From High Watermark To Low Ebb? How Aboriginal Rights Debates in Australia have informed Land Reform Policies in the Northern Territory

Stream: Panel 19 - Australian Politics / Media & Politics: Indigenous Rights in Australia
Date: Monday, 26 September 2016
Time: 2.00 pm – 3.30 pm


The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (Cth) 1976 has been described as a ‘high watermark of Aboriginal land rights legislation’ in Australia. Under the Land Rights Act, a process was instituted to enable Aboriginal people to make land claims based on traditional connections to the land; the definition of ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’ was codified for the purposes of land claims; and land councils were established to consult with and obtain the consent of traditional owners in land dealings. Almost forty years on, successive federal governments introduced changes to the underlying title of land which had been transferred to traditional owners through the claims process under the Land Rights Act. In contrast to the ‘high watermark’, the recent reforms have been criticised for moving decision-making from traditional owners to government and non-government entities not under the control of traditional owners. The paper assesses whether recent land reforms represent changing attitudes towards unique Aboriginal land rights and traditional owners being able to determine how their land is used and managed, as argued by a number of scholars in the field. This assessment involves situating recent land reforms in the Northern Territory within the history of Aboriginal land rights recognition and Aboriginal rights debates in Australia over the last forty years. The paper reviews current inquiries into the reforms and contends that the weak spots are the limited attention paid to the institutionalisation of Aboriginal land rights, developments in the Aboriginal rights debates, and the influence of both on the reforms.


Trang Dang (Presenter), Griffith University
Trang Dang is a Master of Philosophy candidate at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. Trang is completing a dissertation on the objectives and outcomes of federal reforms to Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory 2006-2013.

Trang has worked as a policy and programme officer in the Northern Territory and Canberra with community development organisations, the Northern Territory government and the Commonwealth government.