Our Land Council: The Registrar’s view

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.

Some key amendments to the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act will take effect on 1 July, 2015, with others at a later date to be determined.

The power to appoint administrators, investigators and advisors to LALCs will be transferred to the Registrar of the Act along with new enforcement mechanisms will take effect at a later date.

Over the next few editions we’ll feature 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 1…

Stephen, tell us what your role as the Registrar entails?

When the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was proclaimed and commenced in 1983, the Act provided for a thing called the Registrar and the main reason it did that was that it needed someone to register land claims.

That role is still there today for me as Registrar and has been and should continue after my time but the role has changed a lot in those 30 years and what’s happened over time is – it’s changed because the Land Rights Act has been amended.

So probably the first big change in the role is 1996 when the NSW Parliament said, there shall be joint management of conservation Lands between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people. What we kind of colloquially call the joint management program, of which the mighty Mutawintji National Park was the first and that required the Registrar to keep a thing called the Registrar of Aboriginal Owners, so interesting and its always been a bit controversial because it means individual people have to be registered but generally people have seen benefit in that process because it’s allowed people to make a very clear statement about their cultural authority in their country. So that is ongoing.

We have a number of jointly managed National Parks now and we continue to do that and at the moment the two that I’m working on are Mount Yarrowyck Nature Reserve, west of Armidale which is a beautiful art site and the internationally iconic Mungo National Park in south western NSW.

Apart from that, day to day, the Registrar works with the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, works with the Minister responsible for the Land Rights Act, whom ever that may be and works on a daily basis with Local Aboriginal Land Councils, which is for me the most rewarding, interesting and enjoyable part of the work and that work is as varied as what Local Land Councils might do.

Ah, the list of what the Registrar does is in the Land Rights Act and I would just summarise by saying the main are land claims, the Registrar of Aboriginal Owners and helping Local Aboriginal Land Councils on a day to day basis, working with government on the Land Rights Act.

That role of the Registrar is going to change soon. Tell us about those changes?

This is something that is going to be very important come 1 July, 2015 when some amendments to the Land Rights Act that went through the Parliament late last year, commence.

And that is the Registrar becomes more of a regulator of the corporate and individual behavior of Land Councils. So I’m going to be interested how that change affects the relationship between Land Councils and thing called Registrar.

For example over time, if a Land Council falls apart for some reason, an administrator can be appointed or if there are matters going on which warrant questioning, an investigator can be appointed.

The power to do those things to Land Councils, both NSWALC and Local Land Councils has always resided in the Minister administering the Land Rights Act. Come 1 July, in relation to Local Aboriginal Land Councils, that will be the Registrar’s job. (Since this interview took place, this amendment will now take place at a later date).

And because the Registrar’s always been able to stand away from that role, it’s meant the Registrar’s always been able to be very much an honest broker if you like between Government administrators and Land members and that’s going to change so that’s something I think everybody needs to think carefully about.

How did you get involved in Land Rights?

So I go back in Land Rights scarily as far as 1990. And before that I’d been mucking around in Industrial Law, consultancy work and other bits and pieces and I literally saw an ad in the newspaper.

And I’ve said to people before – before I took the job at the Land Council, I reckon I’d met 4 black fullas in my life. I was a Sydney boy from the western suburbs. I’d gone to university and had a head full of what the world should look like but not really sure what to do with that.

And I saw an ad and it was an ad to assist the then New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, whose office was above a hot bread shop in Moore Street, Liverpool, with sorting out what land they and local Land Councils may own.

So essentially, going to the Land Titles office and working through the titles and figuring out where land was and what was owned and it looked interesting so I accepted an interview and I got a job.

And they were very dynamic times and I was far too, young and naïve to understand the importance of that at the time, but what was happening was, was that the Liberal National Party Government had come to power in 1988 after the Unsworth Government was defeated, and it was the Wran Government before that, which included the Attorney General Frank Walker who was the architect on the Government side of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and they (National Liberal Party) come to power on a party platform of repealing the Land Rights Act.

So at the time I’d turned up there in 1990 to help work out Land ownership, there was an almighty political fight about whether the Land Rights Act would survive. And so I was in my naivety and enthusiasm, thrown into the deep end of Aboriginal politics in New South Wales.

So I spent the next six years of my time at NSWALC working very hard on the land claims process and increasing a number of claims and assisting a number of Land Councils and running a number of court cases on appeal with a number of lawyers around Sydney who cut their teeth on Land Rights and were very good to Land Rights and you know building that up.

And I think that, that period in the 1990’s, for NSWALC, I see as a real focus on accumulating land.

Do you know the quantity of the Land Claims that was successful?

We probably got two to three thousand land claims granted in that time. Some of them high value but I think as well as getting the land granted, what was most important was the precedents built up in the courts as to what land is claimable.

And those precedents, including in 2008 with the High Court decision, have meant that the rules of land claims have been made very fair.

So even when Governments are unwilling or annoyed at needing to transfer land claims, the law has locked it into a very fair process which is a great thing, so it’s always difficult to say how much.

But what I always tend to do is, I can see particular Land Claims that were granted that gave Local Land Councils an opportunity to participate in the economy and the society of New South Wales in ways they wouldn’t have.

For example the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council North Entrance land claim, the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council’s Stockton Bight land claims, the Dubbo Local Land Council Bourke Hill land claim. In all sorts of places, particular Land Councils were able to grow and prosper.

And the Land Rights Act is a number of things but very importantly it’s an economic compensation package and you just can’t hope to achieve social justice without economic independence.

Recent Amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act will give Local Aboriginal Councils power to deal and negotiate direct with government over Land Claims; do you see that being a fair process?

The change that’s coming on the 1st July 2015 is very significant because it allows the Minister determining Land Claims which is whichever Minister is responsible for the Crown Lands Act in NSW, it allows that person to grant a land claim at their discretion, rather than factually because it’s Crown Land. (Editor’s note: NSW Minister for Lands and Water is Niall Blair).

Even more broadly, it allows them to look at other Crown Land they might wish to transfer to Aboriginal Land Councils. So it’s a much broader conversation.

It could involve multiple land claims being decided at the same time.

For me, the most important, unanswered question is how Government and Land Councils will organise those negotiations and pay for them.

That for me is the most important issue because if you’re going to enter into negotiations or mediation or conciliations about Land Claims, like any other matter, it’s not going to work unless all parties come to the table prepared.

Editors note: Part 2 of our interview with the Registrar Stephen Wright will continue in the next edition of OurMob.

For more information on the amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act which comes into effect July 1st 2015 Check out our fact sheet online. https://alc.org.au/media/95091/150123%20Aboriginal%20Land%20Rights%20Amendments%20Fact%20Sheet%20final.pdf