Access to Aboriginal land is managed effectively and efficiently.
The use of permits to enter Aboriginal land is authorised in section 73 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) and contained within the Aboriginal Land Act 1978 (NT). The permit system, administered by land councils, gives all visitors, workers and researchers regulated access to Aboriginal land. Traditional owners use permits to manage visitation to their lands and to uphold their responsibilities to visitors. Visitors to Aboriginal lands can apply for entry, transit, media, mining and special purpose permits.
Following its NT emergency response, the Australian Government amended the ALRA, allowing access to public areas of larger communities without a permit. Permits are still required outside these areas. In accordance with the wishes of traditional owners, however, many visitors to communities apply for permits even if not required to assure themselves of the consent of residents. The CLC appreciates these displays of goodwill.
Changes to the permit system have led some people to assume they are free to visit Aboriginal land outside communities as well. Traditional owners are particularly concerned about theft of equipment (most commonly solar panels and bore equipment) and damage to sacred sites.
In 2019–20, the CLC processed 4,730 permit applications covering 11,571 individuals by consulting with traditional owners and negotiating with applicants. Permits were issued to 246 visitors of the Madigan Line and 29 travellers along the Hay River Track.
COVID-19 APPROVED REMOTE ESSENTIAL WORKER PERMITS
On 16 March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CLC suspended all non-essential travel to remote communities. Ten days later, the Commonwealth implemented the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Emergency Requirements for Remote Communities) Determination 2020, significantly restricting access to Aboriginal land.
Between 26 March and the end of the determination period on 5 June, the CLC received a high number of permit applications from people wanting to enter Aboriginal land to provide essential services to remote communities. Applicants had to first apply to the NT Government’s remote travel team for a travel exemption. The team assessed if the applicants were indeed essential workers before referring approved applicants to the CLC for permits. Thirty-four staff consulted with Aboriginal communities, corporations and associations about the approved essential worker permit applications and the management of access to Aboriginal land.
Figure 3 shows that despite the access restrictions during the biosecurity determination period, the number of individuals receiving permits (2,369) increased significantly compared with the months before the pandemic. This was because the police enforced permits at biosecurity area checkpoints for the first time in the history of land rights. The resulting increase indicates that a significant portion of visitors to Aboriginal land prior to the determination period had not applied for permits. After the determination period ended, there was an approximately threefold increase in permit applications, compared with the same period in 2018–19, indicating improved compliance with the permit system following the end of the police checkpoints.
The CLC received seven permit applications in relation to Aboriginal land under joint management that required consultations with the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory (PWC NT) for parks and reserves, and a further eight new applications or alterations to existing permits/licences for the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park.
It eliminated inconsistencies across different sections of the organisation in counting permits. Prior to this period, some sections reported only the number of permits issued but that figure is inaccurate as a permit can cover more than one individual. From this period onwards, all sections of the CLC will be reporting the numbers of individuals covered by permits, rather than the number of permits issued.
Figure 3. Entry permits issued to individuals, 2019–20
Table 5. Types of permits, 2019–20
July 2019 – June 2020 TOTALS
26 March – 5 June 2020 (Biosecurity area determination period)