The Legislation

The Whitlam Government introduced legislation based substantially on Woodward’s recommendations.

The Bill was before the Parliament when the Government was dismissed in the constitutional crisis of November 1975.

Despite election campaign promises from the Liberal-Country Party coalition that the Bill would be passed without amendment, the new Government of Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser buckled to pressure from mining and pastoral industry groups and conservative politicians in the Northern Territory.

He drafted a new bill from which many of the advances of the Whitlam Bill were absent.

A national campaign by our newly created Land Councils salvaged a number of key elements, but the final Bill removed needs-based claims and gave to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly responsibility for ‘complementary’ legislation covering sacred site protection, sea closures and permits for access to Aboriginal land.

Nonetheless, it was the recommendations of Mr Justice Woodward which formed the basis of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act which passed both houses of the Federal Parliament with historic bipartisan support in December 1976.

It came into force on 26 January 1977, one-and-a-half years before the Northern Territory was granted self-government. It has been significantly amended since then.