The August 2016 decision of the Federal Court to award $3.3 million under the Native Title Act to traditional owners who were dispossessed of their land has once again made indigenous affairs a hot topic.
But land justice is a deeper concept than offering indigenous people piecemeal monetary compensation. We need a permanent solution that immediately improves Aboriginal outcomes across a variety of indicators such as life expectancy, employment, and incarceration rates. Aboriginal people have a life expectancy about 10 years less than non-indigenous Australians, are more likely to be unemployed and are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned.
It is true that British colonisation and the human rights abuses of previous governments have created tremendous harm to indigenous peoples past and present. For this, appropriate reparations must be made.
The current native title system tends to approach the problem by proscribing “traditional owners” who are often senior elders within a group of Aborigines. Moreover, native title can only exist to the extent that there is no superior title to the land (for example, by mining companies or farmers). In practice, its scope is limited.
The effect of the present system has been to hamper the entrepreneurial talent of Aborigines living in remote communities. By now, we could have seen many Aboriginal millionaires who could have helped their communities in a far more effective manner than inefficient government programs ever could.
Instead, remote communities today are bastions of poverty.
In the 1967 referendum, a resounding majority of Australians voted to give the federal government power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, wherever they lived in Australia, and to include Aborigines in national censuses. The change aimed to foster a coordinated approach that bypassed the divergent policies of individual states.
Today, however, it seems as if less Commonwealth imposed uniformity would have been better. While the referendum was excellent at achieving symbolic outcomes, it has allowed the federal government — for more than two decades since the second Mabo case —- to avoid taking the hard decisions that would lead to progress. In particular, legislation limiting Aborigines to communal ownership of land must be abolished.
Giving individuals private ownership of land (a capital asset) is one of the proven means of generating wealth. Freehold title would allow aborigines collateral for investments or housing.
If an individual property rights framework were set up, groups of Aborigines could still collectively join together and retain cultural elements. At the same time, those who wished to integrate into the mainstream economy would find it easier to do so.
The Commonwealth government should immediately cede control of the bulk of its powers relating to Aborigines to the states. Decentralised federalism is the surest way to accommodate the diverse range of local circumstances that must be taken into account when formulating indigenous land rights policy.
The states should conduct surveys of 90 percent of Crown land, and after consultation with historical residents and traditional owners, should randomly allocate each Aborigine over 18 years with a voucher that entitles them to an equal plot of this land (for example, one square kilometre).
As some will have received land not suitable to their individual purposes, the states should then manage a barter system to allow Aborigines to trade vouchers until they reach suitable agreement among themselves. The land they now own is freehold, and they should enjoy the same rights as any other Australian.
The Aboriginal participants must agree, however, to not launch any future legal claims trying to claim more land. Also, the constitution should be amended so that all reference to race powers is deleted and all laws specifically dealing with Aborigines should be repealed. Henceforth, they must be treated the same as other Australians and must not be provided any special privileges or race-based quotas.
Handing back government land to the descendants of the first Australians would significantly reduce the scope of government and remove much of the bureaucracy that has benefited from the native title “industry.” The cost savings achieved would mean income taxes could be reduced for everyone. Second, it would finally give legal title that is not inferior to Aborigines, to use as they see fit. The paternalist mentality driving current indigenous policy would be ended, and there is potential for a major macro boost to the economy.
My proposal avoids continuing indefinitely the blame game for poor outcomes and unleashes the productive force of capitalism.
Real land rights are what all non-indigenous peoples enjoy. Why should Aborigines be any different?
Originally published at The Spectator Australia (20 September 2016).