What is this Inquiry about?
1.1 This Inquiry into the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) focuses on the legal requirements for recognising native title rights and interests and proving connection; the nature and content (scope) of native title rights and interests; the legal processes for authorisation of an applicant to bring a native title claim; and the procedures governing when persons become parties to an application for a determination of native title.
1.2 Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders may bring an application for a determination of native title rights and interests (a claim) under the Native Title Act. Section 223 of theAct defines native title:
(1) The expression native title or native title rights and interests means the communal, group or individual rights and interests of Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders in relation to land or waters, where:
(a) the rights and interests are possessed under the traditional laws acknowledged, and the traditional customs observed, by the Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders; and
(b) the Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders, by those laws and customs, have a connection with the land or waters; and
(c) the rights and interests are recognised by the common law of Australia.
1.3 In summary, native title has origins in the laws acknowledged and the customs observed by Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders must prove that they have maintained a connection with their land and waters since before European settlement.
1.4 In the native title claim process, it is necessary to identify which Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders are the native title claimants, and the claimants must validly authorise persons in the group to bring a claim. In a successful claim, the court determines who holds native title.
1.5 Native title intersects with many other interests in the Australian community. The Native Title Act contains provisions that set out the persons and organisations that are parties to a native title claim. Relevant state and territory governments and, at times, the Commonwealth government, are respondents to a native title claim. Other persons holding interests in the claim area, such as a mining lease, may also be a party. The Act has provisions setting requirements for persons seeking to join a native title claim.
Why is reform needed?
1.6 The recognition and protection of native title is a central object of the Native Title Act. The Preamble identifies the beneficial purposes of the Act. Reforms around connection requirements, authorisation and joinder are important to ensure that the native title law and legal frameworks effectively achieve such purposes.
1.7 Currently, due to a combination of factors, the law for determining native title is very complex. Contributing to this complexity is the progressively technical interpretation of the definition of native title, under the Native Title Act. Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders must establish a number of requirements that do not appear in the text of the definition in s 223. The Native Title Act and associated case law require an involved process for identifying and assessing the evidence for proving native title. An approach to refocus on the core elements in defining native title and connection may be beneficial.
1.8 While it is important that claims are rigorously tested, these requirements can result in long time frames for determinations. Such considerations, however, must be balanced by the acknowledgment that it is necessary to invest sufficient time and resources in the claims process to secure enduring outcomes for all parties.
1.9 Therefore, reforms are needed to ‘connection requirements’ to simultaneously reduce complexity, while ensuring that the claims process facilitates long-term sustainable outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The claims process also must accommodate the range of interests in the Australian community.
1.10 It is important that the ‘right people for country’ are identified in the claims process and that persons bringing the native title claim (the applicant) are duly authorised by the claim group. Reforms are needed to ensure the authorisation process within a claim group is robust and to reduce potential conflict. Further, there must be effective opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to test the transparency of the authorisation process—if necessary, in the court system.
1.11 Reforms must consider the impacts upon all participants in the native title system, 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.
1.12 In this context, the ALRC has had regard to the complexity of law, procedure and practice; but also the highly significant policy and economic arena in which native title is implemented.
1.13 The ALRC was asked to consider what, if any, changes could be made to improve the operation of Commonwealth native title laws and legal frameworks. The challenge is to consider change in the native title system that advances the recognition and protection of native title in accordance with the Native Title Act, while ensuring that reforms support a robust and productive relationship between all participants.
Consultations and submissions
1.14 The Discussion Paper commences the second stage in the consultation processes in this Inquiry. The first stage included the release of the Issues Paper, Review of the Native Title Act 1993 (IP 45), generating 40 public submissions. The ALRC Inquiry team has undertaken more than 100 consultations around Australia gathering information and views on the Native Title Act. Both the Issues Paper and this Discussion Paper may be downloaded free of charge from the ALRC website.
1.15 In releasing this Discussion Paper, the ALRC again calls for submissions to build on the evidence base so far established and to inform the final stage of the Inquiry leading to the Final Report, which is to be provided to the Attorney-General by the end of March 2015.
1.16 With the release of this Discussion Paper, the ALRC invites individuals and organisations to make submissions in response to the specific proposals and questions, or to background material and analysis.
Fejo v Northern Territory (1998) 195 CLR 96.
Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) s 225.
For example, ‘[T]he reference to rights or interests in land or waters being possessed under traditional laws acknowledged and traditional customs observed by the peoples concerned, requires that the normative system under which the rights and interests are possessed (the traditional laws and customs) is a system that has had a continuous existence and vitality since sovereignty’: Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria (2002) 214 CLR 422, . The law is covered in detail in Ch 4.
The Terms of Reference are set out in full on the ALRC website: <www.alrc.gov.au>.
Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) s 10.
Public submissions are available on the ALRC website: <www.alrc.gov.au>.