The dominant discourse in native title amendments is that of … coal?
In June 2015, the Australian Law Reform Commission handed down its final report into the Native Title Act. Amongst its recommendations was the amendment of provisions for the process of authorising Indigenous land use agreements (‘ILUAs’).
Coinciding with the ALRC Report, the Northern Development White Paper proposed a fund to settle all native title claims within a decade.
There has been no response to either the Report and the White Paper that might indicate just how native title processes might be improved, let alone settled, in the short or medium term. All of a sudden however, native title reform is back in vogue. But the heat of debate over proposed changes to ILUA authorisation masks what is at stake.
The contemporary discourse around land tenure in Queensland – and more widely in Northern Australia – is about facilitating economic development (or sometimes ‘growth’). Of little interest in most metropolitan areas, land tenure is of great interest to pastoralists and Indigenous Australians, both of which groups hold tenures ‘less than freehold’. It is also of great interest to government, both state and federal, seeking to promote economic development.
One of the recurrent themes in economic development in the north is the need for ‘secure tradeable’ interests in land. This concept is implicit in the recent Queensland reforms allowing holders of Indigenous tenures to ‘freehold’ their land. The cost of this is extinguishment of native title, albeit in consultation with traditional owners. The implied benefit is the ability to use land as collateral for investment.
This post challenges the received wisdom of freehold as the gold standard of land tenure. I suggest that we should be thinking more creatively about tenure and economic development in the north, in particular respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests in land.