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2009 Media Release: Native title turns 15 years old

Commission – General

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Native title turns 15 years old

Fifteen years ago today, Indigenous Australians had their rights to traditional lands and waters recognised when the Native Title Act began operation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma said today. Mr Calma said like all milestones, it was a time for reflection on the Act’s mixed results throughout the last 15 years. The Native Title Act was passed by Parliament after the High Court rejected the doctrine of terra nullius in the famous Mabo decision.

“Passing of the Act was a momentous occasion in the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with the Australian Parliament recognising this country’s real history of dispossession and colonisation. Fifteen years later, and we can see some truly successful outcomes from the Native Title Act, such as the recognition of connection to land and the achievement of other beneficial agreements,” Commissioner Calma.

“We have also seen the broader Australian community change its understanding of native title and move away from a position of fear that native title would threaten suburban backyards toward a renewed reconciliation and the forging of stronger and closer relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” he said.

“But on the other hand, the native title system is also a tough system, which at times can be quite cruel.

“Native title is at the bottom of the hierarchy of Australian property rights. It takes years before a court will recognise it; the compensation provisions have never been used successfully; and the more an Indigenous community has been affected by white settlement the less likely the law will recognise their native title rights,” Commissioner Calma said.     

“The result is that the Act today creates a system which offers extremely limited and delayed recognition of native title. It is now far from the original intent of the law.”

Mr Calma said there had also been increasing pressure on the system in recent times to provide better outcomes for Indigenous peoples. “The federal government has committed itself to forging a new, enduring relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which facilitates reconciliation. The native title system is one of the only legally entrenched systems through which this can be achieved," he said.

“As a result, it holds many of the hopes and aspirations of Indigenous Australians. But as the Attorney-General has recognised, ‘tinkering at the edges is not enough’."

“There is a pressing need for an over-arching, system-wide look at reforming the native title system to ensure the Act can provide the outcomes that are promised.

“We must now move towards a native title system that produces effective and timely recognition of native title rights and interests for those communities that can establish it, but also a system which guarantees a range of other outcomes if they can’t,” Mr Calma said.

Media contact: Louise McDermott 0419 258 597