Indigenous Land Rights

Clare Turnbull

Please be aware this flyer contains images of deceased people and may be upsetting for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

Indigenous History

There's no clear date of when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands arrived in Australia. It may have been 60,000 years ago or longer (Australian Museum, 2009).

Indigenous communities cared for and respected the Australian land and surrounding environments, and it is therefore very important to them. The relationship between Indigenous people and land is often misunderstood (NAIDOC, n.d.).

Australia was rich in precious Indigenous culture with Aboriginal dreaming stories that took place on the land, along with many other traditions. This rich culture was very important to the Indigenous population, so the recognition of being the traditional land owners is something they really care about (Australian Museum, 2009).

When conflict over land rights began, Aboriginal people were disconnected from the nation, when their right to own land was taken away.

Invasion, Colonisation, and Conflict

The First Fleet (11 Ships from Great Britain) arrived in Australia in 1788. Upon arrival they took control of the land without consent or permission from the Indigenous communities (Wikipedia, 2013). Different cultures, traditions, beliefs, and opinions caused conflict.

The British claimed that they discovered Australia and the land was 'Terra Nullius', meaning that the land belonged to no one. This was far from true, as various Indigenous communities had different ownerships of the land and environment (Pearson, 2013).

Terra Nullius also meant that a nation could have control and power over other nations only by agreement from all nations, or through war. There was no official war, but Australia was not calm, united, or settled as a nation (Reconciliaction, 2007). There was a lot of conflict, as Indigenous people felt entitled to keep their land.

The First Proposed Agreement

Due to claiming the land was 'Terra Nullius', the British felt as though they had total ownership of the land, and that there was no need to negotiate with the Indigenous population (Australian Government, 2009). However, in 1834, a deal was made between John Batman and the Indigenous population, to trade 200,000 hectares of Port Phillip District land in exchange for money and other items. The Government did not agree to this deal, as the Queen was the official owner of the land, and an individual (John Batman) was not permitted to make a deal regarding the Queen's land (Reconciliaction, 2007).

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The Tent Embassy

On Australia Day in 1972, Aboriginal activism resulted in a large protest where tents were constructed outside Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. This protest occurred because Indigenous people were getting frustrated at their lack of rights. It showed how much the land meant to the Aboriginal communities, and how much it upset them for it to be taken away and claimed to be 'Terra Nullius'.

There were new land right policies that allowed people to mine on Aboriginal reserves and sacred land. Policies also limited the land that the Indigenous could work on, but totally excluded all rights to forests and mineral areas (Pearson, 2013).

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy attracted positive public interest and had supporters. Many politicians visited the protest camp, including 30 labour party members who were in support of giving the Indigenous more land rights (Pearson, 2013).

This protest embarrassed the Government, and as a result the police arrested several Aboriginal protestors and forced the embassy to end, However, this was not the complete end of the Tent Embassy, as there were more tent protests.

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Self Determination Policy

The Self Determination Policy allowed Indigenous people to have more say about events in Australia, and could also have greater input into the laws and policies that affected their communities. Aboriginal people could practice their cultural ideals and traditions whilst still abiding by the law. This policy was a positive move that benefited the Aboriginal communities.

The Goals of Land Rights

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, gave Justice Edward Woodward the role of coming up with ways that land rights could be introduced that meet the needs of both Indigenous communities and the Australian Government.

Woodward wanted a stable environment that provided justice to indigenous Australians and preserved their spiritual link with the land. He wanted to promote Australia as a harmonious country where indigenous people were fairly treated (Pearson, 2013).

Woodward's vision incorporated basic compensation in the form of land, for those who were prevented from having rights they would have inherited from their ancestors. It also included distributing more land where it will please the number of Indigenous people (Pearson, 2013).

In 1976, the "Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976" bill was passed, and this was a somewhat modified policy of Justice Woodward's vision (Pearson, 2013).

Eddie Mabo

Eddie Mabo is a famous indigenous Australian known for his major contribution towards promoting Indigenous land rights.

Mabo was born on Mer Island (also known as Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. In 1960, Mabo was employed as a gardener at James Cook University in Townsville. He never enrolled in school, but learnt by sitting in on classes, and by reading books from the university's library.

Eddie had a conversation with someone and spoke about Mer Island. He mentioned that the land he came from was not actually his land, but it belonged to the Crown's (Queen's). This made him upset and angry, because he realised that his people were the first people in Australia, and the land actually belonged to his ancestors. This realisation brought anger to him, and made him want to take action in changing the law 'Terra Nullius'. (Pearson, 2013).

In 1981, he attended a land rights conference and spoke negatively about the Crown ownership of the land. A lawyer who was at the conference told Mabo that he should take his case (claiming against 'Terra Nullius') to the High Court to see if anything could be changed (Pearson, 2013).

In 1982 Mabo went to court. His points were dismissed because he was Benny Mabo's son, and he could not claim inheritance. The case continued at the Queensland Supreme Court (Pearson, 2013).

The dismissal of Mabo's ideas caused conflict as other people also believed that due to the unbroken generations of Mabo's people living on Mer Island, the land should be rightfully theirs. People believed that Mabo's family deserved traditional native title. This was an indication of support for Indigenous land rights.

After Mabo died, the High Court changed their mind. In 1992, the landmark decision was made. The 'Terra Nullius' law made by the British when they settled in Australia, no longer had restrictions against the Indigenous owning land.

Indigenous people were now recognised and had native title of land that they continued to live on, with Aboriginal traditions, laws, and customs (Wikipedia, 2013).

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The Native Title Act

The Native Title Act was established on the 1st of January in 1994, by the Labour Government who wanted to clarify the Mabo case. Indigenous people were finally allowed to apply for formal recognition of their land.This Act stated that ownership could be taken over vacant and free land. This act never jeopardised private property or ever put it at risk, however there was uncertainty over pastoral leased land.

The Wik Decision

The Wik Decision involved the question of whether pastoral leases could be obtained by the descendants of traditional land owners. The Court case between the Wik people and the Queensland Government began in January in 1996. Justice Drummond declared that the Wik people could not have pastoral leases as under Queensland law this would destroy native title rights (Pearson, 2013). The Wik people appealed and in December in 1996, the High Court decided that pastoral leases did not give farmers exclusive rights to the land. The court decided that the Wik people and the farmers who leased the land could co-exist (Wikipedia, 2013).


Many farmers and politicians had a strong negative reaction to the decision. Those people against the concept of co-existence tried to scare the Australian public by making false claims, including people's private homes and gardens being affected by land right ownership. These scare tactics created anger and confusion, and even more conflict (Pearson, 2013). This showed that there was not 100% support for Indigenous land rights.


"We don't want to keep people off our land. We want to share. We don't want to drive the pastoralists away. They are not our enemies. We helped to build that industry and need it to be strong for our future too. We just asked the Court to find that we can live alongside pastoral leases on Cape York. We want the government to recognise that we are the traditional owners of those lands. Our law is the first law..." (Pearson, 2013)

From 'What the Wik Decision Means to Us', by Denny Bowenda in Native Title, edited by Kaye Healey, vol. 93, The Spinney Press, 1998

The 10 Point Plan

The 10 point plan was introduced by Prime Minister John Howard in May 1997. This was in response to the negative reaction from the Wik Decision, and also pressure from farming and mining companies. This pressure lead to a change of policy and the Native Title Act was amended (Pearson, 2013). These changes reduced the amount of native title land that Indigenous people could own. They also limited the Indigenous's population's ability to negotiate with industries and mining companies etc. This was a huge step backwards to solving the on going issue of fair land rights (Australian Museum, 2013).



"The pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights was 100% successful and fully supported by the Australian population."

The pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights was not 100% successful or fully supported by the Australian population. Since the first settlers arrived in Australia in 1788 (Wikipedia, 2013) and the British colonists claimed that the land was 'terra nullius' (meaning the land belonged to no-one), the indigenous population of Australia has experienced difficulties getting the Australian population to recognise their land rights (Pearson, 2013). It is fair to say that despite some significant progress being made at various times in the past 225 years, the pursuit of land rights has not been 100% successful.

The Tent Embassy on the lawns in front of Old Parliament House in Canberra in the early 1970's symbolised how unhappy indigenous people were about their lack of land rights. For over 180 years, the land rights of Indigenous people were still not recognised (Pearson, 2013). The Labour Government of that time, were the first Government that began to seriously consider land rights. This pleased the Indigenous population but made many politicians angry.

The Mabo case, decided in 1992, is perhaps the most significant event that has occurred in relation to Indigenous land rights. After Mabo's death, the highest court in Australia, decided that Terra Nullius no longer had restrictions against Indigenous people, meaning the Indigenous could be associated with their land (Australian Museum, 2009). The Labour Party, created the Native Title Act which finally allowed Indigenous people to apply for formal recognition of their land (Pearson, 2013). The Mabo Case increased awareness and support for the Indigenous communities. However, there was still confusion about obtaining pastoral leases, and who could apply for these leases (Pearson, 2013). This confusion was addressed in the Wik decision.

. This was one of the most negative decisions regarding Indigenous land rights. This was when obtaining pastoral and farming leases for the Indigenous was declined, and not accepted (Pearson, 2013). The Wik Decision had a strongly negative reaction, especially from farmers and politicians. There was a lot of conflict, and arguing, as many people did not like the idea of co-existence (Reconciliaction, 2007).

In 1997, many years later, the Liberal Party introduced the 10 point plan. This was the legal and official change of conditions to the Native Title Act (Pearson, 2013). These changes reduced the amount of native title land that Indigenous people could own. They also limited the Indigenous's ability to negotiate with industries and mining companies etc. (Reconciliaction, 2007). This was a huge step backwards to solving the on going issue of just land rights. Indigenous communities felt as they they were being discriminated against, which made them very angry.

Overall, the pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights were not 100% and were not supported by the Australian population. Many Indigenous communities felt mistreated and upset, and many still do. While there have been several attempts and protests that aimed to have fair land rights for everyone, not all of them have been successful.


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