By Michelle Grattan (University of Canberra)
Aboriginal Australians are being denied the freedom to exercise their property rights under native title, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has said.
Wilson said that, in meeting Indigenous leaders from Broome to Cairns, he had found “an appetite for constructive reform to set native title free”.
“It’s not enough for Aboriginal Australians to simply have property rights – they must also have the freedom to exercise them,” he told the National Press Club on Wednesday, in an address marking his first year in his post.
At present, legal restrictions stopped native title land being used as equity to raise the capital for entrepreneurial activities, Wilson said.
There were also excessive regulations, which undermined self-determination and entrenched poverty, and land tax bills arose for property that people had never had the opportunity to develop.
“This is neither fair, nor just,” Wilson said. “We can’t complain about the cost of welfare programs for Australia’s first citizens when we concurrently deny them the freedom to use the primary asset they own to escape dependency.”
Wilson said it was not the place of other Australians to tell Aboriginal Australians how to use their land. “But it is our duty to ensure they can, by removing red tape.”
He said reform required:
- flexible legal instruments so communities could use their title as they saw fit, including with different ownership structures;
- new business models so communities could build economic opportunities;
- mechanisms to raise finance for the development of housing and ownership.
“Reform must respect native title’s unique role as a sacred bond between Aboriginal Australians and their homelands,” Wilson said.
He and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, will run a forum on the issue this year. It would bring together parties interested in reforming native title “to remove legal and regulatory barriers that hold Aboriginal communities back from reaching their full potential”, Wilson said.
But any proposals from this forum would require the consent of native title holders if implemented – and would “not compromise the protection of the inherent legal rights of Aboriginal Australia”.
The writer is a Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra.
This post was originally published in The Conversation.