Our Land Council: The Registrar’s view – Part 2

The role of the Office of the Registrar, Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW) has changed a number of times throughout the history of Land Rights in New South Wales and it’s about to change again.

The bulk of the recent 2014 Amendments to the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act will take effect on 01 July 2015 with others at a later date.

The power to appoint administrators, investigators and advisors to LALCs will be transferred to the Registrar of the Act along with new enforcement mechanisms.

In the last edition we featured the first of a three-part series of this interview with the Registrar Stephen Wright, who reflects on the changes over the years, the highs and lows of Land Rights and he’ll also explain some of the new changes.

Here’s part two.

What are the highlights for you in the history of Aboriginal Land Rights?

There are many, I would have to say the first would be the amendments, which were brokered in 1990 to avoid the repeal of the Land Rights Act. They were very controversial because they most particularly took power away from the Regional Land Councils and that is a wound which I don’t think has yet healed in many Aboriginal communities but I think it’s important because whatever we think about the nature of the amendments, what was stopped was the end of the Land Rights Act, so there’s a balance there and I never offer too much an opinion on the merits of either side of those two things, I just point out to people that, that for me was very significant.

Joint Management

Definitely in 1996 with the passing of the Joint Management legislation in New South Wales, a wonderful thing for the New South Wales Parliament to do.

I was fortunate enough and privileged enough to work closely with Colin Markham, the former Labor MP and with Tim Moore, the former Liberal Party Minister for the Environment. Both men who I’ve been fortunate to call friends over a number of years since that time and both men, who were, as parliamentarians, were very honorable, very clear minded and very tenacious in providing Aboriginal people with a capacity to look after Country, as a result.

Ah, the history of Joint Management since then has been patchy. It’s difficult thing. The two things I’d point out: governments are particularly conscious of the real rent that must be paid. And from an Aboriginal community perspective, it’s a pretty complex governance thing to try and work with and so over time people have struggled with how to make sense of that.

But I don’t care what anyone says, at the end of the day, when I go to an Aboriginal Land Council or an Aboriginal owners meeting on Country and it’s on Country they own and it’s on Country they manage, everyone appreciates and loves that fact, so I think it’s a very good thing.

Changes under the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Andrew Refshauge

I’d have to say after that having lived through a few changes of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. I would have to point to the very significant changes that were made in 2002, when the Land Rights Act was amended essentially because the Independent Commission Against Corruption conducted a very major review of the Local Land Councils, made little or no findings of corruption but made a lot of recommendations as to corruption prevention changes, put out a couple of very helpful research reports and the Government. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act then, looked after by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Andrew Refshauge, whose commitment to Land Rights and Aboriginal people is well understood, amended the Act in 2002 to try and make it more robust.

Changes to the Role of the Registrar

And one of the things that happened in 2002 was the Registrar or the role of the Registrar was removed from being a public servant and made an officer appointed by the Governor under the Land Rights Act as a statutory officer, in other words, given independence. I think that was extremely significant and it’s also extremely important for Land Councils to understand because, the independence can provide the Registrar, whoever that might be, with the capacity to talk very frankly with Government about matters but it could also be something that could harm Land Rights if such person called Registrar chose to be, shall we say, antagonistic towards Land Rights.

So while I think the independence of the Registrar is a very powerful thing, I have always said to Local Land Councils and NSWALC, be very diligent in how that office holder behaves.

An Administrator was appointed to the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council

After that I would have to say a very important event, as sad as that was, was the sacking of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council in about 2004/5 and the appointment of an administrator to NSWALC.

It was a very sad time. NSWALC fought very hard to avoid it. There was a very strongly contested court case, which they lost.

And the late Murray Chapman was appointed Administrator of NSWALC and again that was something which could’ve destroyed Land Rights, it could’ve been an appointment of an administrator who’s tasked, could’ve been tasked with dismantling Land Rights.

Ah, I don’t think Murray was tasked with that by the Government, and not only was Murray not tasked with that but Murray was a fierce, determined and very intelligent Land Rights advocate and campaigner.

Tribute to Yuwaaliyaay man Murray Chapman

Murray Chapman’s principal goal when he was Administrator was to lodge as many Land Claims as he possibly could.

So we went from about 6,000 claims lodged in total to (a current) 37,000 claims lodged in total. He’s not responsible for all that increase but he is certainly responsible for a lot of it.

And subsequent NSWALC claiming blitzes have added to that number, which is fantastic. It’s a right, it should be exercised at every opportunity.

So again Murray was a legendary figure before he came to NSWALC and I certainly think he was no less of a figure when he sadly passed away while he was still at NSWALC.

Note from Editor: The highlights in Aboriginal Land Rights for Stephen Wright will continue in part 3 of our next edition.