Regionalisation of Northern Territory Land Councils

Author/editor: Levitus, RI, Martin, D, Pollack, D
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 192


The dispersal of the powers exercised and functions performed by the two major land councils has been the subject of debate and recommendations on a number of occasions since the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 came into effect. The Reeves Review of the Act in 1998, and the subsequent Inquiry into that Review by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (HORSCATSIA) this year, have raised the issue to prominence again and ensured that it will be dealt with in the coming round of statutory amendments.

This Discussion Paper considers the steps that have been taken towards regionalisation under the current provisions of the Act, and compares models for further regionalisation proposed by David Martin, the two land councils, and HORSCATSIA. These proposals, while more moderate than that of Reeves in that they all presume the continued existence of the Northern and Central Land Councils, differ on a number of points. Regionalisation within or outside the existing land council structures, provision for local initiative in seeking devolution, and the role of the Minister, are among the matters at issue in an attempt to secure both increased local or regional autonomy and improved land council efficiency. Funding of regionalised bodies also demands attention, given the criticisms directed at this aspect of the Reeves model.

This paper goes on to express concern that regionalisation has been accepted as a self-evidently desirable policy, and that insufficient critical attention has been paid to the advantages expected to flow from its implementation. We begin our critique by distinguishing between 'administrative' regionalisation and 'decision-making' regionalisation of land council functions and powers. We then separate out the real process of decision-making from the formal act of decision-taking in the scheme of the Act. Most importantly, we point to the already localised character of decisions by traditional owners under the informed consent provisions, and argue that the primary danger posed by regionalisation is that the regional decision-takers will trespass upon the decision-making prerogatives of the traditional owners.

While in our view this problem is a threat to the fundamental distribution of authority under the existing Act, and is sufficiently serious to call into question the rationale for moves towards greater regionalisation, the breadth of opinion, including local Aboriginal sentiment, in favour of more localised autonomy, needs to be accommodated. We therefore argue for a number of measures in mitigation. Establishing regional areas of sufficiently large size, each represented by a committee or council of sufficiently small size, and serviced, in the case of internal land council regionalisation, by professional staff employed through the central organisation, are steps intended to protect the informed consent procedures of the Act. Some formal certification procedure witnessing the adequacy of those procedures in each case should also be introduced as part of the conditions attaching to the affixing of the land council common seal to agreements. As only some of these measures are available in the case of independent, or 'breakaway', land councils, some caution is due in approving more of these, especially in assessing the spread and depth of popular support.

ISBN: 0 7315 2627 9

ISSN:1036 1774

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