner for the Northern Territory, to ascertain the needs of Aboriginals, either as individuals or communities, for land in the Northern Territory outside existing Aboriginal reserves. Mr Justice Ward was appointed Interim Commissioner in April 1975, and this Bill provides for the permanent establishment of this Commission. Mr Justice Ward has already conducted hearings and reported on a number of land claims, including those to Kulaluk, Railway Dam, and Emery Point in Darwin, and Yarralin and Supplejack Downs in pastoral areas. A large number of further claims await his consideration.

Honourable members will recall that when the Aboriginal Loans Commission Bill and the Aboriginal Land Fund Bill were introduced last year, it was stated that those Bills were part of a series of four which the Government would bring down in order to ensure, among other things, that Aboriginal communities will be able to obtain land for social and economic purposes. With the passage of this Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill and the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Bill, which will simplify incorporation requirements for Aboriginal groups and communities, this important series of legislation will be complete.


In brief, the Bill establishes land trusts to hold freehold title to Aboriginal land, and land councils to administer that land in accordance with the wishes of the traditional owners. It provides for Aboriginal ownership of all Northern Territory Aboriginal reserves, the Tanami Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, the pastoral properties of Kildurk and Willowra and the land recently acquired for the Gurindji. It establishes an Aboriginal Land Commission to advise on Aboriginal land needs, and claims to land, outside existing reserves, and future purchases of land which may also come within the provisions of the Bill.


The Bill preserves existing interests in Aboriginal land- for example, the special purpose and mining leases on the Gove Peninsula and Groote Eylandt- and the existing operations of the companies concerned will not be affected. The title to areas over which there are existing conflicting interests will, however, pass to Aboriginals when the non-Aboriginal interests expire or are acquired.


The Bill also gives Aboriginals the power of veto over mining developments on Aboriginal land, but provides that any such veto may be overridden, if such action is required in the national interest and if a proclamation to that effect is not disallowed by either House of Parliament after the proclamation has lain before the House for 15 sitting days. There will, of course, be many interpretations as to what constitutes the national interest. Mr Justice Woodward paid special attention to this term and said that it should not be invoked on a mere balance of convenience or desirability but only as a matter of necessity.

I hope that it will not be necessary to invoke the national interest provisions of this Bill, and that with goodwill from all parties- the Aboriginal landowners, the prospective miners, environmental interests and the Government- a reasonable and effective solution can in most cases be found to protect the Aboriginal interests and to meet desirable national development goals. Where such agreement cannot be reached, the Government's consideration as to whether the national interest requires the proposed development would need to include an assessment of whether the development of a particular resource at a particular point in time was vital to Australia, whether the mineral was available elsewhere, or whether it could be left in the ground for future development without irreparable damage to Australia's social and economic development.

Importantly, there is much significance to be placed on Mr Justice Woodward's view that an Aboriginal veto must not be overridden unless the national interest requires that the proposed development proceed. Almost any mineral development could be said to be in the national interest but much more stringent criteria must be applied in an assessment as to whether such a development is required by the national interest. Equally important is the distinction, implicit in the use of this phrase, between the national interest on one hand and sectional interest on the other.

There are certain matters relating to the Ranger uranium project which should be mentioned. No formal claim has yet been made to the Interim Land Commissioner by Aboriginal groups in respect of the Ranger land, but should such a claim be lodged, the procedures embodied in this Bill would of course be. followed. It should be noted, however, that the Government has undertaken to honour existing approved export contracts- 5025 tonnes of uranium for Peko-EZ and Queensland Mines. International assurances have been provided by Ministers that Australia will meet the uranium requirements of our major trading partners, which could amount to a total of about 100 000 tonnes of uranium by 1990. Moreover, the very substantial increase in the national welfare which could be derived from development of the Ranger project could not lightly be overlooked. Should the Government feel obliged to invoke the national interest provisions in the Bill in view of these factors, discussions would be held with those affected. These discussions would include the matter of royalties. I should add that any decision to proceed with the development of the Ranger project will depend upon the Government's consideration of the findings of the Ranger uranium environmental inquiry which is now taking place.


The Bill also establishes the Aboriginals Benefit Trust Account which replaces, and extends the role of, the Aborigines Benefits Trust Fund, whose establishment in 1952 by the Government of the time indicated recognition of the need to compensate Aboriginals for exploitation of their lands. Aboriginals will receive all rental payments, and mining royalties derived from their land will pass to the Trust Account for disbursement according to the formula laid down in the Bill, as proposed by the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission.


The Bill gives Aboriginals control over entry onto their land and the 2 kilometres of sea adjoining adjoining it. Areas such as the parts at Gove and Alyangula, and persons such as police officers and public servants in the course of their duties, will be exempted from entry permit requirements. The land councils can also authorise persons to order people, including Aboriginals, to leave a particular locality not covered by such exemptions- thus providing for local control over who is entitled to be on Aboriginal land. These provisions are consonant with those of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Discriminatory Laws) Act passed earlier this year with the support of the Opposition Parties.


Wildlife conservation on Aboriginal land will be managed jointly by Aboriginals and conservation interests by means of committees which will be established as recommended by Mr Justice Woodward. Because Australia is a signatory to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, and because the Cobourg Peninsula has been declared under that Convention, it will be necessary to resolve possible conflicts between environmental and Aboriginal interests in this area. The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission recommendation that Cobourg Peninsula be made Aboriginal land when this Bill becomes law has therefore not been followed at this stage. It is intended, rather, that this question be resolved by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner to be appointed under the Bill. Whatever the finding of the Land Commissioner, arrangements will be made for Aboriginals to fully participate in control and management of the Cobourg Peninsula.


As the land councils have agreed, the normal laws of the Northern Territory continue to apply to Aboriginal land. The Bill also gives protection to Aboriginal sacred sites throughout the Northern Territory.

In proposing this legislation, the Government endorses Mr Justice Woodward's view that cash compensation in the pockets of this generation of Aboriginals would be no answer to the legitimate land claims of a people with a distinct past who want to maintain their separate identity in the future. This legislation will at last give Aboriginal ownership in our law over land which, according to their traditional law, belongs to them, and they to it. Future generations of Aboriginals will continue to reap the benefits of the land base this Bill will provide for the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory.

The Bill now before the House contains the essential features from the recommendations of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission. These recommendations, in the form of the second report of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, have been widely available to the public and, particularly, to the 2 Aboriginal land councils in the Northern Territory for over 12 months, during which time there have been numerous inquiries and representations from interested sections of the public, including the land councils, as to the nature of Mr Woodward's recommendations. These views have been taken account of in drafting the Bill. It is reasonable, however, since the BUI itself has not been available to the public until today, that it should be made available to all who have an interest in it so that they may examine and, if they wish, make representations on the detailed provisions as now drafted.

It is therefore intended, as with the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Bill, that the Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill should not proceed immediately through the second and third readings but lie before the House until a later date so that any representations may be taken into account before the House votes on the legislation. In this way, I believe, the Bill will, when passed, represent a coming together both of Aboriginal wishes and of the interests of other sections of the community.

The Government's decision to legislate for Aboriginal land rights is the expression of longstanding Australian Labor Party policy and this Bill is the result of a lengthy process of consultation with the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory, investigation of their wishes and consideration of the views of pastoral, mining, environmental and other community interests. Since the recommendations of the Woodward report have been accepted in principle by all major political parties, and this Bill gives effect to those recommendations, I have every confidence that it will be acceptable to the House and have no hesitation in commending the Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill to honourable members.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ellicott) adjourned.

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