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‘What do we want?’: A political history of Aboriginal land rights in New South Wales

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Heidi Norman

‘What do we want?’ is the first study of the most far-reaching and innovative Aboriginal land rights laws in the country. Heidi Norman tells a story full of possibility, tensions and entanglements as Aboriginal people took up the political demand of self-determination and worked to address their community disadvantage, all the while grappling with the expectations of government.

The laws, passed in 1983 by the Wran Labor Government, provided a mechanism for recovering land and the fifteen-year funding stream, to compensate for loss of land and culture, was intended to fund the more than 120 representative Aboriginal land councils, as well as support Aboriginal-run enterprises.

Yet chronic disadvantage continues for many Aboriginal people in NSW and Aboriginal land councils are yet to fully realise the expectations of their members.

‘What do we want?’ reveals the challenges of Aboriginal adjustment to modernity as Land Councils focus their efforts on profitable enterprises to resource community social and cultural initiatives.


By recognising their ancient and customary right to land, the New South Wales government created the opportunity for Kooris and Murris to become modern subjects of government. Stepping away from any conception of ‘Indigenous rights’,  Norman draws on the Foucauldian concept of ‘governmentality’ to pose a cooler question: how have Aboriginal intellectuals refashioned themselves in order to perform their ‘rights’? Her pioneering study of Indigenous neo-liberalism reminds us that emancipation is an experiment in new selves. Tim Rowse

This is a very welcome, long overdue and vitally important book. It combines compelling writing with deep research and insightful analysis to trace how Aboriginal people – and NSW politics – have been changed since 1983 by the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Aboriginal communities have been inextricably drawn into the processes of governance as they struggled to turn vision into reality. The strengths and limitations – and the continuing tensions – in Aboriginal land politics are explored as well as the remarkable continuity of optimism and hope. Heather Goodall