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The great federal land grab

By Jennifer Clarke - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2007

I wouldn’t be a Northern Territory traditional landowner for quids.

This is not just because of the much-publicised drawbacks of remote community life - it’s also because I’d probably lose as much as I’d gain from the Commonwealth’s “Northern Territory Emergency Response”. However, I guess I’d be accustomed to taking one step forward and another unpredictable one back - it’s the rhythm of life in Indigenous affairs.

As a Canberra resident, I enjoy a high level of government service delivery. I also own land - admittedly not freehold, but title which I regard as secure. I don’t expect government to deprive me of it any time soon, and I particularly don’t expect this to happen so that someone else can live in my house. Nor do I expect to be asked to surrender my property as a precondition for receiving other government services like policing.


But under the “Emergency” Bills introduced last week, in order to receive services which begin to approach those which I enjoy, NT traditional Aboriginal owners will lose control of their land for five years, and not on the usual terms.

Normally, when the Commonwealth takes property rights like the “Emergency” five-year compulsory leases, it does so under the Lands Acquisition Act, which applies Australia-wide and requires due process and “just terms” compensation. The Hawke government was even prepared to extend this courtesy to Mr John Clunies-Ross in its efforts to exclude him from the Cocos Island territory, where (according to the United Nations) he lived in a “feudal” relationship with the rest of the population.

The “Emergency” Bills do require either rent or compensation or both, but they attempt to limit these payments in at least five other ways. Limited compensation was not what the government promised traditional owners - or the Australian public.

First, although rent (as determined by the Commonwealth Valuer-General) can be paid for these leases, this will only happen if the Commonwealth Minister allows it. Unless this clause is amended to make the payment of rent compulsory, it is likely to go unpaid.

Second, the Bills displace the general statutory guarantee in the Northern Territory Self Government Act of “just terms” compensation for acquisition of property. I couldn’t imagine this guarantee (which has an ACT equivalent) being displaced if the property belonged to a resident of my suburb or the Darwin equivalent.

Third, the Bills attempt to direct courts to reduce compensation if housing or other improvements on the land have been publicly funded. Imagine the uproar if governments took such an approach to compulsory acquisition of homes which had been subsidised by the first home buyers’ scheme or negative gearing!


Fourth, the Bills provide “a reasonable amount of compensation” if the Constitution requires “just terms”. Even if these two terms mean the same thing, the Commonwealth appears to be gambling on compensation for this particular acquisition not being constitutionally required. This is like putting up a sign saying “If you want the money, you’ll have to take us to the High Court”, which is not what you’d expect in an “Emergency”.

The Commonwealth appears to be betting on being able to overturn or distinguish a narrow 1997 High Court decision that gave Newcrest Mining “just terms” compensation under the Constitution when land over which it held mining tenements was included in Stage 3 of Kakadu National Park. Some of the majority judges’ reasoning in this case depends on them treating the national parks legislation as operating nationally, whereas the “Emergency Response” will be limited to the NT, where historically (before Newcrest) compensation was not constitutionally guaranteed.

Fifth, the “Emergency Response” Bills contain several provisions which confer on government housing authorities rights which may avoid the technical constitutional definition of “acquisition of property” which triggers “just terms”. For example, they allow these authorities to occupy and manage publicly-funded housing on Aboriginal land - apparently indefinitely. These rights will only be conferred if traditional owners agree, but who will be able to resist a good housing package? If the Commonwealth wants to occupy land long-term, it should offer the landowners rent - as it does for government offices in Canberra. A public housing authority wouldn’t expect to be able to build dozens, perhaps hundreds, of houses on my land for free, just because it provided me with one of them.

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First published in The Canberra Times on August 13, 2007.

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About the Author

Jennifer Clarke is a Canberra lawyer

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