Aboriginal land rights

The Aboriginal land rights movement started in 1966 with a demand for better wages. Ten years later the first Aboriginal land rights act secured Aboriginal people's rights to land.

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What are land rights?

People often forget that the development and prosperity of Australia is largely a result of dispossessing Aboriginal people of their lands, forcing them into slave labour and and denying them basic human rights.

Australia has long refused to give genuine land rights to Aboriginal people. Sovereign land rights would include the full value of minerals and others resources, prompting conflict with the powerful resources industry.

Land rights would also include genuine autonomy. Together with access to adequate housing they provide the foundation for an economic base so Aboriginal people can be independent and don't need to rely on government support. Access, ownership and control of land by Aboriginal people allows for long-term planning and development that will eventually raise their economic, health and social status.

Land rights are fundamental to redressing the past injustices, alleviating social and economic disadvantage.

Ross Watson, a Murri man from the Dawson River, explains land rights from an Aboriginal perspective:

"Land rights means a spiritual and economic base (not in a profit and loss way) and the opportunity to once again become a self-determining people. We are not asking for land rights to be given or granted – we are demanding recognition of our rights to our own land. Land rights include religious, fishing, hunting and camping rights if currently forbidden on all relevant ‘Crown’ land. Land rights includes our right to refuse mining on any part of our land."

When we are talking about land rights we need to distinguish them from native title, another way by which Aboriginal people can claim some rights over land. But what is the difference between land rights and native title?

  • Native title legislation is about recognising Aboriginal peoples’ connection and (often limited) rights to land and water.
  • Land rights legislation in NSW is about compensating Aboriginal people for past dispossession, dislocation and removal of land by handing them back land with all rights (freehold title).

We appreciate the fact that Indigenous people have rights to their land.

— Prime Minister Tony Abbott when visiting the gravesite of land rights campaigner Eddie Mabo on Murray Island in August 2015

1966: Start of the land rights movement

In the 1960s, mining occurred on Aboriginal reserves and on Aboriginal land without any consultation or negotiation with Aboriginal people. But in 1966 the issue of land rights was placed firmly into the national spotlight.

In August 1966, 200 Aboriginal stockmen of the Gurindji people and their families walked off Wave Hill pastoral station in the Northern Territory, initially in protest over their wages.

The strike soon spread to include the more fundamental issue about their traditional lands. The Wave Hill walk-off had started the first Aboriginal land claim.

Gary Foley, a Gumbaynggirr historian, recalls: "In the 60s and 70s, we were talking about real land ownership; land that we could have control over, so we could say 'no, you can’t come in here' or 'we want to do this with our land'. That’s what self-determination is – the power to control your own affairs. Ownership of land is fundamental to this in terms of creating the basis for people to survive the attack of colonialism. Land rights is important because it would provide the means by which the Aboriginal community could go through the process of reconstruction and recuperation."

Ten years later the government ratified the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

Although a significant step in the land rights social justice movement, the Northern Territory Act didn’t apply to NSW.

1977: The NSW Aboriginal Land Council starts work

In October 1977 more than 200 Aboriginal community representatives and individuals met at a three-day conference at the Black Theatre in Redfern to discuss land rights. Participants resolved to form the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) as an independent, specialist Aboriginal advocate on land rights.

The NSWALC campaigned as a voluntary group for land rights until the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) in 1983 (see below).

At this time, the NSWALC did not receive government funding. With the assistance of the oldest Aboriginal education centre, Tranby College, it submitted some 10 land claims to the government between 1977 and 1981.

NSWALC successfully lobbied the Premier and Liberal Party to adopt a new policy which incorporated the resolutions from the October conference. The policy changes, and the claims submitted by the NSWALC, influenced the NSW government to establish a Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly Upon Aborigines (also known as the Keane Committee after its chair, Maurice Keane) in November 1978.

The Committee included representatives of all political parties and was tasked to investigate the causes of the socio-economic disadvantages of Aboriginal people, the effectiveness of government arrangements and land rights for Aboriginal people in NSW.

The committee consulted 4,000 Aboriginal people over two years and released two reports (the "Keane Reports"). In August 1980 it reported on land rights and the protection of sacred and significant sites, in April 1981 on the socio-economic disadvantages of Aboriginal people.

These findings no longer followed the assimilationist policies of previous governments, and were the basis for the committee's recommendation to establish a land rights system and allow Aboriginal people to identify and protect sacred and significant sites.

Aboriginal people would be able to make 'land claims' over Crown, leasehold or freehold land, on the basis of needs, compensation, long association or traditional rights.

A key recommendation of the report was that Aboriginal land rights were fundamental to Aboriginal self-determination and autonomy, and that the economic base needed for Aboriginal self-management depended on providing a viable land base.

In NSW, the struggle for land rights continued with a number of groups undertaking land claims throughout the state, leading to the Aboriginal Lands Trust being established in 1973. Former Aboriginal reserves were given freehold title. The Trust had the power to sell or acquire further lands.

1981: Government establishes the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs

In response to the committee's reports the Labor government established the Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs in 1981. It was tasked with overseeing the drafting of land rights legislation and liaise with other government departments and Aboriginal communities.

In December 1982, the Ministry released a draft Aboriginal Land Rights Bill outlining how a land rights act would address the roles of Aboriginal Land Councils, title to land, rights to land, how disputes should be handled and how the land councils should be funded.

Until the NSW Parliament introduced the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, the NSWALC lobbied strongly and pressed the NSW government to implement the recommendations of the report.

At the same time, especially in rural areas, conservative politicians and industry tried to convince Australians that the legislation would open the floodgates for Aboriginal people to "claim your backyard", a false claim that would nonetheless long remain in many peoples' minds (sometimes until today).

In 1982 a national conference of the Labor Party endorsed nation-wide land rights, including the core principles that Aboriginal people would control mining on Aboriginal land, as well as enjoy mining royalty equivalents and negotiated compensation for lost territory.

Video: The struggle for Aboriginal land rights

Watch a short ABC news report from March 2017

1983: The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act

In the March 1983 federal election the Hawke government had promised legislation to ensure "land rights are achieved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Australia and their cultural sites and objects are fully protected".

In a statement in 1983, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding, outlined the government's five land rights principles:

  • Inalienable freehold title for Aboriginal land;
  • Full legal protection of sacred sites;
  • Aboriginal control over mining on Aboriginal land;
  • Access to mining royalty equivalents;
  • Compensation for lost land.

After the Aboriginal Land Rights Bill was introduced into the NSW Legislative Assembly in March 1983, the NSW government proclaimed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983on 10 June 1983. The Act reflected most of the key recommendations from the first report of the commission (in August 1980).

The Act recognised the dispossession and dislocation of Aboriginal people in NSW and is a key legislation for land rights in NSW. The Act

  • acknowledges the special nature of the relationship between Aboriginal people and land in its preamble;
  • recognises that land is of spiritual, social, cultural and economic importance to Aboriginal people; and
  • states that the decisions of past governments have progressively reduced the amount of Aboriginal land without compensation.

A primary objective of the Act was to return certain Crown lands to Aboriginal people in NSW as compensation for dispossession and the ongoing disadvantage Aboriginal communities suffer as a result.

The Act established a statutory fund consisting of funds derived from annual payments until 1998 of 7.5% of gross state land tax revenue, half of which was set aside as capital to finance Aboriginal development, the other half to fund administration costs and land purchases.

Today the NSW Aboriginal Land Council does not rely on government funding and is financially independent in all its operations.

The Act provided a system of independent Aboriginal Land Councils that obtain inalienable freehold title (full ownership) to land through the process of land claims, purchase or bequests. Importantly, privately owned land cannot be claimed, and a traditional or cultural connection to the land is not required (as opposed to native title).

The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act assists Aboriginal people on the path for social and economic independence through the acquisition of land for housing, business enterprises, education and training as well as promoting Aboriginal culture, identity and heritage.

Following the proclamation, the NSWALC was formally constituted as a statutory corporation under the Act in 1984.

Purpose of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act

  • To provide land rights for Aboriginal people in New South Wales;
  • To provide for representative Aboriginal Land Councils in NSW;
  • To vest land in those councils;
  • To provide for the acquisition of land, and the management of land, other assets and investments by these councils; and
  • To provide for the provision of community benefits schemes by those councils.

Which land could be claimed?


Section 36 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act allows to claim Crown lands which

  • can be lawfully bought and sold;
  • are not lawfully used and occupied;
  • are not needed as residential lands;
  • are not needed for an essential public purpose;
  • are not subject to a native title application; and
  • are not subject to an approved determination of native title.

Key stages in an Aboriginal land claim process

  1. An Aboriginal Land Council (ALC) lodges a land claim
  2. The ALC registers the claim with the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, an independent statutory officer who keeps a register of Aboriginal owners.
  3. The Registrar informs the ALC about the registration of their claim.
  4. The Registrar forwards the claim to the relevant Crown lands minister.
  5. The Minister determines if the claim is successful or not.
    1. If he grants the claim, the title is transferred to the ALC.
    2. If he rejects the claim, the ALC can appeal through the courts.

1984: The mining industry fights back

Two things thwarted these good intentions: Under Australia's federal political system, state governments could still make laws of their own, and they also implemented federal land right policies differently or not at all.

And then there was the mining industry.

In resources-rich Western Australia, the mining industry and the pastoral industry, strongly supported by WA Labor Premier Brian Burke, mounted a major scare campaign against land rights.

By December 1984 Burke had successfully introduced legislation which denied Aboriginal communities the right to veto mining or exploratory activities, and restricted land applications to regions of limited economic consequence.

Although the Labor Party had "solemnly pledged" to legislate Aboriginal land rights, Prime Minister Bob Hawke opposed the move. He withdrew his commitment to the Aboriginal veto over mining activities when Burke convinced him that it could cost Labor as many as eight seats in Western Australia.

Hawke blamed the public for being "less compassionate"; but a secret, 64-page report to the party showed that most Australians supported land rights. It was leaked to The Australian newspaper, whose front page declared, "Few support Aboriginal land rights", the opposite of the truth, thus feeding an atmosphere of self-fulfilling distrust, "backlash" and rejection of rights that might have distinguished Australia from South Africa.

1985: Land rights collapse

In February 1985, the Hawke government announced a new, revamped Preferred National Land Rights Model, dumping four of the five principles outlined in 1983.

The new model:

  • Required no Aboriginal consent for mining on Aboriginal land,
  • Prevented land claims over stock routes, stock reserves and Aboriginal-owned pastoral leases, and
  • Restricted eligibility for excisions.

The new model omitted the Aboriginal right to veto, as well as access to mining royalty equivalents and compensation for appropriated land.

The Labor government in Western Australia and the Labor government in New South Wales both opposed the proposed national legislation but for different reasons.

The NSW government, backed by Aboriginal organisations, opposed the proposed model because it diluted Aboriginal rights, particularly those already enshrined in the NSW Parliament’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1983).

The WA government, backed by the mining and pastoral industries, campaigned against the proposed legislation, arguing it provided Aboriginal people too many rights.

And if that wasn't already enough, the mining industry's anti-land rights campaign ran a multi-million dollar advertising propaganda campaign that "any reasonable person might regard as racist".

1986: The end of land rights?

In the face of the public scare campaign by the mining industry and the withdrawal of support by the Western Australian Labor Party, the Hawke government retreated from its own commitments, feebly claiming that most states have made "advances" towards land rights.

Aboriginal political activists continued to campaign through the 1980s, culminating in a rally and march through Sydney on the day of the 1988 Bicentennial.

What happened to land rights was that the mining industry was too powerful, the pastoral industry was too powerful and the Commonwealth government didn’t have the will to stand up to those vested interest group.

— Paul Coe, Aboriginal activist, Wiradjuri nation

2014: Legal challenge to invader's right to land

The Euahlayi Head of State, Michael Anderson, in 2014 demanded the New South Wales and Queensland governments hand over documents which prove their legal right to the land. He made his claim under traditional Aboriginal law.

Michael Anderson challenged the governments to produce documents that show an official transfer of title deeds from the Euahlayi, a declaration of war and a surrender, and state who officiated on behalf of both parties.

Because Anderson expects both governments to be unable to produce what is in effect their proof of ownership, he is fairly confident his challenge will succeed.

I'm claiming land title. We've been there since time immemorial. I want to know how they shifted Aboriginal law, Allodial Title from my mob to their common law system.

— Michael Ghillar Anderson

Uluru: A symbolic high point for Aboriginal land rights

On 26 October 1985 the government handed back Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) to the Anangu traditional owners, an event which marked a high point for Aboriginal land rights.

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park became one of the first parks in the world to be managed by a board with a majority of traditional owners.

Joint management was guided by tjukurpa – traditional Anangu law and knowledge.

The park is listed twice as a World Heritage area: for its environment in 1987 and for the global significance of the Anangu living culture in 1994.

Every year more than 300,000 visitors come to the site, with a small minority of them disrespecting the sacredness of the rock.

Many visitors link with Anunga Tours, an award-winning company owned and staffed by Aboriginal people.

Meanwhile, in September 2021, the the Queensland government handed back another Unesco heritage-listed site, Daintree national park in far north Queensland, to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people.


View article sources (13)

[1] [1a] 'Smashing The Myths: Native Title is Land Rights",, retrieved 15/10/2013
[2] 'Tony Abbott visits Eddie Mabo's grave on Murray Island', ABC News 24/8/2015
[3] [3a] [3b] 'Our History', NSW Aboriginal Land Council,, retrieved 30/11/2019
[4] The Act only allows to claim land that is not lawfully used or occupied.
[5] 'Mining industry successfully scuppered Aboriginal land rights in Australia during the 80's',, 1/1/2013
[6] [6a] 'Cabinet documents reveal Hawke backtrack on land rights', The Tracker 28/2/2013
[7] [7a] [7b] [7c] [7d] [7e] 'How Bob Hawke killed land rights', Treaty Republic, 28/2/2013,, retrieved 12/3/2013
[8] 'Land Rights and Native Title in NSW: A Guide for the Community', NSW Aboriginal Land Council, July 2014
[9] Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, Section 3
[10] [10a] 'How the Murdoch press keeps Australia’s dirty secret', New Statesman 12/5/2011
[11] [11a] 'Euahlayi People take their fight for their lands to Supreme Court', National Unity Government 22/4/2014
[12] 'Indigenous rock festival', SMH 9/10/2010
[13] 'Indigenous traditional owners win back Daintree rainforest in historic deal', The Guardian 29/9/2021

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Aboriginal land rights, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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