Traditional Owners are Wards of the State: Federal Court Threatens Land Rights. Appeal Pending

The Rirratjingu people of Arnhem Land have been devastated after the Federal Court has determined they themselves hold no land rights – which are instead deferred to a Land Council.

The implications of Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation v Northern Land Council [2015] FCA 36 are significant, with the Court ruling that Traditional Owners are the equivalent of a ward of the state.

The dispute is linked to the Northern Land Council’s division of royalties from a bauxite mine on the Gove Peninsula in North East Arnhem Land, but the implications are far wider.

Having disagreed with the NLC’s decision on royalties, the Rirratjingu asked the Federal Court to decide which land was theirs and what their fair share should be.

The Court determined that they cannot, and that Land Councils – which are essentially Commonwealth bureaucracies – decide borders and royalties.

Bakamumu Marika is Chairman of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, and explains the situation that this will put not just the Rirratjingu people, but all traditional owners in.

“What this means is that there is a two-tier system in Australia, where traditional owners do not have the same rights to their land as other Australians do to theirs,” he said.

“Traditional ownership is necessarily different in some parts, but unnecessarily different in others.

“In this case, most Australians can appeal to the courts, where traditional owners must appeal to Commonwealth bureaucracies – and our view is that this is not right.

“To put it another way, if a non-Indigenous person is owed rent, they can go to Court and get an order for payment, while a traditional owner must go to a Land Council and hope it agrees.

“The judgment says if you don’t agree with Land Council decisions, you’re pretty well stuck with them, which is a problem if you’re in legal conflict with the Land Council, as we are.

“The Rirratjingu have received final confirmation from the Federal Court that they have no land rights – which are instead deferred to the NLC. We are a ward of the state.”

Wanyubi Marika is the Vice-Chairman of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, and commented on the way forward.

“We were expecting to lose the case, and we are therefore expecting to appeal,” he said.