Report highlights: Facilitating and administering Aboriginal land claim processes

What the report is about

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW) (the Act) provides land rights over certain Crown land for Aboriginal Land Councils in NSW.

If a claim is made over Crown land (land owned and managed by government) and meets other criteria under the Act, ownership of that land is to be transferred to the Aboriginal Land Council.

This process is intended to provide compensation for the dispossession of land from Aboriginal people in NSW. It is a different process to the recognition of native title rights under Commonwealth law.

We examined whether relevant agencies are effectively facilitating and administering Aboriginal land claim processes. The relevant agencies are:

  • Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC)
  • Department of Planning and Environment (DPE)
  • NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC).

We consulted with Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs) and other Aboriginal community representative groups to hear about their experiences.

What we found

Neither DPC nor DPE have established the resources required for the NSW Government to deliver Aboriginal land claim processes in a coordinated way, and which transparently commits to the requirements and intent of the Act.

Delays in determining land claims result in Aboriginal Land Councils being denied the opportunity to realise their statutory right to certain Crown land. Delays also create risks due to uncertainty around the ownership, use and development of Crown land.

DPC has not established governance arrangements to ensure accountability for outcomes under the Act, and effective risk management.

DPE lacks clear performance measures for the timely and transparent delivery of its claim assessment functions. DPE also lacks a well-defined framework for prioritising assessments.

LALCs have concerns about delays, and lack of transparency in the process.

Reviews since at least 2014 have recommended actions to address numerous issues and improve outcomes, but limited progress has been made.

The database used by DPC (Office of the Registrar) for the statutory register of land claims has not been upgraded or fully validated since the 1990s.

In 2020, DPE identified the transfer of claimable Crown land to LALCs to enable economic and cultural outcomes as a strategic priority. DPE has some activities underway to do this, and to improve how it engages with Aboriginal Land Councils – but DPE still lacks a clear, resourced strategy to process over 38,000 undetermined claims within a reasonable time.

What we recommended

In summary:

  • DPC should lead strategic governance to oversee a resourced, coordinated program that is accountable for delivering Aboriginal land claim processes
  • DPE should implement a resourced, ten-year plan that increases the rate of claim processing, and includes an initial focus on land grants
  • DPE and DPC should jointly establish operational arrangements to deliver a coordinated interagency program for land claim processes
  • DPC should plan an interagency, land claim spatial information system, and the Office of the Registrar should remediate and upgrade the statutory land claims register
  • DPC and NSWALC should implement an education program (for state agencies and the local government sector) about the Act and its operations
  • DPE should implement a five-year workforce development strategy for its land claim assessment function
  • DPE should finalise updates to its land claim assessment procedures
  • DPE should enhance information sharing with Aboriginal Land Councils to inform their claim making
  • NSWALC should enhance information sharing and other supports to LALCs to inform their claim making and build capacity.

Fast facts

  • 53,800 the number of claims lodged since the Act was introduced in 1983
  • 38,200 the number of claims awaiting DPE assessment and determination (about 70 per cent of all claims lodged)
  • 207 the number of claims granted by DPE in six months to December 2021
  • 120 LALCs, and the NSWALC, have the right to make a claim and have it determined
  • +5 years around 60 per cent of claims have been awaiting determination for more than five-years
  • 22 years the time it will take DPE to determine existing claims, based on current targets

Further information

Please contact Ian Goodwin, Deputy Auditor-General on 9275 7347 or by email.


Banner image used with permission
Title: Forces of Nature
Artist: Lee Hampton – Koori Kicks Art