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The Australian National University

Reforming the Northern Territory Land Rights Act’s financial framework into a more logical and more workable model

Working Paper 5 / 1999


The financial framework of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA) has never been based on sound economic principles or even logical accounting, let alone clear and transparent policy messages or even obvious directives to Indigenous interests in the Northern Territory. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that Justice Woodward tried hard to accommodate pre-land rights vested interests in his Royal Commission recommendations that were largely incorporated into the legislation enacted in 1976 and which became law on Australia Day, 1977. Nevertheless, it is also apparent that Woodward did not intend that the financial framework remain unaltered, by and large, for 25 years after conclusion of his Commission in 1974 (Woodward 1974).

The recent recommendations of the Review of the ALRA by John Reeves propose radical reforms to the financial framework of the legislation. Rather than restructuring or reformulating the prescribed statutory allocations of the current financial framework, Reeves recommended that it be replaced by discretionary allocations determined by a new statutory authority—the Northern Territory Aboriginal Council (NTAC). The Review’s recommendations have been criticised widely for many reasons. Much of this criticism has been focused on the radical reform of institutions, the methodological approach of the Review, and a lack of understanding of key concepts and constructs within the legislative framework (for example, the concept of traditional ownership). Most notable amongst the criticisms is that directed at the Reeves notion that the Land Rights Act should be the primary framework to facilitate Indigenous socioeconomic advancement in the Northern Territory (see, for example, Altman, Morphy and Rowse 1999).

Our discussion here is not a detailed critique of the Reeves Review; rather that Review is placed in the sequential history of a series of reviews over the last two decades. The major focus of this Working Paper is to re-examine the logic and historical policy legacies associated with the financial streams of monies paid under the Land Rights Act. This is an issue that is neither rarely explored nor evidently understood by past and current reviewers. We intend to proceed firstly by re-a