New Aboriginal-controlled body given oversight of how federal mining royalty grants money distributed

by | Dec 4, 2021 | News | 0 comments

A new Commonwealth corporation controlled by a majority-led Indigenous board will be established to distribute federal royalty money in the Northern Territory for projects that promote the economic self-sufficiency of Aboriginal people in the Territory, under legislative reforms passed on Wednesday.

The reforms included in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 will create the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation to invest funding from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA) by next year, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said.

The reforms have garnered mixed reactions with the Northern Land Council welcoming the changes, while federal Greens Senator Lydia Thorpe said there were “critical flaws” in the bill, including the lack of “informed consent in the development of the bill” that has left many Indigenous Territorians confused.

NLC chair Samuel Bush-Blanasi said they had been working to make the reforms work for a long time.

“Aboriginal Territorians have been calling for control over the ABA for decades,” he said.

“When Aboriginal people are at the table and have a say on big decisions, we make things better for traditional owners and for our children and our grandchildren.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said that as a Commonwealth entity, it would have high levels of governance and oversight, but the legislation put the decision-making in the hands of Aboriginal people.

“Decision making about a significant portion of mining royalty equivalents will now move from Canberra to the NT – where it belongs,” he said.

However, Ms Thorpe was critical in her speech on the bill, saying the government did not talk to NT communities and instead spoke to the land councils, and the changes would simply make them more powerful.

“There are problems through the bill, but the main ones, the critical flaws in this bill, are the lack of self-determination and of free, prior and informed consent in the development of the bill,” she said.

“The direct feedback I get, regularly, from traditional owners, family clan groups in the Northern Territory about this bill is that communities have absolutely no idea about this bill and what it will mean to them — how it will affect their life.

“They have not been informed of the extensive changes proposed through this bill and have certainly not been consulted. So there you have it. Consultation is not consent. Communities in the Northern Territory don’t want this bill to be passed — it’s as simple as that. They want more time to understand and examine the changes proposed. That’s called free, prior and informed consent. That’s called self-determination.

“…The Australian Greens can’t support this bill unless schedule 2 is removed. It’s as simple as that. Schedule 2 is about fast-tracking the destruction and desecration of country. It’s about mining destroying and desecrating sacred sites.”

Aboriginal Benefit Account was established in 1976 to serve NT Indigenous people

Previously, the allocation of ABA funding had been controlled by the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister based on advice from a committee made up of Indigenous representatives selected by land councils.

Established under the Act in 1976, the Aboriginal Benefit Account serves Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory and uses money the Commonwealth collects in mining royalties on Aboriginal land in the NT.

About 40 per cent of the royalties from mining on Aboriginal land goes into the ABA to be allocated as grants, about a third goes to Indigenous land councils, and the other third goes directly to traditional owners.

The corporation will be run by a board of eight Aboriginal representatives from the Northern Territory (with two appointments decided by an election from each of the four land councils), one director appointed by the Indigenous Affairs Minister, one director appointed by the Finance Minister, and two independent directors appointed by the board.

Chairs or deputy chairs of land councils can be appointed to the board and the legislation does not seem to prohibit a non-Indigenous board member being the chair.

Minister Wyatt said the NTAIC would receive initial funding of $500 million with an additional $60 million a year for the first three years, with undisclosed ongoing funding.

The National Indigenous Australians Agency 2020-2021 annual report shows the ABA term deposit investment holdings held about $1.359 billion, up by about $100 million on the year before, and the ABA spent $292.464 million in 2020-21, and $233.668 million in 2019-2020.

However, only about $16.4 million was listed as grants last financial year, with payments of $150 million to land councils for “administrative purposes”, and $85 million in distributions to land councils.

The distribution by land councils is paid to Aboriginal associations, communities or groups, for the benefit of those Aboriginal people who are affected by mining operations.

The bill also enables further payments to be made from the ABA to the corporation at the minister’s discretion, but the minister did not say specifically what would happen to the money that sits in the ABA accounts.

NLC says reforms welcomed, a long time coming

Mr Bush-Blanasi said Aboriginal people would also have more control over who comes on Aboriginal land under the changes, which include the penalties for trespassing on Aboriginal land increasing almost five-fold to $11,100, and land councils will once again be able to revoke permits if a majority of traditional owners decide that is what they want, he said.

NLC acting chief executive officer Joe Martin-Jard said the changes to the Land Rights Act would also give traditional owners more control over important decisions such as mining on Aboriginal land.

“A lot of time and money is wasted on unnecessary meetings with miners when traditional owners have already said no,” he said.

“These changes mean traditional owners won’t have to meet with miners if they have already said no. No means no.”

Mr Wyatt’s office did not respond.

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