Chris Graham, editor of the National Indigenous Times, writes:

The
Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976 is the best piece
of Indigenous social justice legislation in this country. It is also
regarded by some people as the best land rights act on earth. Its
provenance is bipartisan. Whitlam conceived it. Fraser got it through
parliament. And now the Howard Government is gutting it.

Two key
features of the ALRA are: (1) traditional owners have the right to veto
mining, and (2) traditional owners’ interests are protected by land
councils who are financially independent of government. This week in
parliament, the Howard Government has introduced changes to wipe out
the independence of land councils.

Under the changes, the
financial resources of land councils will now come under the direction
of Mal Brough. He will decide their level of funding, how they spend
their money and direct their resources.The Minister is also proposing
to give himself the power to delegate land council functions to other
bodies – bodies he has created and funded.

What does this mean
in practical terms? For a start, the changes will only really be
relevant in the NT because the States have their own land rights
powers. But it means that in effect the previously powerful NT land
councils are dead. They will no longer serve traditional owners. They
must do the bidding of the government.

So what is the intent of
the amendments? It’s no coincidence that most of Australia’s uranium
sits in the Northern Territory and on Aboriginal land. At present,
traditional owners can veto mining on their land with the support of an
independent, well-resourced land council. In the future, while their
right to veto will be preserved, their capacity to enact it will be
gone.

The federal government explains the objectives of the ALRA
amendments thus: “The principal objectives are to improve access to
Aboriginal land for development, especially mining, to provide for the
establishment of devolved decision making structures for Aboriginal
people, and to improve the socio-economic conditions of NT Aboriginal
people.”

This proposed legislation is the biggest tragedy for
Aboriginal people since Federation. If it passes it will be an
unmitigated disaster for Indigenous social justice not just in the
Territory, but all over the nation. It is far worse and much meaner and
trickier than the 1998 Wik amendments.

So will the ALP ark up
and leap to the defence of Aboriginal people? Well, NT Chief Minister
Clare Martin helped design this legislation, so I think that probably
answers the question.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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