There's no conflict between Indigenous people, native title and development

Date: Nov 16, 2017

Publication Type: News, Speeches and Opinion Pieces

Subject: Northern Development

By Joe Morrison, CEO of the Northern Land Council. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 is very special legislation, not just for the Northern Territory but by world standards.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 is very special legislation, not just for the Northern Territory but by world standards.

It has enabled Aboriginal people to gain inalienable freehold title to 50 per cent of the Northern Territory and, through the High Court's 2008 Blue Mud Bay decision, almost 90 per cent of the NT coastline.

It amazes me that critics of the Northern Land Council, like the Centre for Independent Studies, persistently claim that the legislation prevents Aboriginal communities from managing leases on their own land and stifles economic development. The last thing the public needs is misinformation.

Under the legislation, traditional owners make decisions about use of their land. They decide whether or not to grant an interest or licence to a third party to conduct an activity on their land. There is also a misconception that land councils take a cut of the monies owed to traditional owners — this is untrue.

The allegation that the Land Rights Act gives traditional owners the right to own the land but not the right to use it is mischievous and wrong. It devalues the hard-won fight for land rights in the Top End and across the country.

From farming to rockets

Over its 40-year history, the Northern Land Council has delivered more than 2000 agreements under the Land Rights Act where traditional owners provide their consent to third-party interests (including Aboriginal controlled-enterprises and joint ventures). Current agreements include an Aboriginal mining company, Aboriginal-owned pastoral companies, numerous art centres, community stores, 99-year housing leases to Aboriginal individuals and, just recently, a commercial rocket launching facility.

In the Gumatj community of Gunyangara on the Gove Peninsula, a new form of township leasing is designed to retain Aboriginal control. The NLC (with the Central Land Council) campaigned successfully against the Commonwealth Government's previous model of township leases which were held by a Commonwealth entity.

New ways to create remote jobs

Trying to find a job can be hard. Trying to find a job while living in an isolated community thousands of kilometres from major industry hubs is even harder.

With the NLC chairman and deputy, I argued with the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs for control to be placed in Aboriginal hands through a local corporation. We celebrated this as a success and we look forward to seeing developments on Gunyangara. But to suggest that this system would avoid the need for leases is wrong.

In the small community of Baniyala in east Arnhem Land, senior traditional owner Djambawa Marawili wants to encourage new house construction and business investment to create local jobs. I have committed the NLC to continue strong engagement with Djambawa and his people, and this week I will brief a meeting of the NLC's full council on the aspirations of Baniyala and the proposed models for making decisions about leasing locally.

In the end, though, the arrangements at both Gunyangara and Baniyala have to meet the requirements of the Land Rights Act.

The range of activities on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory is enormous and the successful role of land councils must be acknowledged, along with the profound importance of traditional owner consent.

Development for the many

It is important to dispel the myth that there is entrenched conflict between Indigenous people and development.

Indigenous people enthusiastically support development where clear benefits can be achieved, and if proposals are culturally, environmentally and economically sustainable, and not socially destructive.

The NLC's essential role is to give traditional owners a voice and to ensure their property rights are both protected and enabled. On their behalf, we promote economic development, we seek to create jobs, we seek to improve people's lives.

We want to make northern development work, especially for the many who live here permanently, not for the power elites who are motivated to extract wealth from the north with little or no return for those who will always live here.

Indigenous people are not just a special interest group in the Territory's future. We are the primary stakeholder.

The Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act have enabled the determination of traditional ownership and connection to lands throughout the north. This provides a fundamental basis for investment certainty. But what is missing is a policy framework of economic and social inclusion that can unlock the development potential.

This is why the NT Government's recent Pastoral Land Legislation Amendment Bill must rise above the "bucket loads of extinguishment" approach by John Howard and Tim Fischer in their 10-point plan to amend the Native Title Act in 1997.

We need a modern approach that brings Indigenous people and pastoralists together for the benefit of both.

We must reject the ideologies and malaise that have crippled Indigenous affairs and the nation for the past decade. We must drag the collective from the deep colonial past into a modern society, to benefit the poorest and disadvantaged people in this nation — its first peoples.

This opinion piece was originally published on ABC online on Thursday 16 November 2017.