Connections to and caring for land have been central to the lives of Indigenous peoples in Australia for thousands of years. The Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) has released a Draft Bill to focus attention on a key land issue for the future. The Draft Bill seeks to strengthen and protect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Account and mark an important stage in the journey towards greater recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within our nation.
The Land Account and the Indigenous Land Corporation were legislated together, some 20 years ago, as part of the national settlement following the High Court’s recognition of native title in the Mabo judgment. The Land Account provides partial compensation for the vast majority of Indigenous Australians who are unlikely to benefit from the Native Title Act because they have been dispossessed of their land.
Revenue from the Land Account, which currently has a fixed capital base, provides guaranteed funding for the ILC to buy and manage land for Indigenous Australians for a range of social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits.
The provisions in the ILC’s Draft Bill, if legislated by the Australian Parliament, would place the Land Account above and beyond politics. Its unique and historic status would be recognised. Indigenous involvement in the management of the ILC and the Land Account would be strengthened. The current ILC Board’s commitment to accountability would be locked in for the future. And the Land Account would be able to grow over time. A stronger ILC and a larger Land Account would ensure greater land-related benefits for current and future generations of Indigenous Australians.
Above all, the Draft Bill would prevent the Land Account from being used for anything other than its original legislated purpose: to buy and manage land for Indigenous Australians.
Though an Australian Government statutory authority, the ILC is uniquely independent. Decisions on use of Land Account funds are made by the ILC’s Board, where five out of the seven directors including the chairperson are required to be Indigenous Australians. The Draft Bill elevates the importance of the ILC’s independence. It emphasises that major policy changes affecting Indigenous Australians require a conversation with Indigenous Australians.
The Draft Bill has been released in the context of the current review of the ILC and another agency, Indigenous Business Australia (IBA). This review was initiated by Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator the Hon. Nigel Scullion, in December 2013, and reported to government in mid-February 2014.
There has been little or no consultation in relation to this review, and just a small window for submissions. The review’s terms of reference asked whether there should be greater ministerial control over the two agencies, and whether they should be amalgamated. Hitherto the Land Account and the ILC have gone hand in hand. An amalgamation of the ILC and IBA would disrupt this bond, and would open the Land Account up to being diverted to other possible uses into the future.
We do not yet know what the ILC/IBA review has recommended. We do know that Minister Scullion has promised a ‘major overhaul’ and of the ILC and IBA.
In the interim, the ILC is releasing the Draft Bill to help ensure the review process takes a positive and constructive direction. We are urging the Government and the Parliament to implement the important changes proposed in the Draft Bill as the core of any reform package.
The Land Account and the ILC were part of the ‘grand bargain’ of the mid-1990s. This was a high point in Indigenous peoples’ struggle for recognition in this nation. After the Mabo judgment, Indigenous leaders sat down with the executive level of government to negotiate. For the first time in Australia’s history, they were at the table as equals in a national matter of profound significance to them. We need to be at the table again.
As Australia moves towards another landmark—the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution—we must preserve and build on the achievements of the past.
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