Our History

A non-statutory NSW Aboriginal Land Council was established in 1977 as a specialist Aboriginal lobby on land rights. It was formed when over 200 Aboriginal community representatives and individuals met for three days at the Black Theatre in Redfern to discuss land rights.

Important Footnote: NSWALC would like to thank Kevin Cook and Heather Goodall for access to the unpublished manuscript of Struggle For Change, a forthcoming book on the history of the land rights struggle in NSW. Some of their research material was used to inform this short history. Other material was also drawn from researcher Heidi Norman from the University of Technology in Sydney.

A Short History of NSWALC

It is a common misconception that the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) was established as a direct result of the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) in 1983.

This is not the case.

A non-statutory NSW Aboriginal Land Council was established in 1977 as a specialist Aboriginal lobby on land rights. It was formed when over 200 Aboriginal community representatives and individuals met for three days at the Black Theatre in Redfern to discuss land rights. The Conference was held over the October long weekend.

It called for the full scale recognition of Aboriginal rights to land, resolved to form the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, and called for the abolition of the Aboriginal Lands Trust.

Thirty one community representatives were elected. In turn, they selected a working committee.

The Committee comprised: Kevin Cook, Joyce Clague, Kevin Gilbert, Alan Woods, Alice Briggs, Camela Potter, Linda (Trudy) Longbottom, Betty Tighe, Ray Kelly, Jack Campbell, and Ted Thomas.

Kevin Cook was the convenor and then Chairperson.

Mr Cook was one of a number of grassroots and union campaigners from across New South Wales who had formed the Black Defence Group in Sydney earlier that year to press for land rights.

They had also established a Trade Union Committee on Aboriginal Rights (TUCAR) to open stronger lines of communication between unions, churches and Aboriginal activists.

The Council campaigned as a voluntary group for land rights until the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) in 1983. In doing so, they effectively continued a grassroots struggle for land rights which dated back to the 1880s.

The original NSWALC did not receive government funding, but with the assistance of the facilities of Tranby College, it submitted some 10 land claims to the Government between 1977 and 1981.

The first was the Terry Hie Hie claim in North-Western NSW. The land claims were initiated by local Aboriginal communities from various parts of the State - from Wilcannia to Toomelah, to La Perouse and Wallaga Lake.

They called for community ownership of land on the basis of traditional ownership rights, cultural heritage, and social and economic needs; and emphasised the aspirations of local communities to have direct control over the land they occupied.

In addition, most of the claims called for compensation for loss of land, loss of livelihood, and damage to 'our Dreamtime, to our culture and society, to our tribes ...and to all the individual men, women and children who have suffered and died'.

NSWALC also took the resolutions from the October land rights conference to the then Premier Neville Wran and were successful the following year in having the ALP State Conference adopt a new policy in line with the resolutions from the October conference in 1977.

The new policy was adopted unanimously on the floor of the ALP conference.

During this time NSWALC, with the assistance of the Black Defence Group, published three editions of a newspaper, Koorakookoo.

Committee's Findings
The cross-party Select Committee made wide-ranging findings on land rights and the protection of sacred and significant sites based on the evidence and submissions received during the inquiry.

These findings represented a departure from the 'assimilationist' approaches upon which previous Government policies affecting Aboriginal people had been developed, and formed the basis for its recommendations on the establishment of a land rights system and an Aboriginal Heritage Commission in NSW.

The Committee emphasised that the granting of land rights was of paramount importance to Aboriginal people in NSW.

This should be regarded as 'an act of elementary justice' for past actions designed to destroy Aboriginal societies and be accompanied by recompense for removal from their lands.

It also expressed the view that the Government had no role to play in determining the continuing significance of Aboriginal sites for Aboriginal people.

The identification and protection of sacred and significant sites should be regarded solely as the responsibility of Aboriginal people.

It proposed the establishment of an Aboriginal Heritage Commission to protect and maintain sites and anticipated the Commission would gradually take over the roles of the then National Parks and Wildlife Service in relation to sites.

Land Rights
The Committee proposed that a land rights system in NSW would centre on local Community Councils, supported by Aboriginal Regional Land Councils, and a state-wide Aboriginal Land Development Commission.

Aboriginal people would be given the right to make 'land claims' over Crown, leasehold or freehold land, on the basis of needs, compensation, long association or traditional rights.

It was also proposed that an Aboriginal Land and Compensation Tribunal be established with Aboriginal Tribunal members to deal with claims for compensation and land claims that could not be settled by negotiation.

Aboriginal Land Councils would receive inalienable freehold title, except in circumstances where the Tribunal approved disposal of land.

It was suggested that an allocation of 7.5 per cent of land tax collected each year be set aside to fund the new land rights system.

The funding would be directed to the Aboriginal Land Development Commission with 50 per cent each year invested into a capital investment fund and the other 50 per cent available for immediate project funding and administrative costs.

Government Response
The Wran Labor Government's initial response to the release of the Keane Report was the establishment of the Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs in 1981, headed by Ms Pat O'Shane.

The Ministry was given the responsibility for overseeing the drafting of land rights legislation and undertook a liaison role with other Government departments and Aboriginal communities.

In December 1982, the Ministry released a 'Green Paper' with a draft Aboriginal Land Rights Bill and explanatory notes attached.

The centrepiece of the Government's proposals was legislation to establish a three tiered system of elected Aboriginal Land Councils design to maximise decision making at the local and regional levels.

The proposed Aboriginal Land Rights Act would replace the Aborigines Act 1969 and involve the dismantling of the Aboriginal Lands Trust and its role as an advisory body to Government and the central body holding title to all Aboriginal reserves in NSW.

The first tier would consist of a network of Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs), established as bodies corporate under the Act and able to acquire, hold title to, manage and use lands, run enterprises and upgrade housing.

The next tier would comprise at least six Regional Aboriginal Land Councils (RALCs) whose major role would be to give financial and other assistance to LALCs for community development, housing and running enterprises and to fund or assist with the claim or purchase of land.

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) would make up the third tier and be responsible for allocating funds to other Land Councils for land acquisition and administrative costs.

Membership of a LALC would be open to all Aboriginal people resident within the boundaries of a LALC area, once the Minister had determined the extent of those boundaries.

LALC members would hold elections to choose representatives to sit on the RALC, while RALCs would elect their delegates to NSWALC on an annual basis.

LALCs would be entitled to make claims to Crown land not lawfully used or occupied or required for an 'essential public purpose', and to purchase private land on the open market.

Land already held by the Aboriginal Lands Trust would be transferred to the LALC in whose area the land was situated.

Title to land would be transferred as freehold with alienation restricted to the leasing of land under certain conditions.

This restriction meant that Aboriginal communities would not be able to borrow money using Aboriginal land as security, or sell land to enable purchase of other land.

Certain mineral rights and hunting, fishing and gathering rights would be provided.

Disputes would be referred to the Land and Environment Court.

The NSW Government proposed to fund the new Land Council system in the amount of 7.5 per cent of land tax revenue collected each year for 15 years.

This money would be paid to NSWALC and was intended to be compensation for loss of land through dispossession and the subsequent revocation of reserves.

The period between the delivery of the Select Committee's first report on land rights in August, 1980 and the introduction of land rights legislation in March 1983 was crucial in securing that legislation.

NSWALC was particularly active during this period, despite the absence of any government funding, in pressing the State Government to implement the recommendations from the Select Committee's report.

It mobilised significant support through a series of local and regional land rights meetings across the State and in lobbying the trade unions to get behind the campaign.

It should be noted, however, that planned direct action in support of land rights in some rural areas had to be shelved because of real fears of a backlash which had been fanned by conservative politicians who sought to claim that domestic backyards would be included in claimable land.

Introduction of Land Rights Legislation
An Aboriginal Land Rights Bill was introduced into the NSW Legislative Assembly on March 24, 1983 by the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Frank Walker.

Minister Walker told the Parliament the proposed legislation "takes the first step in this State towards redressing the injustice and neglect of real Aboriginal needs since Captain Phillip stepped upon the shores of Port Jackson in 1788."

"The Government," he continued, "has made a clear, unequivocal decision that land rights for Aborigines is the most fundamental initiative to be taken for the regeneration of Aboriginal culture and dignity, and at the same time laying the basis for a self reliant and more secure economic future for our continent's Aboriginal custodians."

The Minister said, in framing the legislation, the Government had taken into account the findings of the Select Committee and the "continuing despair and deprivation," experienced by Aborigines.

"Land rights involves a number of crucial principles," he added.

"All, bar one, are contained in this legislation.

"Land rights means the recognition of the prior ownership of this State of New South Wales by Aborigines.

"In incorporating this principle in the preamble, the Government is, particularly, accepting views of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, but it is a theme predominant in the submissions of all Aboriginal organisations.

"This is the first time any Australian government has made a clear cut statement of Aboriginal prior ownership.

"It rejects the approach of our forebears who denied Aboriginal ownership and failed to follow the example of the United States of America, New Zealand and Canada by entering into treaties with the original inhabitants."

The Minister said he did not consider it necessary to "amplify fully all of the socioeconomic indices that demonstrate clearly why so few Aborigines have a reasonable standard of living in this country."

"Reports and statements have drawn the public's attention towards this real blight that blackens the name of Australia internationally," he added.

"Aborigines are virtually at the bottom of every social indicator of prosperity and well being.

"Perhaps some of the small, recently arrived, migrant groups may compete.

"But, overall, Aborigines die the youngest, are the most undernourished, suffer the poorest health, live in the most deplorable housing, are the most unemployed and are educated the least of any racial group in this so-called lucky country.

"The reports on the social deprivation of Aborigines is the greatest single blot on this country's reputation for egalitarianism and fairness."

The Act, which reflected most of the key recommendations from the first Keane Report, was proclaimed on June 10, 1983 following passage of the legislation through the Parliament.

Formal Constitution of NSWALC
NSWALC was formally constituted as a statutory corporation under the Act.

An interim Council was immediately established. It was appointed by Minister Walker after he asked the non-statutory NSWALC to nominate members from the land rights movement.

The interim NSWALC held its inaugural meeting on June 9, 1983, the day before the proclamation of the Act.

The 12 members had been appointed a week earlier by Minister Walker. They were:

  • Kevin Cook, General Secretary, Tranby College Co-operative for Aborigines, and Chairperson NSWALC (1977) Mr Cook was elected Chairperson of the Interim Council at this meeting.
  • Barbara Flick, Co-ordinator, Western Aboriginal Legal Service, Dubbo and member of the Western Regional Aboriginal Land Council. Ms Flick was elected Secretary.
  • Paul Coe, Chairperson, Aboriginal Legal Service of New South Wales. Mr Coe was elected Treasurer.
  • Tom Winters, Western Aboriginal Legal Service, Brewarinna and Convenor, North Western Regional Land Council.
  • William Bates, Western Aboriginal Legal Service, Broken Hill and member of the Western Regional Land Council.
  • Hewitt Whyman, Aboriginal Legal Service, Wagga Wagga and member of the Wiradjuri Land Council.
  • Mervyn Penrith, Chairperson, South Coast Regional Aboriginal Land Council, Wallaga Lake.
  • Ms Delia Lowe, Roseby Park, Orient Point.
  • Pat Stewart, Mount Druitt,
  • Cecil Briggs from Armidale
  • Kevin Anderson, Chairman, Awabakal Co-operative in Newcastle.
  • Warren Mundine, law student from Baryulgil.

The Interim Council released a statement at the end of its first meeting which expressed disappointment in the provisions of the Act and pointed out they had accepted appointment "solely to avoid any further sell out of Aboriginal people."

It noted Council would proceed with the task of setting up Local and Regional Aboriginal Land Councils but Council members "believe strongly that the the Wran Government have fallen short of meeting the fair claims of Aboriginal people."

The Council said it did not consider the Act and the land rights which would flow from it to be acceptable or appropriate.

Mr Cook said the legislation did not "represent a settlement of just claims for land or equitable compensation."

"It ignores many of the fundamental recommendations of the Keane Committee Report which in itself was inadequate and fell far short of reasonable Aboriginal expectations for just and equitable treatment by the Government," he added.

The Council noted, in particular, that the amount of Crown land which could potentially be claimed "has been whittled down by amendments introduced to Parliament during debate on the statute. The result is that Government agencies may frustrate a land claim by claiming that they need the land in question for their purposes."

The Act, the statement continued, "denies Aboriginal people any right to claim privately owned land or Crown land that has been leased. Once again Aboriginal people are left with only scraps."

The statement pointed out that the Act established a levy of 7.5 per cent of land tax purchases of private land.

"Already," it continued, "this Government is preparing to raise exemptions from land tax which will of course mean that the money available for land purchases is decreased. The Council notes with concern that the Liberal Party of NSW are committed to abolishing land tax altogether.

"The consequences of this would be to wipe out the funding mechanism set up by the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

"The total amount of money to be made available to buy land is estimated by the Council to be about $150 million.

"This money is to be made available over a 15-year period and, at present prices, would not be enough to buy back Bennelong Point.

"The inadequacy of this sum is highlighted by the fact that it represents only $300 for each Aboriginal person in NSW.

"And this small amount is supposed to compensate Aboriginal people for having been dispossessed of all NSW and for 200 years of oppression."

The Interim Council continued it work in forming new Regional and Local Aboriginal Land Councils ahead of NSWALC's "incorporation" in 1984.

The first meeting of the incorporated body was held in February 1984 at the Officer of the Registrar of the ALRA, Mr Chris Kirkbright.

Those in attendance were: Bob Walford, from the northern Region, Ray Kelly, North Coast, Manuel Flores, Central Coast, Delia Lowe, South Coast, Steve Gordon, Central Western, Merv Penrith, Far South Coast, Tom Winter, North West and Agnes Coe, Wiradjuri.

Representatives from the interim NSWALC also attended this meeting. They were Kevin Cook, Pat Stuart, Cecil Briggs and Warren Mundine.

NSWALC had a skeleton staff at this time with a minimal budget of $250,000 which was later increased to $500,000. Its staff complement comprised a solicitor, John Terry and co-ordinator, Ms Ann Weldon.

Eight Regional Aboriginal Land Councils and 104 Local Aboriginal Land Councils were established during the period between the enactment of the legislation and the official incorporation meeting.

The LALCs appointed two representatives to the RALC. Each RALC then nominated one representative to form NSWALC's Governing Council.

As 1984 progressed, other Regional representatives joined the Council, increasing its size to 13 elected representatives, replacing the interim members.

Throughout that year and in 1985, Tom Winters was the elected Chairperson, Delia Lowe, the Secretary, and Gavin Andrews was elected Treasurer.

Land Rights Now
The Act had been under constant review and amendment since first enacted.

The provisions of the current legislation and the functions of NSWALC bear little resemblance to those in the original Act although the core principles of the Act, as a compensatory scheme for dispossession, remain.

Land rights, however, remains core business for NSWALC and the LALC network.

This has allowed the accumulation of substantial assets and land and the growth of a sophisticated and unique Aboriginal political system, details of which can be found elsewhere on this site, particularly in NSWALC Annual Reports.

It has also led to financial independence from Government.

The land tax payments to NSWALC, which flowed into a Statutory Investment Fund, stopped in December, 1998.

The capital or compensation accumulated over the first 15 years of the Council's existence stood at $281 million when the sunset clause on those payments came into effect.

The fund has continued to grow under the prudent management of successive Councils.

The land rights system has been self-funding since 1998.

The system is currently funded through interest generated from the Statutory Investment Fund.

The granting of claims now remains the sole form of compensation for dispossession of land which is available under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, 1983 (ALRA).

More than 20,000 land claims have been lodged since the enactment of the ALRA with more than half still awaiting determination by the Minister for Lands.

More than five thousand have been refused and about a third of all claims granted.

The time taken to determine outstanding land claims is an ongoing concern for NSWALC and LALCs.

Importantly, changes to the legislation in 1990 allowed LALCs to dispose of (i.e. sell, mortgage or exchange) their land under certain circumstances which has placed much focus on the commercial development of land assets since then.

The 1990 amendments also made substantial changes to the process for electing NSWALC Councillors.

As noted earlier each RALC had previously held elections each year to select a RALC member to represent the interests of the Land Councils of the region at the NSWALC level.

The amendments introduced the current system of popular elections with each Councillor for each of 13 regional areas elected by the members of LALCs within that area for a period of four years.

NSWALC Councillor positions became full time and salaried at this time.

The 13 Regional Aboriginal Land Councils were abolished in a series of amendments to the Act in December 2006.

Those amendments introduced a two tier land council system, comprising NSWALC and LALCs.

They also reduced the number of NSWALC Regional Councillors from 13 to nine and made fundamental changes to the structure and governance of LALCs.

Councils are elected for four-year terms.

The Black Theatre Conference
The following are the Aims of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council as adopted at the Land Rights Conference, October 1-3, 1977 at the Black Theatre, Redfern.

  1. We demand that all Aboriginal land at present held by the NSW Aboriginal Land Trust be transferred immediately to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council until such times as the deeds and title can be handed back to the local Aboriginal community in perpetuity.
  2. We demand that the title to all sacred sites now gazetted and those in future claims by Aborigines be deeded in perpetuity to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
  3. We further demand that the National Parks and Wildlife Department act immediately to transfer all titles and management of sacred sites to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. We further demand that funds presently used by these bodies be directed immediately to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to carry out effective administration.
  4. We demand title to all areas of traditional and sacred significance. These areas to be determined by claims by local Aboriginal communities.
  5. We demand an immediate freeze on all Crown land in New South Wales until all claims can be researched in advance by Aboriginal communities.
  6. We demand a land base adequate to meet Aboriginals' social, cultural and economic needs be restored to the Aboriginal people from the existing Crown land. We demand that all rights to mineral and natural resources be inalienably retained in the ownership title. We demand that, for the loss of the rest of this land and for continued social deprivation that a significant compensation fund be set up. We demand that the present Budget allocation for Aboriginals be taken out of the political arena and be free from cutbacks and alterations at the whims of government, in order to develop Aboriginal aims.
  7. This NSW Aboriginal Land Council will make every effort to talk to and work with all Aboriginal communities to assert just rights and aims. We will work to ensure that every Aboriginal group and community has a fair and just representation on the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
  8. That Kooris have the right to visit sacred and important places to camp, collect wood, to hunt and fish anywhere freely.

Important Footnote: NSWALC would like to thank Kevin Cook and Heather Goodall for access to the unpublished manuscript of Struggle For Change, a forthcoming book on the history of the land rights struggle in NSW. Some of their research material was used to inform this short history. Other material was also drawn from researcher Heidi Norman from the University of Technology in Sydney.