Northern Territory (NT) Land Rights Act (1976)

The NT Land Rights Act gave Aboriginal people a say over land development through informed consent but governments are constantly chipping away on "the Mt Everest of land rights".

Close this Cover of Aboriginal Culture Essentials

Wishing you knew more about Aboriginal culture? Search no more.

Get key foundational knowledge about Aboriginal culture in a fun and engaging way.

This is no ordinary resource: It includes a fictional story, quizzes, crosswords and even a treasure hunt.

Stop feeling bad about not knowing. Make it fun to know better.

Sold! Show me how No, thank you

Introduction of the NT Land Rights Act 1976

The NT Land Rights Act(Land Rights Bill) was introduced on 16 October 1975 and became law in 1976. Under the act, more than 50% of the Northern Territory was returned to traditional Aboriginal owners in the following 30 years .

The NT Land Rights Act gives Aboriginal people a strong say over what should happen on their land, through the principle of informed consent. It allows traditional owners to keep their culture strong and to negotiate constructively with governments and developers over mining and infrastructure projects.

The Act was a consequence of the Wave Hill walk-off in which 200 Aboriginal people had walked off a cattle station. Initially fighting for equal wages their protest soon turned to the core issue, land rights.

The 1976 Act was the high point, the Mt Everest of land rights.

— Ian Viner QC, Aboriginal Affairs Minister (1975-78) under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser

Unfortunately, many non-Aboriginal people, including governments (past and present) and resource industries, perceive the Act as a threat to their economic, social and political influence in the Northern Territory , a fear that let governments make various amendments (see below).

The Act helped establish Aboriginal Land Councils.

“The Land Councils were always under relentless attack accused of being political for standing up for land rights and their responsibilities to traditional owners and Aboriginal communities,” notes Ian Viner. Vines helped push the Act through the Commonwealth Parliament.

Watch a short ABC report from 2017 about the struggle for Aboriginal land rights:

Community Living Areas (CLAs)

While the NT Land Rights Act gave many Aboriginal people their traditional lands back, those whose country was on a pastoral lease, were left out.

Unless the traditional owners had bought the pastoral lease, it couldn’t be claimed as Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act . As pastoral leases are very expensive and difficult to buy very few people got their land back in this way.

Otherwise Aboriginal people could only claim Crown land. On pastoral leases, the only Crown lands were the stock routes, so during the 1980s, many Aboriginal people put land claims on stock routes.

In 1989 the government made a unilateral "Memorandum of Agreement" that it would hand back some areas of stock routes and reserves, amend the Land Rights Act to stop any more stock route land claims, and make a law for people to be able to apply for Community Living Areas (CLAs) on station country.

Community Living Areas are small Aboriginal living areas excised from pastoral leases to allow Aboriginal communities to keep their links with their traditional country. The law doesn’t provide an easy way to secure land for Aboriginal people and puts a lot of restrictions on how the land can be used.

However, community living area title could not be taken back by the government, it enabled the exclusion of some mining and exploration, and could not be sold . Governments in the past have provided housing and other facilities for the CLA communities. Northern Territory intervention legislation allows the government to significantly regulate CLAs.

Without CLAs many Aboriginal people would be landless on their own country and have to move to towns. CLAs are vital to the future well-being of the Aboriginal people.

Amendments to the Act

"The Act... must be one of the most reviewed pieces of legislation ever,” says Ian Viner AO QC, former Aboriginal Affairs Minister, who helped push the Act through parliament.

The Act was reviewed in 1983 (Toohey), 1998 (Reeves), 1999 (House of Representatives Standing Committee), 1999 again (Manning), 2006 (Gray), 2007 (NT intervention) and 2013 (Mansfield).

Amendments to the Act always sought to increase access to Aboriginal land, change tenure, remove permits, weaken the veto power, reduce the roles of Aboriginal Land Councils and increase the power of the bureaucracy and the minister.

Following the Gray review in 2006 the Act was amended significantly to the worse of Aboriginal people. It allows an unspecified "government entity" to control townships for 99 years and sublease blocks to whomever it wants. Aboriginal people are no longer in control, and they lost their right to negotiate benefits from those who seek to use their land (usually the resources industry).

To cap it all, the costs for implementing this policy will be covered by the Aboriginal Benefits Account which was established for the benefit of Aboriginal peoples and funded by mining activities on their land .

Media described 99-year town leases as a "threat like never before" with the potential to "turn traditional ownership upside down" . They put the government back into ownership and control of traditional Aboriginal land like it was before the Land Rights Act was passed.

The big question is: What happens in 99 years? Will the government of that day decide to return ownership to Aboriginal people?

This [99-year leases] is another invasion; this is another colonisation, another approach of taking over everything. You know you cannot sell land for something, the land is so precious you cannot do that.

— Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra, Northern Territory
A cartoon showing Prime Minster Robert Hawke saying 'You won't exactly own the land, but you can live out there for as long as you like' to an Aboriginal man holding a newspaper with the headline 'Government backs off national land rights'.
Land but no rights. A cartoon from 1988 depicts then-prime minister Robert Hawke and the dire straits Aboriginal land rights were in . The PM watered down land rights to allow mining and pastoral activities on Aboriginal-owned land. Graphic: George Haddon

The Respect and Listen website has compiled a timeline of events concerning the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act.

Homework: Find out the government's true motives

The Independent Australia speculated that the government created 99-year leases "to avoid having to compensate Aboriginal people on just terms under the Constitution for taking control of their traditional lands" with the objective of "permanent alienation of traditional land from Land Trusts" .

  • Using source as a starting point, research what the true motivation of the government could be.
  • Imagine you are the government. What would you say to your fellow politicians, what to the public and what to Aboriginal people?
  • Try to find evidence for your assumptions.


View article sources (6)

[1] [1a] ANTaR NSW Newsletter 8/2006
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] [2d] 'The Aboriginal Land Rights Act: The past, present and future’, Ian Viner QC, Land Rights News, April 2016, pp.6-7
[3] [3a] 'Community Living Areas', Central Land Council,, retrieved 5/4/2013
[4] [4a] [4b] 'Abbott and Forrest’s assault on Indigenous land rights', Independent Australia 31/10/2014
[5] 'A modern day invasion threatens Aboriginal community', SBS News 11/11/2013
[6] 'Beyond a Joke - An Anti-Bicentenary Cartoon Book', 1988,, retrieved 6/2/2012

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Northern Territory (NT) Land Rights Act (1976), <>, retrieved 17 June 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

Join thousands of Smart Owls who know more!