The Australian Parliament has taken a big first step towards greater Aboriginal control over the 1.3 billion dollar Aboriginals Benefit Account, following a decades-long campaign by Aboriginal Territorians and their elected representatives.

The passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment (Economic Empowerment) Bill 2021 means that, for the first time, an Aboriginal-controlled body will make decisions about the ABA, which distributes the equivalents of royalties generated by mining on Aboriginal land in the NT.

“The ABA funds were always intended to benefit our people and it’s high time that they get to decide how they want to drive their own development with this income,” Central Land Council chief executive Lesley Turner said.

Since the inception of the land rights act in 1976, federal Aboriginal affairs ministers have been free to take or leave the advice of an ABA advisory committee made up of elected members from the four NT land councils.

Many of them did just that, with former ministers Mal Brough and Nigel Scullion two notable examples.

“I commend the current Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, for breaking with this tradition and for also supporting the removal of Howard era amendments of the land rights act that were designed undermine the land councils,” Mr Turner said.

“We strongly opposed the devolution of land council functions following the NT Emergency Response, and while the provision has proven ineffective we’re glad to see the back of it.”

A new NT-based commonwealth corporate entity, the NT Aboriginal Investment Corporation, will make decisions about ABA grants and investments when it has been established.

Between now and next June, the corporation’s interim board will meet, hire an acting chief executive, form an investment committee and set up the corporation.

It will have a 12-member board comprising two elected representatives from each of the NT’s land councils, two independent directors appointed by the board and two independent directors appointed by the Australian Government.

It will receive $500 million, roughly half of the current balance of the ABA, plus $60 million annually for the first three years of its operation.

 “We look forward to the corporation getting off to a strong start and, in time, assuming control over the remaining funds in the ABA, which can now be invested strategically,” Mr Turner said.

1 December 2021