This discussion paper was commissioned as material for a Northern Land Council submission to the Reeves review of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA). It addresses the question, a specific term of reference for the conduct of Reeves' inquiry, of the ëeffectiveness of the legislation in achieving its purpose. Any answers to such a question can only be assessed once we are clear about what Justice Woodward saw as, and how he interpreted, his own terms of reference in formulating the Act. It is important to weigh Reeves' conclusions against Woodward's appreciation of what he saw as the purposes of the legislation. Such evaluations are essential with regard to the core principles of the legislation and Woodward's view that the over-riding objective of such legislation not only benefits Aboriginal people, but does so with due consideration to how Aboriginal people wished to benefit from it. However, Woodward also realised that the legislation could not, and would not, be a panacea for all Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. He recognised that problems existed. Indeed, he had the wisdom to acknowledge that social change and material benefit from the ALRA was likely to occur over several generations.
Important beneficial changes have been achieved. Many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory now have control and secure title to much of their unalienated homelands and traditional countries. Customary law relating to Indigenous land ownership has been recognised within the terms of the ALRA. In addition, secure title has enabled many Aboriginal groups to make decisions for land management and resource development. Significantly, the land councils established under the Act have played an important role in supporting the rights of traditional landowners to consultation and independent decision-making on the basis of social justice and in accordance with the c