On 25 August 2021, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 (the Bill) was introduced into Australian Parliament. The Bill aims to empower Northern Territory Aboriginal peoples by activating the economic potential of their land.
- The Bill will establish the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation which will invest in Aboriginal businesses and commercial projects.
- The Bill also aims to streamline the administrative process for mining and exploration on Aboriginal land.
- Changes are proposed to enhance the management and control of Traditional owners over Aboriginal land and associated administrative processes.
The Bill aims to achieve economic empowerment by amending the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) (Land Rights Act) in the following 4 key areas.
Establishment of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation
The Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA) was set up under the Land Rights Act to receive and distribute funds equivalent to the royalties generated from mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.
Traditionally, ABA funds are used for, among other things, operational funding for Land Councils, payments for traditional owners and other Aboriginal people affected by mining operations, funding for township leasing, administration of the ABA and payments for the benefit of Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory.
In recent years, the balance of the ABA has grown in tandem with an increase in mining activities. Further growth is forecast for the next decade. In this context, the Bill proposes to use funds for strategic investment in Aboriginal businesses and commercial projects and to make other payments for the benefit of Aboriginal Territorians.
If passed, the Bill will establish the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation (NTAI Corporation) to carry out this investment and payment function. The NTAI Corporation will be an Aboriginal-controlled body corporate entity. The Federal government will make an initial investment of $500 million in the NTAI Corporation followed by $60 million annually for three years.
Streamlined exploration and mining provisions in the Land Rights Act
The Bill aims to streamline processes associated with exploration and mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. Notably, this includes improving the application and consent process for exploration on Aboriginal land in the following ways:
- where a Land Council provides notice of consent for the grant of an exploration licence, the Minister’s consent will no longer be required;
- applicants will be able to amend their application without having to start afresh; and
- Land Councils will have more flexibility in holding meetings with Traditional Owners.
Other administrative changes are proposed that are focused on achieving greater efficiency and consistency.
Improving and clarifying land administration
Under the Land Rights Act, Aboriginal land may be leased, including over whole townships. The Bill proposes to adjust this regime to:
- prescribe the process for which a body may be nominated and approved to hold a township lease;
- clarify that Land Councils can enter into agreements in respect of leased land;
- improve the permit system for access to Aboriginal land to allow minority groups within Traditional Owner communities to issue permits and refuse to revoke them; and
- increase the penalty for unauthorised access to Aboriginal land from 10 penalty units to 50 penalty units.
Other administrative streamlining changes are proposed, including:
- raising the contractual value for which Land Councils require Ministerial approval from $1 million to $5 million; and
- repealing underutilised provisions which give Land Councils the ability to delegate functions to Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (Cth) corporations.
Aligning the ABA with the Commonwealth’s financial framework
Schedule 4 of the Bill deals with technical amendments relating to the ABA. Primarily, the Bill proposes to align the ABA with Northern Territory legislation for the payment of mineral royalties.
Having been read for a Second time in the House of Representatives, the Bill will be debated in the coming weeks. Those interested can track the progress of the Bill on the Parliament of Australia website.
By Melanie Debenham, Partner, Emily Wilson, Senior Associate and Kate Thresher, Graduate