1. Does the NLC own Aboriginal land?

No. Traditional Owners are the owners and make decisions about the use of their land. Aboriginal land is private property owned under special freehold title. It is inalienable – in other words, it cannot be bought, acquired or forfeited. This communal form of title is vested with Aboriginal land trusts. For the most part, Aboriginal landowners with inalienable Aboriginal freehold have the exclusive power to control the direction and pace of development on their lands. Governments have only limited rights to impose external development or conservation direction or constraints. Under the Land Rights Act, decisions over the use of Aboriginal land must have the consent of the Traditional Owners as a group and be ratified by the Land Council. When someone wants to use Aboriginal land for an activity such as mining or tourism the NLC has a legal responsibility to identify and consult with the Traditional Owners about that proposal. Traditional owners then make a decision to grant or not grant an interest or licence to a third party to conduct an activity on their land. Where informed consent is given, the NLC may direct the appropriate Aboriginal Land Trust to enter into a S19 Land Use Agreement with the proponent.

2. What happens to royalty and rent payments to Aboriginal people?

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act says that the NLC must hold royalty and rent money in a trust for the beneficiaries, and pay it to them or “for their benefit”. The NLC deposits all income from the use of Aboriginal land – for example, from mining, pastoralism and community leasing, as well as compensation and other payments – in the Land Use Trust Account and distributes it to Aboriginal associations. The NLC is not allowed to use any money from this account for its operations – in other words, land councils do not take a cut of the monies owed to traditional owners.

After the NLC transfers money from the Land Use Trust Account to Aboriginal associations it no longer controls the money. However, it continues to play an important support role. It administers many associations and helps them to distribute their money to individuals or to invest it in community driven projects.

Sometimes Aboriginal people ask the NLC to help them solve a disagreement between association members about the use of its money, eligibility for membership or to explain or change its rules.

3. How is the NLC funded?

The NLC is primarily funded through the Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA), an account into which the Australian Government pays an amount of money equal to the royalties paid to the NT Government from mining on Aboriginal land. These payments are made on an estimates and justification basis.

The NLC is also a Native Title Representative Body under the Native Title Act 1993, and receives funding for its extensive work on native title matters.

In addition to its core funding under the ABA and the Native Title Act, the NLC receives funding under a number of separate programs. The NLC is required to prepare audited financial statements for two separate accounting entities under two Acts of the Commonwealth Parliament – the ALRA and the Native Title Act. The NLC auditor is the Australian National Audit Office. NLC receives additional grant based funding from a number of sources. The major external funding sources include:

  • Working on Country funding for ranger groups (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet)
  • Real Jobs funding for ranger groups (Indigenous Land Corporation).
4. Does the NLC control Aboriginal land?

No. Under Land Rights legislation, Traditional Owners are the owners and make decisions about the use of their land. When someone wants to use Aboriginal land for an activity such as mining or tourism, the Land Council must be satisfied that the relevant traditional Aboriginal landowners understand the nature and content of any land use agreement which is entered on their behalf and that they agree to it.

The NLC carries out consultations and negotiations on behalf of Traditional Owners with those interested in carrying out commercial activities on Aboriginal land and waters. The NLC must ensure that any land use proposal is fair and equitable. Traditional owners then make a decision to grant or not grant an interest or licence to a third party to conduct an activity on their land.

5. How does the NLC spend its money?

The NLC’s annual report to the Australian Parliament details how it has spent its money and how well it has performed during the financial year. Before the annual report is tabled in the Commonwealth Parliament, the Australian National Audit Office carries out a strict check of the NLC’s finances. The NLC also annually reviews its corporate plan.

Advocacy and community development continues to be an important area of operations. Since 2016, the NLC’s Community Planning and Development program has been helping communities to drive their own development with their own income.

6. How does the NLC determine traditional ownership?

The Land Rights Act defines traditional Aboriginal land owners as a local descent group of Aboriginal people whose shared spiritual affiliations to sites on the land places them under a primary spiritual responsibility for those sites, and who are entitled by their traditions to use the land.

The NLC works with Aboriginal people in its region to ensure that traditional owners are properly identified according to this definition. Senior Aboriginal people associated with an area, and those from surrounding areas, have contributed to more than four decades worth of research that has been tested in Land Rights and native title claims in the NLC region and they frequently corroborate or update this research ahead of consultations for major developments and land issues.

7. How does the NLC deal with disputes about land ownership?

Relations within a landowning group and between groups may be diverse and complex, reflecting the richness and complexity of Aboriginal tradition and Aboriginal peoples' relationship with their land. The NLC has a duty to help Aboriginal people to resolve their disputes over land. It empowers and supports Aboriginal groups to manage their own disputes and reduce their reliance on mediation by external parties.

8. Do I need a permit to enter Aboriginal Land?

Yes. Commonwealth and Northern Territory law says that entry to Aboriginal land requires a written permit. Aboriginal land is privately owned. It is not Crown land, nor public land. Permission must be obtained in accordance with the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 before going onto Aboriginal Land. This includes access to tidal waters over Aboriginal land. That is, access to the water and land between the high and low tide watermarks requires permission by the land owner.

Unauthorised entry to Aboriginal land and waters in the Northern Territory can result in a fine of up to $1000. The Northern Land Council is responsible for administering the permit system for traditional owners in the Top End. Depending on your purpose, you will require either: a Work, transit, recreational fishing and tourist permit; a Research Permit; a Media Permit; or a Commercial Filming Permit.