Assault On Land Rights: SA The Next State To Try And Water Down Laws


The South Australian government has used the last sitting week of Parliament before the Christmas break to try and pass amendments to the state’s land rights law, giving itself greater powers to dismiss elected Aboriginal representatives and allow ICAC officers into Aboriginal lands without a permit.

It’s been condemned as “draconian”, an attempted land grab, and a return to the days of the “Aboriginal superintendent” by the elected governing body over the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands – the APY Executive. 

The amendments to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 were announced by the state’s Aboriginal affairs minister Ian Hunter earlier this week. It was introduced to parliament today, and is being debated this evening.

Traditional owners won freehold title to the APY Lands in 1981 under Premier Don Dunston, through the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act.

There have been a series of amendments since then, some focusing on governance and changes to the Executive Board.

These proposed amendments follow allegations of corruption made in a series of articles published by the Australian in November. The APY Executive says the proposed amendments are instead about watering down land rights, and not dealing with the alleged corruption.

The Australian newspaper has reported they allegations relate to the sacking of APY General Manager Bruce Dean, who has taken the case to the Supreme Court.

The APY Council of Elders has also reportedly called for an administrator due to the allegations.

In a statement last week, the APY Executive said it believed it had “just grounds” for terminating Mr Dean and the matter was now before court.

It’s been reported in the Australian today the Liberal Opposition has offered bipartisan support to Hunter’s proposed amendments.

In a statement released last week, Mr Hunter said the amendments included the power to suspend the APY Executive board and appoint and administrator “exercisable on any ground the Minister thinks fit”.

Currently, the act allows for the Executive Board to remove a member by passing a resolution agreed to be two-thirds of the board, due to reasons identified in the legislation.

The minister can direct the board to remove a member if that member has failed to attend six or more consecutive meetings or if he/she has failed to act in their duty of care and diligence, has failed in their duty to act honestly, has failed in respect to their duty of conflict of interest or failed in the code of conduct.

In the statement, Minister Hunter says the aim of the legislation was to “restore good governance” following a period of “significant instability” which saw seven different General Managers since 2010.

He claims the amendments do not “undermine APY’s right to hold and manage its own land through its elected representative body”.

“Under existing legislation there is only limited power for the Minister to intervene in the governance and management of the APY. I can only do so in special circumstances following a direction to the Executive Board to take action to address a failure of a specified kind, and only if the Board fails to comply with that direction,” he said.

“This process could be long and drawn out. This amendment would prevent any delay inherent in the existing legislation.”  

Mr Hunter would also amend the legislation to let Independent Commission Against Corruption investigators to enter the APY lands without a permit.

The permit system allows Anangu people the right to determine who can enter Aboriginal lands, whether it be visitors, government workers or members of the media. It’s seen as a right for Aboriginal people to be able to control who can come onto their lands, and the circumstances under which they come.

In response, the APY Executive this week released a statement stating the allegations of corruption were “unsubstantiated” and did not justify the amendment of legislation and the watering down of Aboriginal control over the lands.

The amendments follow the handing down of the report of a limited review of the legislation, which recommended changes to governance including gender balance on the executive and that the executive members have no serious convictions recorded.

It followed a series of consultations throughout the APY Lands.

In a comment on the proposed amendments, the APY Executive said the state government “can seize control of the APY Lands at any time and without regard to the wishes of Anangu, who own the land”.

“These changes will reduce the self-determination for Anangu embedded in the original Act, to a toothless tiger, effectively turning the clock back 30 years to the days of ‘the Aboriginal Superintendent’”.

It said if the SA government wanted to amend the land rights act to deal with the alleged corruption of the executive, “why haven’t relevant authorities briefed on the matter announced investigations or prosecutions”.

“Just because something is written in The Australian (newspaper) doesn’t mean it is so. Why is the SA Government trying to change laws when it has not exhausted existing laws to address their concerns about the APY?

“The actions of the SA Government reveal its primary aim: Not to address corruption by using existing law, but to cease control of the APY Lands by changing the law.”

The Executive says the government is trying to appoint an Administrator while also trying to push through changes to the Land Rights Act which have already been rejected by the Executive.

The Executive has labelled the attempts a “smokescreen” to allow government greater power over APY freehold land.

“By default this would include the final say over decisions concerning major development projects, notably including the recently announced $106 million dollar road upgrade and pending mining negotiations,” it said.

The APY Executive labelled the reporting of the allegations by The Australian as facilitating this move.

“There has been no media reporting to date on the possible underhandedness of the SA government. Nor that their neglect over the years has led to an eroded organisation that lacks resources.”

The SA government’s proposals to water down its own land rights laws comes a month after the NSW government tried to pass legislation to extinguish land claims over coastal areas without consultation with Aboriginal groups.

It also follows a push by the federal government for 99-year leases over Aboriginal land in the Territory, and calls by NT Chief Minister Adam Giles to “stop talking about land rights” and move onto “economic development”. A review into land administration was agreed to at a COAG meeting earlier this year. 

It also comes as the WA government announced plans to close down up to 150 remote communities in the state following an agreement with the Commonwealth to transfer infrastructure and municipal services in remote Indigenous communities back to the state.

The Commonwealth also signed an agreement with the SA government, which suggests remote communities could close if the federal government ceased funding the services.

“There is to date no balanced air play of the above pertinent Aboriginal land rights issue,” the APY executive said.

“Instead it appears to be a covert and strategically underhanded attack by State government on a people who have few resources to fight back and staggeringly little access to media coverage which is an essential part of democracy.

“It is a silent killing of rights hard won by Anangu in the 70’s and extremely sad to witness for anybody who still cares about a vision of Aboriginal self-determination.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.