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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Aboriginal rights

In the 1960s change was in the wind. There was a series of events which would have a dramatic effect on Aboriginal people involving their right to vote, their inclusion in the census, and their right to ownership of their land.

At that time electoral regulations provided that Aboriginal people could not enrol or vote if they were declared as wards as defined by the Welfare Ordinance referred to earlier in this chapter. Nearly all Aboriginal people were declared wards before they attained voting age. In April 1961 a Select Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament was appointed to examine the voting rights of Aboriginal people. It reported that some 17,000 Aboriginal people had been declared wards in the Northern Territory, and it recommended that the Commonwealth Electoral Act be amended to provide that the right to vote at Federal elections be given to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults.9 The recommendation was accepted and in 1962 all adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were granted the right to vote in Commonwealth elections.

In August 1966 Vincent Lingiari led a walk off from the Wave Hill pastoral station, located in the western part of the Territory. The walk off was a result of long-standing grievances over the payment of wages and treatment of workers by the pastoral companies. It was soon apparent, however, that the group was also seeking ownership of their land.

On 27 May 1967 Australians were asked in a referendum to agree that the Commonwealth should be able to make laws for Aboriginal people in all States and Territories, and that all Aboriginal people should be included in the census. Previously, the Commonwealth was only able to make laws for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, while State governments made laws for Aboriginal people in their own States. The referendum was an overwhelming success, with 90.77 per cent of Australian voters approving the proposal.

As part of its manifesto for the 1972 election, the Labor Party, apart from promising to create a portfolio department for the administration of Aboriginal people, also pledged to address the issue of land rights. In February 1973 the Government appointed the Commission on Aboriginal Land Rights to inquire into means whereby Aboriginal people might be given freehold title to their traditional lands. In the Commission's second and final report, it recommended the creation of an Aboriginal Land Commission for the Northern Territory which would prepare a register of traditional claims to pastoral lease lands, and investigate and make recommendations concerning Aboriginal claims to pastoral lands and Crown lands.10

An Aboriginal Land Rights Bill was drafted but not put into effect before the Whitlam Government lost office in 1975. The Government of Malcolm Fraser supported the issue and in May 1976 Ian Viner, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, sent a submission to Cabinet recommending the implementation of land rights legislation.11 Cabinet approved the recommendation on 25 May 1976, and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill was introduced into Parliament. Although there was strong opposition from the pastoral lobby, the legislation passed in 1976. It provided for Aboriginal land trusts to have inalienable freehold title to traditional land on Northern Territory Aboriginal reserves, and other vacant Crown land. It also provided for a series of Councils to administer the land, and for the payment of royalties for the privilege to mine on Aboriginal lands.

Selected records relating to Aboriginal land rights policy and legislation
National Archives, Canberra
Aboriginal land rights policy, 1968–72 A5882, CO1179 parts 1 to 3
Aboriginal Land Rights Commission – folders of correspondence, 1973–74 A4251
Aboriginal Land Rights Commission – major submissions, 1973–74 A4252
Aboriginal Land Rights Commission – exhibits, 1973 A4254
Aboriginal Land Rights Commission – transcripts of public hearings, 1974 A4258
Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill 1976, 1976–83 A1209, 1976/1902 parts 1 to 6
Inquiry into Aboriginal Land Rights by Mr David Hay – draft final report, 1976 A1209, 1977/459
Inquiry into Aboriginal Land Rights by Mr David Hay – submissions, 1976 A1209, 1977/464 parts 1 to 3 and attachment
Implementation of party policy on Aboriginal land rights A12909, 314
National Archives, Darwin
Aboriginal land rights conference, 1974 F1, 1974/721
Aboriginal land rights Bill, 1974–75 F1, 1976/3243
Aboriginal land rights policy, 1975–82 E460, 1983/386 parts 1 to 4
Cabinet submission – implementation of policy on Aboriginal land rights, 1976 F133, 1976/121
Woodward Commission, 1976–77 F1, 1976/2828
Aboriginal land claims general Aboriginal land rights, 1979–83 E517, 32.1.7 parts 1 and 2

Aboriginal Land Commissioner

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 created the position of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner who was empowered to investigate and report on Aboriginal claims to unalienated Crown Land in the Northern Territory, and to recommend the granting of legal title to Aboriginal Land Trusts for the benefit of traditional owners.

In the ensuing years a number of land claims have been heard and land titles awarded to traditional owners.

Selected records of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner
National Archives, Darwin
Correspondence relating to Aboriginal land claims and administration of the office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, 1973–ongoing E530
Department of Aboriginal Affairs – records of the Interim Land Commissioner, 1973–77 E1132
Folders relating to Aboriginal communities and outstations, 1977–ongoing E531
Federal and High Court decisions and appeals, 1977–ongoing E1475
Aboriginal land claims reference material, 1977–ongoing E1476
Records of Aboriginal land claim hearings, 1977–ongoing E1477
Miscellaneous material relating to hearings of various Aboriginal land claims, 1980–ongoing E1133

Land Councils

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act also created of a series of land councils. Their role is to ascertain and express the wishes and opinions of Aboriginal people concerning the management of Aboriginal land; protect the interests of traditional Aboriginal owners of land; and to consult with traditional owners of land concerning proposed uses of that land.

Initially there were three Councils: Northern, Central and Tiwi (the last including the Tiwi Islands – Bathurst and Melville). In 1991 a fourth Council: Anindilyakwa, recognising the interests of traditional owners in Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island, was created.

Records of Northern Territory Land Councils held by the National Archives
National Archives, Darwin
Correspondence – relating to lands, 1978–ongoing E1508
Correspondence files, 1985–ongoing E1509
Correspondence files – Gove Office, 1985–ongoing E1510
Correspondence files, 1977–96 E1569
Minutes of meetings, 1977–ongoing E1615

Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory

The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory was appointed by Federal Parliament in December 1976, specifically to examine and report on the provisions of land rights legislation relating to the identification of traditional owners of Aboriginal land and establishing their views; and the adequacy of the legislation with respect to entry to Aboriginal land, protection of significant sites, and wildlife conservation. The Committee held hearings over 11 days in 1977 and heard from 65 witnesses.

In its final report, presented in August 1977, the Committee concluded that the methods adopted by the Northern and Central Land Councils were appropriate to identify traditional owners of Aboriginal land.

Earlier, when approving the drafting of land rights legislation in May 1976, Cabinet had also recommended that complementary legislation dealing with entry to Aboriginal lands and the protection of sacred sites might be drafted by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. In March 1977 the Aboriginal Lands and Sacred Sites Bill was tabled in the Assembly. It dealt with the protection of sacred sites, entry to Aboriginal land, and the entry to seas adjoining Aboriginal land. The Joint Committee found that some of the provisions of the Bill were inadequate and recommended a series of amendments after more consultation with relevant groups.

In concluding its report the Committee stated that the Land Rights Act was the most significant piece of legislation affecting Aboriginal society in the Northern Territory, and that it had been a catalyst for a number of dynamic changes to Aboriginal life style. It recommended that Parliament maintain a continuing oversight of the legislation, particularly in view of the tensions that might arise from conflicting uses of Aboriginal land, mainly mining and tourism.

Note that records of the Parliament (such as Series A12818 listed below) are not subject to the standard public access arrangements for Commonwealth records, and are only available following specific approval of the appropriate Parliamentary presiding officer.

Records relating to the Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory
National Archives, Canberra
Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory and Inquiry into Ranger Uranium Environment, 1976–77 A12818
National Archives, Darwin
Joint Select Committee hearings on Aboriginal land rights, transcript of evidence, 1977 F1, 1977/1741

Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund

The Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund was established in 1952 in order to ensure collection of royalties from mining undertaken on Aboriginal reserves. Following the passage of land rights legislation the Fund changed its name to the Aboriginal Benefit Trust Account in 1978. It is this agency's responsibility to act as a clearing house for mining royalty payments, and to use some of these payments for the benefit of Aboriginal people.

Selected records of Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund
National Archives, Canberra
Legislation for the establishment of a trust fund for royalties on minerals won from Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, 1952 A6006, 1952/12/31
Aborigines Benefit Trust Fund policy, 1967–72 A1734, NT1971/966
National Archives, Darwin
Aboriginal Trust Fund, 1944–52 F1, 1948/67
Aboriginal Trust Fund, 1953–58 F1, 1957/773
Minutes and agenda papers, 1969–ongoing E1346
Miscellaneous functional records, 1970 E1348
Correspondence and loan application files, 1971–78 E1009
Correspondence files, 1978–ongoing E1010
Grant applications, 1979–ongoing E1097


Chapter notes | All notes

9 Australia. Report from the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aboriginals, October 1961; Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1961), volume II, pp. 1391–406.

10 Australia. Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, Second Report, April 1974; Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1974), volume 1, paper 1, pp. 131–2.

11 NAA: A12909, submission 314, Implementation of party policy on Aboriginal land rights, May 1976.


Chapter 8
Aboriginal People of the Northern Territory