Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari has sand poured into his hands by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1965.
Traditional land and sea ownership is based on customary law, passed from generation to generation. This sacred trust involves defined groups or people, their ancestors and descendants.
In many areas, a system of 'managers' and 'owners' operates. Land managers generally have maternal links to land while landowners generally have paternal links to land. Aboriginal landowners and managers have specific and complementary rights and obligations to ensure the spiritual and physical health of defined areas of land.
In other areas, different land tenure systems operate.
After many years of struggle Aboriginal law and land rights were finally recognised in Australian law in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA). It is often referred to as the Land Rights Act. This act recognises our rights to land and sets up processes to win back our land through Land Councils, and manage its resources.
Importantly, the act is the first attempt by an Australian government to legally recognise the Aboriginal system of land ownership and put into law the concept of inalienable freehold title. This has allowed Aboriginal people to retain and in some cases re-establish their cultural identity, while at the same time contributing to the peaceful and responsible development of the Northern Territory.
The Land Rights Act sets down detailed procedures for:
- the negotiation of mining agreements on Aboriginal land and the application of laws for mining on Aboriginal land
- funding of Land Councils through the Aboriginal Benefits Account (previously Aboriginal Benefits Reserve)
- a number of minor but important provisions, such as roads and entry onto Aboriginal land, a protection of sacred sites and protection of traditional rights over land
- the application of NT laws and complementary NT legislation
The Whitlam Government introduced legislation based substantially on Woodward’s recommendations. The bill was before Parliament when the Government was dismissed in the constitutional crisis of November 1975.
Despite election campaign promises from the Liberal-Country Party that the bill would be passed without amendment, the new Government of the Liberal Prime Minister, Malcom Fraser, buckled to pressure from mining and pastoral industry groups and the conservative politicians in the Northern Territory. A new bill was drafted from which many of the important provisions of the Labor Party bill were absent.
A national campaign by the newly-created Land Councils salvaged a number of key elements, but the final Bill removed needs-based claims and gave the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly responsibility for complementary legislation covering sacred site protection, sea closures and permits for access to Aboriginal land.
Nonetheless, it was the recommendations of Mr Justice Woodward which formed the basis of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act which passed both houses of the Federal Parliament with historic bipartisan support in December 1976. It came into force on 26 January 1977, one-and-a-half years before the Northern Territory was granted self-government.