Media Release by The Hon Mal Brough MP

Historic reforms to NT land rights

Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough has today introduced into Federal Parliament a Bill which is set to improve opportunities for Indigenous people on community land in the Northern Territory.

"This legislation will create an environment which gives Indigenous people the chance to have opportunities like other Australians," Mr Brough said.

The amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 will allow changes to land tenure in Aboriginal townships, streamline processes for land development and raise performance and improve accountability of Land Councils and royalty bodies.

"The reforms to the Land Rights Act will help create future opportunities for Aboriginal people. These amendments allow for 99 year leases which will make it easier for Indigenous people to own a home or establish a business in Aboriginal townships," Mr Brough said.

"People will be assisted to buy their own home through funding available from the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land Program, which provides low interest loans and other assistance.

"The rights of traditional owners will be maintained and the land will remain inalienable Aboriginal freehold title."

The reforms are the result of almost ten years of consultation between the Australian and Northern Territory governments and Land Councils and Indigenous communities.

"I hope these changes motivate other state governments to amend their Indigenous land legislation to facilitate similar opportunities for Indigenous Australians who reside on community land," Mr Brough said.

The 2006-07 Budget sees the allocation of $107.5 million towards the expansion of the Indigenous Home Ownership on Indigenous Land Program.

The new tenure arrangements contained in the Bill will enable Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to access this new program.

Aboriginal Land Rights Act – Summary of legislative changes

Normalisation of townships

  • The legislation enables the Northern Territory Government to establish its own legislation to administer the township leasing scheme.
  • The Northern Territory Government can establish an entity to talk with the Traditional Owners and the Land Council of a particular town area to obtain 99-year head-leases over township areas.
  • The entity will issue long-term sub-leases to town users without the need to negotiate case by case with Traditional Owners and Land Councils.
  • The terms of the head-lease will be negotiated with the Traditional Owners and Land Councils, except for a statutory ceiling (five per cent of the land’s value) on the annual rent payable to the Traditional Owners.

Quicker processes for exploration and mining

  • Currently the Act provides for a negotiating period for exploration licence agreements of 12 months with the option of regular unlimited extensions. The time frames are essentially open ended.
  • The Act will be amended to provide for a core negotiating period of 2 years, allow the NT Government to set deadlines to bring negotiations to a conclusion and to withdraw a company’s consent to negotiate where it has not seriously pursued negotiations.
  • Provide for the transfer of certain decision making (e.g. monitoring negotiations) from the Australian to NT Government.
  • Retain the power of Traditional Owners to veto (withhold consent) to exploration.
  • Currently if Traditional Owners veto exploration the land becomes subject to a 5 year moratorium. The Act will be amended to provide for the lifting of the five year moratorium period at any time that Traditional Owners agree.

Further economic development proposals

  • Increase the lease term requiring Ministerial approval from 10 to 40 or more years.
  • Reduce the requirement for Ministerial approval of contracts with Land Councils and Land Trusts from a current threshold of all contracts over $100,000 to only those over $1,000,000.
  • Facilitate the mortgaging of leases by confirming that a lease can include agreement to future transfers.
  • Allow agreements that relate to land that is under claim to be effective immediately, rather than only after the claim is finalised.

Devolving decision making to regional groups

  • Provide for delegation of decision-making powers from Land Councils to regional groups, including decisions about exploration and mining.
  • Clarifying the provisions for the establishment of new Land Councils
  • Currently the Act allows new Land Councils to be established where a "substantial majority" is in favour.
  • The Act will be amended to specify that this requires a 55 per cent majority vote cast by Aboriginal people in the area of the proposed new Land Council.
  • Any new Land Council will have to demonstrate sound governance structures and the ability to satisfactorily represent all Aboriginal people in its area.

Improving performance and funding of Land Councils

  • Fund Land Councils on the basis of workloads and results rather than the number of people they represent or any specified amount of Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA) funds.
  • Ensure transparency in Land Council cost recovery practices.
  • Clarify that the Commonwealth Office of Evaluation and Audit can investigate Land Councils.

Improving the accountability of royalty associations

  • Require all royalty associations to be incorporated under the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976 (to be replaced by the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Bill 2005 when enacted).
  • Clarify that the Commonwealth Office of Evaluation and Audit can investigate royalty associations and improve the oversight by Land Councils of royalty association distributions.
  • Ensure that funds benefit the whole community by prohibiting payments without a purpose to individuals.
  • Apply these accountability improvements to all mining related payments and land use payments by Governments.

Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA)

  • Formalise the Minister’s capacity to build up the equity of the ABA to ensure its viability over the long term.
  • Improve the operation of the ABA Advisory Committee by enabling the Minister to appoint additional members with professional expertise.

Finalisation of the land claims process

  • Claims over stock routes that have been unresolved for over 20 years and cannot be heard or finalised will be disposed of.
  • Provide the Land Commissioner with powers to require evidence to progress outstanding claims.
  • Dispose of claims to the intertidal zone and the beds and banks of rivers not contiguous with Aboriginal land. It is not appropriate to grant these narrow strips of land.