Aboriginal Land Rights Commission

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The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, also known as the Woodward Royal Commission, existed 1973 to 1974 with the purpose to inquire into appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Commission was chaired by Justice Edward Woodward, who was appointed to the role by Gough Whitlam.[1]


In 1972 at the launch of his party's election campaign, Gough Whitlam, as Labor Opposition Leader, promised if elected to legislate for Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory of Australia.[2] When elected, rather than introduce a national land rights law, the Whitlam Government chose instead to establish a precedent in the Commonwealth controlled Northern Territory.[2]

Justice Woodward was appointed as Aboriginal Land Rights Commissioner in February 1973 to inquire into appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.[2] The Northern Land Council and Central Land Council were established in the same year to assist with the work of the Commission.[3]

The Royal Commission[edit]

The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission produced two reports.[4] The first report, issued during July 1973, recommended the Australian Government to assist Aboriginal Australians to set up land councils.[5] In August 1973, the Second Whitlam Ministry accepted the findings of the first report and authorised the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, then Gordon Bryant, to convene the two proposed Aboriginal Land Councils as soon as possible.[6]

Woodward's second and final report as Aboriginal Land Rights Commissioner, presented to the Australian Government in April 1974 was based on the land councils' submissions.[5] The 1974 report found:[citation needed]

  • That all Aboriginal reserve lands should be returned to the Aboriginal inhabitants
  • That Aboriginal Australians had claim to other vacant crown land if they could prove traditional ties with the land
  • That Aboriginal land and Aboriginal sacred sites were to be protected
  • That Aboriginal land and Aboriginal land councils were to be set up to administer Aboriginal land
  • That entry to Aboriginal land for mining or tourism would be subject to Aboriginal control
  • That mining and other developments on Aboriginal land should proceed only with the permission of the Aboriginal land owners
  • That if mining companies were allowed to go ahead and mine in Aboriginal lands, the mining companies would be required to pay royalties to the traditional land owners

The Whitlam Labor Government supported the findings of the second report of the Royal Commission and in a gesture of peace handed over the allotted land to the Gurindji people to defuse the Wave Hill protest, in August 1975.[citation needed]

In 1976, the Fraser Government passed The Aboriginal Land Rights Act that allowed Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to make claims on land to which they could prove traditional ties. The Land Rights Act is largely the product of Justice Woodward's recommendations.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Land-rights pioneer Sir Edward Woodward dead at 81". The Age. Fairfax Media. 16 April 2010. Archived from the original on 21 April 2010.
  2. ^ a b c Central Land Council. "The History of the Land Rights Act". Central Land Council. Archived from the original on 3 May 2013.
  3. ^ Northern Land Council. "Our History". Northern Land Council. Archived from the original on 16 May 2013.
  4. ^ Australian Law Reform Commission (12 June 1986). "Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws (ALRC Report 31)". Australian Law Reform Commission. Archived from the original on 20 October 2013.
  5. ^ a b Rowse, Tim; Graham, Trevor. "Justice A.E.Woodward". National Film and Sound Archive. Archived from the original on 13 May 2013.
  6. ^ Cabinet Minute: Decision No. 1147, Submission No. 611: Aboriginal Land Rights Commission - First Report Royal Commissioner the Hon. Mr Justice A.E. Woodward, National Archives of Australia, 21 August 1973, retrieved 24 October 2013
  7. ^ House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (August 1999), "Chapter 2: Setting the Context" (PDF), Unlocking the Future: The Report of the Inquiry into the Reeves Review of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, Canberra, ACT: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, p. 12