The Northern Land Council and the courts: a legal history

Thursday, 2 June 2016
Kirsty Howey

The Land Rights Act is celebrated as the high water mark of indigenous land rights legislation in Australia, if not globally.   While the focus of lawyers, anthropologists and journalists has quite rightly centred upon Aboriginal people’s attempts to claim, manage or otherwise deal with land under the Act, little scholarly attention has been given (at least in recent years) to the unique apparatus tasked with administering the legislation – the Northern Territory land council.

This paper will turn the lens onto Northern Territory land councils by exploring Court judgments since 1976 which have considered their functions and powers.   These cases include:  Alderson v Northern Land Council (1983) 20 NTR 1, the Stockdale case (Northern Territory of Australia v Northern Land Council and Others (1992) 81 NTR 1), Tapgnuk v Northern Land Council (1996) 5 NTLR 109, the Blue Mud Bay case (Northern Territory v Arnhem Land Aboriginal Land Trust (2008) 236 CLR 24) and Gondarra v Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs [2014] FCA 25.

While necessarily contentious, the litigation of these disputes can provide clarity about what Northern Territory land councils can and cannot do, how they can exercise their powers and functions, what sets them apart from other land councils and representative bodies, and what has made them at once so resilient and yet so divisive.