Land Council Boss Unleashes On Nigel Scullion Over Land Rights Assault


The head of the powerful Northern Land Council has used a national address to savage Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion’s attempts to water down land rights in the Territory, saying attacks on the legislation was “in the DNA of the CLP”.

Chief Executive Officer Joe Morrison gave a stirring National Press Club address yesterday following the tabling of the seventh annual Closing the Gap report card. Prime Minister Tony Abbott described his report card – which showed government was failing to reach even half of its targets – as “profoundly disappointing”.

Mr Morrison warned of the threat of the Country Liberal Party in the NT to the nation’s first land rights legislation – the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act – proposed by Gough Whitlam, and then passed by Malcolm Fraser’s government.

It was a true show of “bipartisanship” that would never be achieved today, Mr Morrison told the Press Club.

But he said the CLP’s current attempts to wrangle control of Aboriginal lands under Howard-era amendments that allowed 99-year-leases shows “the NT CLP is eying off the NT lands which were put beyond their reach by the Land Rights Act in 1976, and why they failed to recover at self government in 1978”.

“Perhaps their intention would be to dispose of these lands on the private market,” Mr Morrison warned.

The NLC head has savaged Senator Scullion’s plans to push 99-year-leases onto Aboriginal townships. Despite it being actively pursued by the Minister, so far only one community – Gunbalanya in Arnhem Land – has signed up to it.

The leasing model hands the 99-year lease to the Commonwealth Executive Director of Township Leasing, in exchange for basic services and infrastructure which is the right of any other Australian citizen.

“The NLC’s advice to our constituents has been consistent: be careful about a township lease, because if you consent to it, it could be the last decision you’ll ever make about development on your land,” Mr Morrison said.

“You’ll be handing ultimate control and your property rights to the Commonwealth of your land which you and your ancestors fought hard to get title to many years ago.”

He also raised concerns that the Traditional Owners at Gunbalanya hadn’t given free, prior and informed consent.

“When the agreement was subsequently explained to them in their own language, Kunwinkju, they came to realise they hadn’t understood important ramifications of the Commonwealth offer,” Mr Morrison said.

“From our point of view, given that we have to be assured that Traditional Owners have given their free, prior and informed consent, it was a revealing exercise.”

Mr Morrison said leasing was not completely opposed by Traditional Owners, but that they wanted to retain control over their land and not hand it over to a Commonwealth authority.

Mr Morrison also said Senator Scullion’s attempts to devolve important functions of the NT’s land councils into regional corporations was inconsistent with the Abbott government’s overall policy approach.

“No other Government has seen fit to ignore the political history of the Territory and allow the CLP to get its hands on the land rights machinery,” Mr Morrison told the press club.

“And it seems clear to us that the Senator is pursuing an Indigenous policy agenda of the Country Liberal Party, rather than the broad-based Coalition policy approach enunciated by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.”

He said the attempts to move the legislation through the Senate nearly a year ago would remove several essential functions from land councils, and from the hands of Traditional Owners.

Mr Morrison said to “the Minister’s intense annoyance”, the Senate disallowed the regulations and the NLC “were very personally abused by him for successfully lobbying against them”.

The NLC CEO also attacked NT Chief Minister Adam Giles’ push at the last COAG meeting to investigate tenure and the use of Aboriginal lands.

“Many of the State governments have now joined the Territory and the Commonwealth in this ambush, which was buried in a COAG communiqué and promulgated without any prior involvement or consent by Aboriginal Traditional Owners or affected people,” Mr Morrison said.

He said the result is yet another review of the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Mr Morrison ended his address by urging governments to work with Aboriginal people in “consultation, compromise and agreement”.

He also told them to keep their hands off the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act, legislation that has been fought for by generations of Aboriginal people.

“The Land Rights Act is very special legislation.  It should not be the plaything whereby Government conducts its latest social engineering agenda,” he said.

“Any change to the Act threatens property rights, and that should rattle all Australians who own property.

“Top-down policies have failed miserably, and Aboriginal people know it.  They feel it day in and day out.”

He said a “brighter future can exist” if Aboriginal people are “placed squarely in the frame of northern development and trade”.

In response to Mr Morrison’s press club address, Senator Scullion brushed off criticism by suggesting Morrison was proposing conspiracy theories.

“Where do you start? It’s a conspiracy to steal Aboriginal land and sell it?” Senator Scullion told the ABC.

“You had an opportunity to speak at the National Press Club, I would have thought you would use it more wisely.”

He also said he had a friendly relationship with some members of the NLC executive.

"I know them very well, and perhaps that's why there is a fairly robust nature to the relationship."

He claimed Traditional Owners wanted to deal with their land themselves, rather than “the land council from Darwin dictating what they do to their land.”

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