Tuesday, 30 November 2021: reforms to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 passes through parliament.

30 November 2021


Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (18:10): Well, who would have thought over 40 years ago when we had no land in the Northern Territory for First Nations people that we would be here four decades and some later arguing over minor amendments, really, in the land rights act. Let me share with the Senate. In 1976, the Yanyuwa people were the first under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. to go for land. It was in the old police station on Yanyuwa country that my grandfather sat with my grandmother and other families trying to prove who they were as First Nations people in this country. It took Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people of that country eight years, supported not only by the union movement but, more importantly, by First Nations people surrounding those lands.

So when this act came in, in 1976, yes, Gough Whitlam, first raised it. Malcolm Fraser enacted it. It was the Yanyuwa who were the first to challenge, to test, to try it out. Those elders stood in the witness box in the old police station which had remnants of members being caught in the cells, very recent and horrible memories of the massacres of that area, and there was indeed an absolute passion and hope that lives would change. But it was not to be. Why? Because there were too many issues, too many things that the new land councils of the day had to work through—lawyers, constitutional lawyers—so the Yanyuwa lost. They got a little bit of land in the Gulf country around the islands but it wasn't until 1992, over 20 years later, that we could try again. In the meantime, we fought successive governments, which happened to be the Country Liberal Party at the time, for every single bit of land that we could fight for, and fight we did.

People were told that Uluru was going to disappear because it was being returned to the Anangu people; the sky would cave in. That was the attitude of the day. There is no way any of my elders standing in that police station giving evidence would have thought in a million years that First Nations people would own nearly 50 per cent of the Northern Territory land mass.

What we have here before us, whilst important, is twinkling around the edges, tweaking around to provide the support that's required in places that have been taken away, for example, under Prime Minister John Howard, with the 2007 Intervention, now being recorrected—if that is possible—in this legislation today. For First Nations people in the Northern Territory, it has been a constant, constant battle to prove who they are.

Over the years, we saw the development, after the Northern Land Council, of the Central Land Council, to cater for the First Nations people in the central region, who were represented by over 70 delegates to the Central Land Council meeting, which I attended, just a couple of weeks ago. After the Central Land Council, you then had two more land councils come into being: the Tiwi Land Council, to protect the interests of the Tiwis, north of Darwin, on that beautiful country, where the Tiwis saw the first bombs come into Darwin. Then, over to the east, you have the Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt, who—surprise, surprise—work very effectively with their local mining company. Yes, they have their issues, but they've also succeeded in places that perhaps even the other land councils could learn from—and not just other land councils but other communities.

So these are the four land councils that have come together, since 2016, 2017 and 2018, to talk about many of the issues that this legislation covers here in terms of the request for change. The problem is that, in the past, there have been successive ministers who have perhaps not been able to achieve what's being achieved here by bringing this legislation before the Senate. Yes, it has its faults. There's no doubt about that.

When we talk about 50 per cent of the Northern Territory's landmass now being Aboriginal land, which also includes rights to the sea country, the priority has to be around economic empowerment. We cannot keep standing in this Senate, or in the other House, and talking about the disadvantage when we have First Nations people owning nearly 50 per cent of the land. It's not just one section here that is failing; it is a combination of sectors that are failing to assist in lifting opportunities for the people up north.

It's in this context that we view these amendments to the Aboriginal Lands Rights (Northern Territory) Act. These amendments have been a long time coming and are made with the strong support of those four land councils, which didn't exist four decades ago. Does that mean that these land councils are above reproach? No, it does not. Does that mean that they are perfect? No. They most certainly are not. Does that mean that they can themselves improve in order to assist the very constituents they are there to support? Yes, they most certainly can do that, but we can do that too, as the Australian parliament. It works hand in hand when this act is a product of this parliament.

The support of the land councils is significant, because there are those of us who remember the battles. Let me tell you: if there were no land councils, those battles would return quick and fast. There is a history of amendments to this very act without the consultation of land councils. We only have to refer to reviews of the past, where papers were burnt because no traditional owners in those four land councils were a part of that. It's interesting to see that we've come this far, where now we have the questions around consent and the questions around inclusion. We need to listen to those questions, as a parliament, and the land councils need to listen too, because it is an example of how far you have grown, and the growth and maturity of First Nations people in the Northern Territory through the land councils. But there are also those who feel that they are missing out. Why are they feeling that they are missing out? Why do traditional owners who are not a part of these land councils at the moment feel so disenfranchised? Who is asking those questions within the land councils? Who is asking those questions beyond the land councils?

We know that there are 83 members of the Northern Land Council. Every three years, 78 members are elected and five are co-opted. Let's have a look at the question of how those elections take place. Is that something the parliament, the land councils and traditional owners need to ask themselves? Is that a fair process? Is it a process that still reflects how this act began? Usually, parliaments review acts. The 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, in terms of the election of its people, may also at some point need to be looked at in fairness to the growth and the development of all those families across the Northern Territory and in fairness to the growth and development of the land councils themselves.

If we are to achieve true economic empowerment, we must open ourselves up to the very strong realistic position of transparency and accountability, not just to ourselves in the Senate as the Australian parliament but also as I stand before you as a traditional owner of those lands. We as traditional owners need to be open and transparent, too. We need to be able to feel confident in a system that enables us to have a voice within that system. I know that there are so many who do not feel they have that. Why? Perhaps because they weren't around in 1976. Perhaps, unlike me—I was only a little girl—they were not even born. But that does not mean that they are not important. In fact, for Yanyuwa, we are known as jungkayi and ngimarringki. My sons are the jungkayi for me. How are they reflected in these land councils? Are they considered as traditional owners?

If I can stand here in the Senate and ask these questions, then I fully understand why there are traditional owners out there who ask the very same thing. It is important to have these debates, but it's more important to achieve the outcomes that are required. That, I believe, can only happen when we have an opportunity to really look at these issues overall.

I have the Senate report here in front of me. I'd like to refer to page 28 and some of the evidence that was provided. I acknowledge the member for Mulka in the Northern Territory parliament, Yingiya. Thank you for the conversations that we've had—and, yes, it was important that we had this Senate inquiry. I know we've got more to do, certainly in North East Arnhem Land. To Professor John Altman: you raised issues about a co-design process and said:

… a co-design process dealing with institutional mechanisms that potentially affect the balance of powers/responsibilities between land councils and traditional owners that is only undertaken with one side of the equation is arguably a flawed co-design process.

There's probably no disagreement with that, Professor, but who is responsible for the co-design process? It comes back to the parliament. These are really important points in the submissions. Michael Dillon, a former senior public servant, said, 'Stating facts demonstrates the complexities involved.' Absolutely, but no-one over four decades ago even thought we'd get to where we are with close to 50 per cent of the land mass plus the sea country. There was Blue Mud Bay. There still is Blue Mud Bay—and the work that has to be done with the commercial fishing industry and the ranger groups. How amazing is it that we can stand here and even talk about that?

Senators, this is a critical piece of discussion around the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, but it is not the only discussion. Far more comprehensive work is required, and I welcome the input from senators here today. As a TO myself, and knowing this act from the very beginning, I know there is a long way to go. But for now, those four land councils do need the support of this Australian parliament, and we must make sure that all those other traditional owners who are not yet included are very much included into the future.