By ERWIN CHLANDA
The NT cattle industry is facing the greatest uncertainty in its history as the Gunner Government is proposing “a major overreach into Federal Legislation – namely the Native Title Act,” says NT Cattlemen’s Association president Chris Nott.
He warns Mr Gunner against “setting up native title holders as gatekeepers, able to seek economic rents with little or any investment on their own part”.
Mr Nott spoke at the CLP conference in Alice Springs today, saying he represents the largest primary industry sector in the NT, estimated to have over $4.5 to $5 billion invested and producing more than $800m annually on pastoral leases held in perpetuity.
“All of that is now at risk … unlike anything the industry has ever seen before” because of uncertainty about land tenure and development.
The issues include a Federal review of the Native Title Act, the proposed transfer of the pastoral estate to Native Title holders, their rights to “take and use resources” and greater procedural rights for them.
The mutually accepted Newcastle Waters Test Case provided a template of Native Title rights including the right to live and erect shelters on the land; commercially exploit resources of the land and in the case of conflicting rights the pastoralists’ rights would prevail “or there was a reasonable user test”.
So far about 82 pastoral properties have had native title determined via consent and based on the Newcastle Waters agreement, says Mr Nott in a statement based on his speech.
“Since that time pastoralists have negotiated all consent determinations in good faith [and] waived the requirement for the applicant to provide long-form anthropological reports.
“The process has been economically efficient in comparison to other states.”
But now “the Cattlemen’s Association is concerned that under [a court’s] determination the commercial rights to resources will extend to feral animals and clean skin cattle” and the land management rights will include “carbon, eco services and anything on pastoral lease land that is not cattle.
“We are also very concerned that the land councils will now seek to amend determinations for retrospective rights.
“NT pastoralists are proud of their contribution in the determination of native title across the Northern Territory and continue to be so. However, failing to achieve legal clarity and certainty may result in pastoralists needing to proceed to a further costly test case,” says Mr Nott.
“A lot has been said on the emphasis of the common law which states that in the matter of conflicting rights, the pastoralists rights prevail.
However, the NT Pastoral Land Act (PLA) is silent in many areas, failing to make clear for Native Title holders how they can exercise their rights.
In essence, that may result in the NT Government introducing a land rights style veto right for Native Title holders into a Federal structure which had deliberately excluded a veto right.
Says Mr Nott (pictured): “These practical implications appear to be at odds with the intent of the Wik decision and subsequent 1998 amendments whereby the recognition of co-existing, native title rights was intended to achieve a balance of rights and to not be an economic or management right over the pastoral estate.
“It is our view that due to the uncertainty that is arising in the application of this right, short form anthropological reports will no longer suffice … to meet the evidence for the right to take resources.
“Should retrospective rights be sought where native title has already been determined by consent, we would see this as making the previous agreement null and void and that the pastoral industry has been grossly and unfairly misled.”
Mr Nott says earlier this year the NT Government decided to remove the proposed subleasing provisions for non-pastoral purposes in the Pastoral Land Act Amendment Bill.
“This provision was designed to allow for the registration of the subleases on pastoral lease titles. In other words, a pastoralist could utilise an area for a non-pastoral use and have it included on the main pastoral lease.”
He says in addition, the NT Government, without warning or consultation, agreed to give greater procedural rights to Native Title holders for the issuing of Non-Pastoral Use Permits.
“This … can only be a veto on developments on pastoral land,” says Mr Nott.
“A veto within the Native Title Act does not exist. One exists within the Aboriginal Land Rights Act but was deliberately left out of the Native Title Act.
“The cumulative impact of the proposed amendments to the PL A and the uncertainty regarding native title rights, is … impacting on business confidence, affecting future development plans and property sale prices.
“Banks are reassessing the security of their lending.
“If the NT is to move forward as a jurisdiction, able to support itself financially and provide a modern standard of living for all citizens, then the situation of indigenous Territorians must be addressed and improved.
“However, achieving this by setting up native title holders as gatekeepers, able to seek economic rents with little or any investment on their own part will not provide incentive for individual enterprise, industry or responsibility,” says Mr Nott.
“To assist in this cause [we] would like to see a national advisory group of significant Australians established to look at the issue and generate solutions.”
By ERWIN CHLANDA