Skip to main content
Logo DMDC Logo NMA

‘Land rights now’

1976: Australian Government passes the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act

Photo: Ken Middleton. National Library of Australia obj-149418663
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. How important do you think the Australian Government's Aboriginal Land Rights Act was in the growth of Aboriginal rights in Australia? Give reasons for your answer.

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Aboriginal Land Rights Act is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>‘We Want Land Rights Right Now’ sign, used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, 1972</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

In December 1976 the Australian Parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. It was the first legislation in Australia that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to claim land title (ownership), if they could prove their traditional connection to the land.

‘We Want Land Rights Right Now’ sign, used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, 1972

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What did Aboriginal people begin to do more often from the 1960s to draw attention to land rights?

2. Give one example of a major land rights protest before 1972. Why was the example you chose important in the growth of the land rights movement?

3. Which government began drawing up the first land rights legislation, and which government actually passed it?

Why did Aboriginal people lose control of their land?

In 1788 British settlers and convicts colonised Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples began to lose control of their land as the white settlers spread across the continent. Aboriginal people resisted colonisation, but many communities were no longer able to live on their own country.

In the Northern Territory, the colonisers set up large pastoral stations. Many Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory were able to retain a connection to their land by working on these pastoral stations. But Aboriginal workers were usually treated badly and very often not paid for their work.

‘Every part of Australia — had a name and use and belonged to someone.’

John Bugi Bugi, 2015

How did land rights protests begin?

From the 1960s Aboriginal people and their supporters began to organise protests, strikes and petitions. They argued that Aboriginal people should have more control over their traditional lands. For example in 1963 the Australian Government announced that a new mine would be built in north-east Arnhem Land. They did not ask the Yolngu people who lived on the land. The Yolngu sent a bark petition to parliament asking that they have a say in whether the mine was built. Although the government denied the Yolngu’s request, this was an important moment in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights.

In 1966 the Gurindji people at Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory went on strike. They demanded higher wages as well as the return of some of their traditional lands. This dispute lasted for nine years and helped to make the Australian public aware of the issue of Aboriginal land rights. By the early 1970s the Aboriginal rights protests had grown. In 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up on the lawns opposite Parliament House to put pressure on the government to give Aboriginal people control of their land.

Research task

 

Why did the Australian Government make a law about land rights only for the Northern Territory in 1975? Has this situation changed? Hint: Follow this link to another defining moment to find out:

1992 Overturning terra nullius Mabo decision

How was the Land Rights Act passed?

In 1972 the Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam came to power. The Whitlam government set up the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission to look into how land rights could be recognised in the Northern Territory. In 1974 the Commission recommended that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory should be able to claim land title if they could prove they were the traditional owners of the land. Before the Whitlam government could create the new land rights laws, a new conservative Australian Government came to power. But this Coalition government, led by Malcolm Fraser, also supported Aboriginal land rights.

In December 1976 the Australian Parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. It was the first legislation that allowed Aboriginal people to claim land title. Today, about 50 per cent of the Northern Territory is owned by Aboriginal communities.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task

 

Find out when other Australian states and territories passed similar land rights legislation.

Research task

 

Are there any native title claims in your region? You can use the National Native Title Tribunal website to find out:

National Native Tribunal Website

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What did Aboriginal people begin to do more often from the 1960s to draw attention to land rights?

2. Give one example of a major land rights protest before 1972. Why was the example you chose important in the growth of the land rights movement?

3. Which government began drawing up the first land rights legislation, and which government actually passed it?