BY JESS BLACK

The Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill (the Bill) proposes amendments to both the Native Title Act 1993 (Native Title Act) and the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act).

 

Broadly, the Bill proposes changes in relation to:

1.       Authorisation

2.       Applicant Decision Making

3.       Indigenous Land Use Agreements

4.       Historical Extinguishment

5.       Registered Native Title Body Corporate’s right to bring compensation applications

6.       Intervention and Consent Determinations

7.       Procedural Changes

8.       RNTBC Obligations

Authorisation

The requirements for authorisation of an application for a determination of native title are set out in s 251B of the NTA. Amendments to s 251BA are proposed to:

  • Allow the claim group to impose conditions on the authority of the applicant.
  • Require the claim group to make public notification of any conditions imposed on the applicant.
  • Allow the people named as the applicants to be changed without further authorisation in certain circumstances.
  • Allow the claim group to make succession plans for individual members of the applicant as part of the authorisation process, if they were to pass-away.

In short, the amendments give more freedom to the native title claim group to manage and limit the authority of the person/people who are bringing the native title application on their behalf. The Law Council of Australia has acknowledged that the amendments reflect how authorisation has been practised in many cases for some years now. [1]

Applicant Decision Making

Changes proposed under the Bill seek to:

  • Clarify the duties of the applicant to the claim group.
  • Allow the applicant to act by majority as the default position.

In scrutinising the Bill, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on human rights noted that this aspect of the proposed amendments may limit or interfere with the right to culture, particularly where is a conflict between an individual’s right to culture versus the right of the majority to culture. [2]

Indigenous Land Use Agreements

In relation to Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs), the following changes are proposed:

  • Property descriptions and parties to agreements can be amended on registered ILUAs
  • Amendments to an ILUA cannot include any additional area of land or waters not previously included in the agreements.

Body Corporate ILUAs vs Area ILUAS

Currently only area ILUAS can deal with compensation for extinguishment.  The proposed changes will allow body corporate ILUAs to be made on land where native title rights are fully extinguished.  By allowing use of body corporate ILUAs, this may simplify the agreement making process, by avoiding more complex authorisation and objections processes.

Deregistration

The proposed changes clarify the validity of future acts, completed under ILUA’s that have been deregistered. The amendments clarify that any acts done in accordance with a deregistered ILUA or any acts invalidly done which were validated by a deregistered ILUA remain valid.

The Law Council of Australia has noted that the practical benefit of this amendment may be limited; there may be valid reasons why the validity of a future act ought to be set aside. For example, if the ILUA was affected by fraud, duress, coercion, jurisdictional error or administrative law error. [3]

Historical Extinguishment

The Bill proposes to broaden the circumstances where historical extinguishment can be disregarded. This broadens the range of circumstances in which Native Title can be claimed.

The proposed circumstances where historical extinguishment is invalid include:

  • Areas of national state or territory parks, where the parties agree.
  • Pastoral Leases controlled or owned by Native Title Corporations.

It is important to note that at the Senate Committee, the Attorney-General’s Department informed the committee that the invalidation of historical extinguishment will only occur when native title and government parties agree, and subject to any conditions required by the relevant government party.[4]

Registered Native Title Body Corporate’s right to bring compensation applications

The Bill will allow an RNTBC to make a compensation claim over areas within the external boundary of its determination area where native title has been fully extinguished.

Intervention and Consent Determinations

The Bill proposes amendments to clarify the role of the relevant Commonwealth minister when intervening in Native Title Proceedings.

The Bill also clarifies the procedural requirements for the Federal Court to make determinations with the consent of the parties.

Organisations such as Central Desert Native Title Services, National Native Title Council and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation have commented that often the Commonwealth intervene belatedly and having to satisfy their needs once they join as a party can further complicate proceedings rather than improve their means of productive intervention. [5]

Procedural Changes

Section 31 Agreements relates to negotiation procedure surrounding the granting of mining and exploration rights. The validity of section 31 agreements was clouded in uncertainty following the decision from the Full Federal Court in McGlade v Native Title Registrar & Ors [2017] FCAFC 10.

The full court held where not all members of the registered Native Title Applicants signed an ILUA it was deemed invalid.

  • The changes confirm that decisions made under section 31 are valid where not all members of the registered Native Title Applicant have signed the agreement. It is proposed that these changes apply retrospectively to all agreements.
  • It is also proposed that the Native Title Registrar create and maintain a public record of section 31 agreements.
  • This register record would include a description of the area of land or water, name and address of each party to the agreement, the period in which the agreement will operate and the existence of any initial or additional agreements between the some or all of the same parties.

The Explanatory Memorandum raises the issue that parties will be unable to challenge the validity of agreements on legitimate grounds as well as illegitimate grounds.[6] The justification provided to address this concern is that the reform is necessary, proportionate and provides certainty to all stakeholders in the Native Title System.

A submission by Ross Mackay, MPS Law consultant lawyer, was referenced in the senate committee report.  He emphasises the importance of the Native Title Register to assist native title holders to be aware of their rights and obligations, particularly when Native Title has been inherited.

RNTBC Obligations

The Bill proposes a number of amendments to the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (Cth) (CATSI Act).  The intent of the amendments to the CATSI Act is to improve accountability, transparency, and governance of Registered Native Title Bodies Corporate.  Broadly, this is achieved by changes which:

  • Regulate the interaction between RNTBC’s and their members regarding cancellation of membership.
  • Place a RNTBC under special administration where it has failed to comply with certain obligations.
  • Require RNTBC’s to amend their constitutions to establish dispute resolution pathways.

The proposed changes to the CATSI Act were poorly received with many submissions from stakeholders citing concerns that these amendments undermine the rights of self-determination of native title holders.

Progress of the Bill through Parliament and next steps

On 19 August 2020, the Senate Legal and Constitutional affairs Committee recommended that the Federal Parliament pass the Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019.[7]

If the Bill is passed by the House of Representatives and Senate, it will be the most significant changes to the Native Title Act 1993 since the Howard Government’s amendments after the Wik decision in 1998.[8]

For more information, contact Michael Pagsanjan (michael@mpslaw.com.au).

****UPDATE: On 3 February 2021 the Bill passed both Houses of Parliament and received assent on 16 February 2021****

 

ENDNOTES:

[1]Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Law Council of Australia, Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 [Provisions] (December 2019).

[2] Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, Parliament of Australia, Human Rights Scrutiny Report. Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 [Provisions] Senate Committee Report (December 2020).

[3] Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Law Council of Australia, Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 [Provisions] (December 2019).

[4] Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Parliament of Australia, Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 [Provisions] Senate Committee Report (Final Report, August 2019).

[5] Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Parliament of Australia, Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 [Provisions] Senate Committee Report (Final Report, August 2019).

[6] Explanatory Memorandum, Native Title Amendments Bill 2019 (Cth).

[7] Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Parliament of Australia, Native Title Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 [Provisions] Senate Committee Report (Final Report, August 2019).

[8] Cross, H. ‘Commonwealth puts forward long overdue Native Title Reform’.  National Indigenous Times (online, 30 October 2019) < https://nit.com.au/commonwealth-puts-forward-long-overdue-native-title-reform/>.