In August 1966, Vincent Lingiari, a Gurindji spokesman led a walk-off of 200 Aboriginal stockmen, house servants and their families off the Vesteys’ cattle station at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory as a protest against the work and pay conditions. This protest sparked change and in August 1975 at Daguragu, Prime Minister Whitlam transferred leasehold title to the Gurindji. The Gurindji fight for land lead to the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
Anyone that has grown up with parents from a small country town learns the words to Paul Kelly’s song – From Little Things Big Things Grow at a young age but I’m ashamed to stay that growing up in South East Queensland I never learnt about the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. This Act provides for the grant of inalienable freehold title to Aboriginal Land Trusts in the Northern Territory. Approximately 50% of the Northern Territory land mass and 70% of its coastline is Aboriginal Land.
In the Summer of 2019 I travelled to Darwin to undertake an internship at the Northern Land Council. I assisted with summarising large scale agreements, researched intellectual property rights for traditional owners and assisted with drafting contracts. I was surprised at the vast array of matters that the Northern Land Council (NLC) covered. From shop leases to Aboriginal land permits, I was exposed to a range of legal tasks that are specific to the NLC’s function as a land council under the Land Right Act. What I enjoyed most about the internship was being invited to numerous workshops such as, a legal preparation day facilitated by the NLC legal team, a planning workshop facilitated by the Northern Territory Government and a community engagement discussion lead by the community development team at the NLC. I also thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Daly River to discuss an Indigenous land use agreement with a native title claimant.
During my law degree I was disinterested in embarking in a career in native title due to the underlying foundations of the body of law, such as extinguishment, no veto rights and a lack of exclusive possession native title determinations. In 2013 the High Court’s decision of Akiba v Commonwealth recognised the opportunity for commercial native title rights. Prior to Akiba v Commonwealth economic development for Aboriginal communities was envisaged as only being possible through outside intervention, namely through resource extraction and mining companies. I am delighted to hear about the developments to native title which now provide precedent for a right for Traditional Owners to access and use resources for any purpose.
Whilst at the Land Council I researched intellectual property in regards to the Kakadu Plum, a native plant to Indigenous communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Australia has ratified but not signed the Nagoya Protocol, a United Nations Convention on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. Whilst there are still barriers to and challenges in negotiating free, prior and informed consent for use of Indigenous knowledges, I am interested in the possibilities for new kinds of economic development for Aboriginal communities which have the potential to centre customary law, governance and self-determination.
This internship provided me experience in contract law, commercial law, trusts law and intellectual property law. My experience of working at the Northern Land Council has provided me with an appreciation for the challenging and complex arena working across both native title and the Land Rights Act.