Review of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)

Connection to Country: Overview

1.1          This Report marks the first major review of the law governing ‘connection’ in native title claims since the introduction of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘Native Title Act’). In tandem it examines authorisation of persons bringing claims and joinder of parties to a native title claim. The recognition of native title in Mabo v Queensland [No 2] (‘Mabo [No 2]’),[1] and the introduction of the Native Title Act, marked a significant shift in Australia’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is important that the claims process for determining native title effectively recognises and protects native title rights and interests, while balancing the wide range of other interests that are affected by a native title determination.

1.2          On 3 August 2013, the then Attorney-General of Australia, the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP, requested that the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) conduct an Inquiry into, and report on Commonwealthnative title laws and legal frameworksin the following areas:

  • connection requirements relating to the recognition and scope of native title rights and interests; and

  • any barriers imposed by the Act’s authorisation and joinder provisions to claimants’, potential claimants’ and respondents’ access to justice.

1.3          ‘Connection’ generally refers to the relationship that Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have with their traditional lands and waters. Reform to the law governing connection requirements under the Native Title Act poses significant challenges. The definition of native title in the Native Title Act draws on Mabo [No 2], but the requirements to prove native title under s 223 of the Act have been reinterpreted over time. Parties, subsequently, have ordered their practices, including negotiation of consent determinations on this basis—‘in the shadow of the law’.

1.4          For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the recognition of native title has immense significance as acknowledging their first occupation of Australian land and waters, and it brings the potential for tangible benefits. The recognition and protection of native title is a central object of the Native Title Act—and the Preamble identifies the beneficial purposes of the Act. Reforms of connection requirements, authorisation and joinder are important to ensure that native title law and legal frameworks achieve efficiencies but remain consistent with such beneficial purposes.

1.5          The law for determining native title is complex. The Native Title Act requires that Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders must prove they have maintained a connection since before European settlement. Difficulties in the proof of native title stem from two sources. First are the inherent problems of establishing rights and interests that area possessed under traditional laws and customs with origins from the pre-sovereign period.

1.6          Second, these difficulties are increased by the amplification of requirements for proving native title, such as the need for a ‘normative society’.[2] The ALRC considers that an approach to the law defining native title that more fully acknowledges that traditional laws and customs may adapt, evolve and develop, while still retaining the core elements of native title ‘connection’, is in keeping with the beneficial objectives of the legislation. While it remains important for claims to assess whether Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have substantially maintained their connection to land and waters, the requirements for proof should be more flexible, and facilitate an efficient and equitable claims resolution system.

1.7          While it is important that native title claims are rigorously tested, the extensive requirements may result in an involved claims process for determinations. Such considerations, however, must be balanced by the acknowledgment that it is necessary to invest sufficient time and resources to secure enduring outcomes for all parties.

1.8          The claims process also must accommodate the wide range of interests in the Australian community ‘affected’ by a native title determination. Effective and fair provisions governing parties and joinder of parties to native title proceedings play an important function in this regard.

1.9          It is important that the ‘right people for country’ are identified in the claims process and that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples bringing the native title claim (the ‘applicant’) are duly authorised by the claim group. The authorisation process is costly. The role of the applicant can generate conflict, but it can also be the basis for building governance and capacity within the native title group. Reforms are needed to ensure the authorisation process is robust, transparent and able to reduce potential conflict.

1.10       Consideration should also be given to considering the impacts of reform upon the native title system as a whole, especially as native title operates across many sectors in Australian society. Certainty is an important consideration for third parties who may deal with native title claimants.

1.11       In this context, the ALRC, in formulating its recommendations, has had regard to the development of the law, procedure and practice over the 20 years since the Act was introduced, as well as the significant policy and economic arena in which native title is implemented.

1.12       Native title has the capacity to contribute to the improvement of the economic circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If native title is to provide an effective platform for future development, then a prerequisite is ensuring an equitable process within the law governing connection requirements.

1.13       The Inquiry has also looked to the future and how native title law might develop over the next 20 years and beyond. In 2007 the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provided international standards upon which to base a ‘constructive partnership’ between nations and their Indigenous peoples to employ best practice principles in a range of legal and policy areas.