The Indigenous Land Corporation: a new approach to land acquisition and land management?

Author/editor: Altman, JC, Pollack, D
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 169


The Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) is a relatively new Commonwealth statutory authority. Although it commenced operations on 5 June 1995, it has only recently started its functional operations of land acquisition and management. However, it is new not only in the sense of its short operational existence, but also in the unique policy mechanisms enshrined in its enabling legislation that aim to provide better outcomes in Indigenous land acquisition and land management.

This Discussion Paper explores those unique policy mechanisms and contrasts them with past Commonwealth policies and practices of Indigenous land acquisition and management. It is argued that notwithstanding these mechanisms, the potential for success for the ILC lies in its ability to substantially address long-standing issues in Indigenous land acquisition and land management. Since the early 1970s a number of Commonwealth agencies have been charged with policy and program responsibility for Indigenous land acquisition and each institution has displayed a comparatively different approach. We suggest that the role of land acquisition as a measure designed to promote policies of self-determination and self-management for Indigenous Australians has rarely been clearly defined. There has been continual shifting between cultural, social and economic objectives; some approaches have focused purely on rural and remote acquisitions, while others have allowed urban land purchase.

The paper demonstrates the combined outcome of market acquisition programs and land rights legislation, noting that it is the latter which has been most successful in addressing Indigenous aspirations to land. More than 15 per cent of the Australian continent is currently under the control of Indigenous interests. Notably, most of this land is located in the rangelands and a large proportion is marginal, overgrazed and degraded, and requires significant financial commitment to restore. The extent and type of land that makes up the Indigenous estate raises significant policy implications for the ILC as one of its major functions is to assist Indigenous people to manage their land regardless of whether that land was acquired by the ILC or another agency or granted through land rights or other laws.

The ILC pursues a policy of acquisition of land purely on the basis of cultural attachment as a means to address Indigenous dispossession - an approach which is derived from the Corporation's primary purpose prescribed in the legislation. While the ILC's policy is based on the sound objective of restoring a land base to traditional ownership, arguably, in strictly enforcing its cultural criteria, commercially viable land which may facilitate important long-term economic development for Indigenous groups can be neglected. Marginal land, on the other hand, because of its cultural significance and ready availability might more easily be purchased. The challenge for the ILC is how to balance cultural and commercial aspirations.

A key feature of the legislation is the ILC's power to establish subsidiaries. This option could add a powerful potential for new policy approaches. In particular, the tensions between cultural and economic development objectives can be addressed in ways that have not been possible before. For example, a land management subsidiary could sub-lease land from traditional owners for commercial operations. There is a view that commercial success requires large tracts of land to generate essential economies of scale: sub-leasing on a large regional basis could provide Indigenous interests with such opportunities.

Although we note that it is too early to definitely assess the performance of the ILC a number of key developments can be observed:

  • the ILC is making considerable progress towards quantifying Indigenous land holdings throughout Australia. The completion of this task will be important as it will provide an essential and rigorous base for further policy refinement and development;
  • three subsidiaries have been established and are in the early stages of development;
  • an overarching subsidiary, Land Enterprise Australia, has been established which has a strict commercial focus and will provide the basis to enhance the ILC's prospects of achieving better economic outcomes on Indigenous-owned land, particularly in its role as a mentoring agency; and
  • investment performance of the Land Fund, from which the ILC is funded, indicates that the goal of financial self-sufficiency will be achieved, thus providing financial resources independent of the budget well into the next century.

The ILC's strategic and proactive, yet cautious, approach augurs well for improved outcomes in Indigenous land acquisition and management that should exceed earlier efforts by others over the past 25 years. The paper concludes by noting that the policy mechanisms enshrined in the legislation and implemented by the ILC are indeed a fundamentally new approach because:

  • the statutorily guaranteed income stream for a Commonwealth statutory authority is unprecedented in Indigenous land acquisition and management;
  • the powers to establish subsidiaries is a significant break with the past; and
  • the ILC has considerable autonomy and flexibility in dividing income between administration, land purchase, land management and investment.

ISBN: 0 7315 2604 X

ISSN:1036 1774

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