Launch of Connection to Country: Review of the Native Title Act 1993—Prof Ros Croucher

Launch of Connection to Country: Review of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (ALRC Report 126), 29 June 2015, Professor Rosalind Croucher, President, Australian Law Reform Commission

Introduction and welcome

Good morning and welcome to this important event. I am Professor Rosalind Croucher, President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, and it is my very great privilege to commence the proceedings.

I warmly welcome:

  • Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO, on behalf of the Attorney-General, Sen the Hon George Brandis QC, who will launch the report at the end of our proceedings
  • members of the Advisory Committee for the inquiry—Dr Valerie Cooms, [Professor] the Hon Paul Finn, Graeme Neate AM, Raelene Webb QC (President of the National Native Title Tribunal), Associate Professor Maureen Tehan, Dr Jonathan Fulcher
  • Warren Mundine, Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council
  • ALRC colleagues – the Native Title team, and
  • all of you here today who assisted us so willingly and well in the inquiry

Welcome all!

In the presence of such eminent guests may I begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, who are the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet—and I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present and acknowledge Indigenous guests attending today. To begin the proceedings I invite Uncle Ray Davidson, Gadigal elder, to provide a ‘welcome to country’.

[Welcome to Country – Uncle Ray Davidson]

And now to the occasion of today—

This is our 40th year as an institutional law reform commission and it is indeed a very special occasion to launch the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 126th report, Connection to Country: Review of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) on the eve of NAIDOC week.

We commenced the inquiry in August 2013, 20 years after the passage of the Native Title Act. For the ALRC it was an occasion also to acknowledge the early work undertaken under by the ALRC into the recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws, completed in 1986. That was a mammoth nine-year inquiry, the ALRC’s 31st report—running to 1,098 pages. It remains one of our most-visited reports on the ALRC website. It has been visited by 85,831 unique users 194,804 times. And, since 2010 it is the 4th most downloaded of all our reports – 5,526 times, counting just our website alone.

This kind of interest, continuing now almost 30 years after the report was completed, also signifies a dimension of importance of the ALRC’s work and impact, even where specific recommendations may not yet find their way into specific legislative action. I describe it as like a pebble in the pond—with ripples of impact. And, significantly, the reflections in that report were ones we returned to in the Native Title inquiry. 

I was delighted that the Attorney-General chose to table our Native Title report in Reconciliation Week, on 4 June, the day following Mabo Day. I am also delighted that the Attorney has asked Senator Sinodinos to attend on his behalf today to launch the report.

The law reform Project—Connection to Country

The central focus of the inquiry was on ‘connection to country’. It was a law reform project but it was tackling an issue which is so transcending, so fundamental for Indigenous peoples of Australia. Where Mabo ‘recognised’ the continued existence of native title, the Native Title Act translated this into law and, since 1993, judges, legal practitioners, anthropologists—and native title claimants—have had to prove the connection that is at the heart of native title as a matter of law.

We were asked to look at aspects of the Native Title Act concerning connection and the authorisation and joinder provisions. What lawyers understand and what the act defines as native title are different from what Indigenous people may understand and desire as land justice. But native title, and the Native Title Act, its definitions and procedural workings, are also hugely significant in the history of Australia. But we do understand that it is only part of a much bigger story. I mention in this wider context:

  • the current discussions about constitutional recognition,
  • the Government’s ongoing commitment to closing the gap, and
  • the forum initiated by Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, into Indigenous property rights

The ALRC inquiry involved many people, all over the country. Lee took her team far and wide and was welcomed everywhere she, and they, went. In developing a reform response we talk to a lot of people. We listen to a lot of people. And a lot of people put in submissions.

It was an extensive, and extremely respectful engagement—162 consultations; 72 submissions.

Thank yous

An inquiry such as this requires many thank yous.

First, I must single out the wonderful work of the ALRC team: Commissioner Lee Godden, who poured her heart and soul into her work; the legal officers of the ALRC—Justine Clarke, Robyn Gilbert, Dr Julie McKenzie, Judith Bonner and Dr Steven Robertson; the production team, under the leadership of ALRC Executive Director Sabina Wynn with Tina O’Brien once again providing key support as Project Coordinator and typesetting everything under the sun; Trisha Manning, designed the cover; and Marie-Claire Muir—our one-woman website ‘team’.

Our part-time Commissioner: the Hon Justice Nye Perram of the Federal Court of Australia.

We convened a very high level Advisory Committee to help us throughout the inquiry. A number of the Committee have joined us here today, including Dr Valerie Cooms, Quandamooka and former CEO of Queensland South Native Title Services. Val has kindly agreed to say a few words in honour of this occasion. She will be followed by Commissioner Lee Godden to explain to you the conclusions that are contained in the report.

And a huge vote of thanks to all those with whom we consulted, all over the country; and to those who put in submissions. The depth of engagement reflected in this process of consultation is the hallmark of best practice law reform and the ability of governments to implement them.

Everyone here today has played a part.

Thank you all!

Next speakers

Dr Valerie Cooms

Dr Cooms, a fulltime member of the National Native Title Tribunal, has extensive experience leading Indigenous affairs organisations in the community and government sectors. She was a Director of Indigenous Business Australia and from 2003 to 2008, she was Chief Executive Officer of the Queensland South Native Title Services.

Dr Cooms is the Chairperson of the Quandamooka Yoolooburabee Aboriginal Corporation, the prescribed body corporate for Queensland’s Quandamooka people.

Dr Cooms’s PhD is in political history from the Australian National University and she is an Adjunct Professor at Griffith University and University of the Sunshine Coast.

Now on her CV is her role on the Advisory Committee for the Native Title inquiry.

Professor Lee Godden

Professor Lee Godden joined the ALRC from the Melbourne Law School, to which she was appointed in 2002 and where she was Director of the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law. She has had a distinguished University teaching and research career spanning more than 20 years. Lee’s doctoral thesis at Griffith University was on the intersections between property law, native title and environmental law. Needless to say, Professor Godden has a long list of publications on native title and resources law.

It was a great pleasure to work with Lee over the period of this inquiry and to benefit from her great experience and knowledge so necessary for this important work.

[Professor Godden’s speech.]