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Law Council of Australia


Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021

The submission to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee (the Senate Committee) in relation to its inquiry into the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 (the Bill) was prepared by the Law Council of Australia.It notes that the Law Society Northern Territory has been consulted and is broadly supportive of this submission.

The Bill seeks to amend the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) (the Land Rights Act), which is the legislative framework regulating Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory (NT).

The Land Rights Act was the first piece of legislation in Australia to provide for the return of traditional lands and waters to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and a key part of the historic land rights movement that occurred throughout the 1960s and 1970s.1

It followed the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition of Yolngu Traditional Owners and 1966 Wave Hill Walk Off of Gurindji peoples, and had its origins in the 1974 recommendations of the Woodward Royal Commission, which the Whitlam Government established to inquire into how to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the NT. 2

Through its operation, approximately 50 per cent of the NT has been recognised as Aboriginal land, which, as noted in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill, is a form of freehold land and the strongest form of traditional land title in Australia.3

Given the significance of the Land Rights Act, the Law Council notes the importance of carefully considering the amendments proposed under the current Bill, and in particular whether these might adversely affect the existing consent processes and protections afforded to Traditional Owners and Aboriginal communities in the NT. It is concerned in this respect by the short timeframe of the present inquiry, and would support an extension of the inquiry to enable consultation with these groups to appropriately occur.

It is the Law Council’s overarching position that consideration of laws and policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should occur in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), 4 which is the international standard informing the way governments across the globe should engage with and protect the rights of indigenous peoples. 5 Australia formally announced its support for the UNDRIP on 3 April 2009.

1 See, eg, National Museum Australia, Aboriginal Land Rights Act (website, 13 September 2021).
2 See, eg, ibid; Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Land Rights (website, undated); Central Land Council, The Aboriginal Land Rights Act (website, 2021).

3 Explanatory Memorandum, Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 (Cth) 2.

4 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 61/295, UN GAOR, 61st sess, 107th plen mtg, Agenda Item 68, Supp No 49, UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (2 October 2007) annex (‘UNDRIP’).

5 See, eg, Australian Government, Attorney-General’s Department, ‘Right to Self-Determination: Public Sector Guidance Sheet’ (website, undated) ; United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, UN Doc A/HRC/9/9 (11 August 2008) [85]-[86].


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