Aboriginal land rights in Australia

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Aboriginal land rights in Australia are return of lands to Indigenous Australians by the Commonwealth, state or territory governments of Australia based on recognition of dispossession.

File:The 1982 Commonwealth Game Protest.jpg
A demonstration for Aboriginal land rights, marches through Brisbane during the 1982 Commonwealth Games

Different types of land rights laws exist in Australia, allowing for the renewed ownership of land to Aboriginals [Indigenous Australians] under various conditions. Land rights schemes are in place in the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.[1] The land titles may recognise traditional interest in the land and protect those interests by giving Indigenous people legal ownership of that land.

According to the National Native Title Tribunal:

A successful land rights claim usually results in a special grant of freehold title or perpetual lease. A title document for the land is issued. The title is normally held by a community or an organisation, not by individuals. There are usually some restrictions on selling, and dealing with, land that has been granted in a land rights claim. Normally, the land will be passed down to future generations in a way that recognises the community’s traditional connection to that country.[1]


The passing of Aboriginal land rights legislaton in Australia was preceded by a number of important Aboriginal protests, including the 1946 Aboriginal Stockmen's Strike, the 1963 Yolngu Bark Petition, and the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off, as well as the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 (SA), which established the South Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust.[2] However, it was not until the 1970s, when indigenous Australians (both Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) became more politically active, that there emerged powerful movement for the recognition of Aboriginal land rights.

In 1971, Justice Richard Blackburn of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory ruled against the Yolngu in Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (the "Gove land rights case") under the principle of terra nullius.[3] However, Justice Blackburn did acknowledge the claimants' ritual and economic use of the land and that they had an established system of law (Madayin). In this way, this was the first significant legal case for Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia.

In the wake of Milirrpum, the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission (also known as the "Woodward Royal Commission") was established in the Northern Territory in 1973. This Royal Commission, chaired by Justice Woodward, made a number of recommendations in favour of recognising Aboringal Land Rights.[4] Taking up many of these recommendations, the Whitlam Labor Government introduced an Aboriginal Land Rights Bill to Parliament; however, this lapsed upon the dismissal of the government in 1975. The succeeding conservative government, led by Malcolm Fraser, reintroduced a Bill, though not of the same content, and it was signed by the Governor-General of Australia on 16 December 1976.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 established the basis upon which Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory could claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. The statute, the first of the Aboriginal land rights acts, was significant in that it allowed a claim of title if claimants could provide evidence of their traditional association with land. Four Land Councils were established in the Northern Territory under this law.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 established a procedure that transferred almost 50 per cent of land in the Northern Territory (around 600 000 km2) to collective Indigenous ownership.[5] The subsequent Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 had a similar effect in South Australia.

In 1981 South Australian Premier David Tonkin returned 102,650 square kilometres of land (10.2% of the state's land area) to the Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara people. The land rights legislation was introduced by Premier Don Dunstan in November 1978, several months prior to his resignation from Parliament. An amended bill, following extensive consultation, was passed by the Tonkin Liberal Government. In 1984 Premier John Bannon's Labor Government passed legislation to return lands to the Maralinga Tjarutja people. The legislation was proclaimed in January 1985 and was followed by a ceremony in the desert attended by Maralinga Tjarutja leader Archie Barton, John Bannon and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Greg Crafter.[6] In May 2004, following the passage of special legislation, Premier Mike Rann handed back title to 21,000 square kilometres of land to the Maralinga Tjarutja and Pila Nguru people. The land, 1000 km Northwest of Adelaide and abutting the Western Australia border, was then called the Unnamed Conservation Park. It is now known as Mamumgari Conservation Park. It includes the Serpentine Lakes and was the largest land return since 1984. At the 2004 ceremony Premier Rann said the return of the land fulfilled a promise he made to Archie Barton in 1991 when he was Aboriginal Affairs Minister after he passed legislation to return lands including the sacred Ooldea area (which also included the site of Daisy Bates' mission camp) to the Maralinga Tjarutja people.[7] The Maralinga Tjarutja lands now total 102,863 square kilometres.

Paul Coe, in Coe v Commonwealth (1979), attempted (unsuccessfully) to bring a class action on behalf of all Aborigines claiming all of Australia.[8]

In 1995 the Indigenous Land Corporation was established by the Federal Government to assist Indigenous Australians to acquire land and manage Indigenous held land sustainably and in a manner that provides cultural, social, economic and environmental benefits for themselves and future generations. The corporation is funded by an annual payment from the investment returns of the Australian Government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Account.[5]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "What's the difference between native title and land rights?? – National Native Title Tribunal" (PDF). National Native Title Tribunal. September 2007. Retrieved 26 January 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966. South Australian Acts (Point-in-Time). Retrieved on 29 January 2012.
  3. Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141.
  4. Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Central Land Council. Retrieved on 29 January 2012.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia), Indigenous land rights and native title, retrieved 30 January 2012.
  6. Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 3 2008, "Hero of the Maralinga People"
  7. The Age 25 August 2004, "Maralinga Handover Prompts Celebration"
  8. Coe v. Commonwealth [1979] HCA 68.