Federal Government proposes significant reforms for the Aboriginal Land Rights
21 September 2021
21 September 2021
The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 (Cth) (Bill) was introduced on 25 August 2021 and is currently being debated in the House of Representatives.
The Federal Government worked closely with the Northern Territory Land Councils to create a package of generational reforms to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA).
According to the Minister for Indigenous Australians, these are the "the most far-reaching set of reforms to the land rights act since it was enacted in 1976—and almost 55 years to the day after the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966."
The centre-piece of the reforms is a new, Aboriginal-controlled body called the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation (NTAI Corporation).
Currently, the Minister for Indigenous Australians is responsible for approving beneficial payments from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA) on the advice of the ABA Advisory Committee.
The ABA was established by the ALRA to receive and distribute funds equivalent to the royalties generated from mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.
The ABA currently provides for operational funding for Land Councils, payments for traditional owners and other Aboriginal people affected by mining operations, funding for township leasing, administration of the ABA, and payments for the benefit of Aboriginal people living in the NT (beneficial payments). The funds in the ABA have grown significantly over the last couple of years as a result of increased mining activity on Aboriginal land and it currently holds $1.3 billion in royalty equivalents.
The NTAI Corporation will replace the current beneficial payments process, putting funding decisions in the hands of Aboriginal people. The new corporation will be led by a board of eight Aboriginal representatives from the Northern Territory, two government appointed directors, and two independent directors, appointed by the board.
The NTAI Corporation will receive an initial $500 million endowment from the ABA, $60 million per year during the first three years of its operation and subsequent funding each year.
With these assets the new corporation will be a significant new driver of economic investment in the Northern Territory.
To hold the NTAI Corporation accountable at the local level, its investment priorities will be set out in a strategic investment plan based on consultations with Aboriginal people and organisations in the Northern Territory and tabled in the Parliament.
As a corporate Commonwealth entity, the NTAI Corporation's governance structures will also ensure accountability at the national level. A strong investment committee will provide business advice and support to the board. Rules set by the Minister for Indigenous Australians and the Finance Minister will govern the new corporation's ability to loan, borrow and provide guarantees. Investments over $100 million will require the written agreement of the Minister for Indigenous Australians (a higher amount may be determined by the Minister in the NTAI Corporation rules).
The Bill proposes reforms designed to streamline arrangements for exploration and mining on Aboriginal land, while protecting the interests of traditional owners.
The proposed amendments will:
Importantly, the Bill leaves untouched traditional owners’ right to consider granting or refusing exploration proposals on Aboriginal land. This powerful ‘veto’ right, and other rights under the ALRA, promote self-determination by ensuring traditional owners in the NT have a significant say in proposals and developments on Aboriginal land.
The final component of this Bill is a package of sensible and practical land administration amendments.
The changes include:
Author: Rebecca Hughes, Senior Associate.