The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was signed off by the Governor General on 16 December 1976, having passed through Parliament two days earlier. That was its acme, four decades ago.
Since then, various governments have tinkered with it, always with the effect of diminishing its value to traditional Aboriginal owners. As Ian Viner QC, the Minister who steered the Land Rights Act through Parliament, has said on the occasion of this 40th anniversary, “it must be the most reviewed piece of legislation on the books”.
And still the Act is being tinkered with, this time as a result of the COAG inquiry into Indigenous land administration and land use The continuing push to develop the north will undoubtedly lead to greater pressure to diminish further what remains for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory a powerful expression of their rights, the envy all other jurisdictions that provides for a process of free, prior and informed consent.
The political mantra that tenure of Aboriginal land is an impediment to economic development has become a refrain of those who would still wind back the clock to those days when the Commonwealth Department of the Interior wanted to lease land on Reserves to all-comers without the consent or consideration of the people that have lived there for thousands of years.
For now, though, the right of veto enshrined in the Land Rights Act remains a backstop that is not available to Aboriginal people in the north who have only a bundle of fragile rights under the Native Title Act. Native title holders in the Northern Land Council region, too, are feeling the pressure of northern development, as proponents of huge schemes like the Ord Stage 3 irrigation and a huge prawn farm on Legune Station press for extinguishment of native title.