Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to lands and waters that come from their traditional lores and customs that predate European settlement. These rights became known as ‘native title’.
The recognition and exercise of native title rights in Australian law is administered through the Native Title Act 1993(Cth).
Exclusive and non-exclusive native title
How native title impacts land in Queensland depends on the type of native title that’s granted: non-exclusive or exclusive.
Non-exclusive native title can include, for example, the right to:
live and camp on an area
light fires for personal or domestic use
hunt and fish.
These non-exclusive native title rights co-exist with the rights of other land users.
Exclusive native title is the right to control or prevent access by other land users. However, it’s not the same as land ownership.
Most of the time, exclusive native title is recognised over state land that’s not being used for a public purpose. This means the state remains the owner of the land, and Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islander peoples with native title can exercise their native title rights and interests on this land.
The benefits and challenges of making a claim
Native title holders don’t receive material benefits from the government when a native title determination is made. Instead, native title recognises rights that have always been held through traditional lores and customs. A native title determination recognises that these rights existed before Europeans arrived and continue to exist today.
Native title claims can be a difficult process for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples and may involve experiences of profound loss and trauma. Often, past government acts like land clearing and building public infrastructure cancelled out (extinguished) native title on state land. This means that Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not able to have their rights and interests recognised over all areas within their traditional country.
What changes (or doesn’t) once native title is determined?
In Queensland, public access and use of beaches is not affected by the recognition of native title.
For other land types, if native title is recognised, it doesn’t automatically mean that land can or can’t be accessed. It depends on whether the determination recognised exclusive or non-exclusive native title over that area.
Non-exclusive native title means that the rights and interests recognised can co-exist with others. For example, non-exclusive native title can be recognised over a reserve. This means that:
visitors can still visit the reserve and its recreation spaces
native title holders can continue accessing the area to exercise their recognised rights and interests, like gathering traditional foods or protecting significant sites.
Exclusive native title means that native title holders can exercise their native title rights and interests ‘to the exclusion of all others’. This means that other land users must seek the appropriate permission from native title holders to access or use the area.
In Australian common law, most private homes are under a type of tenure called freehold land. As the name suggests, this means the land is ‘free from hold’ by any other entity and the owner can mortgage, lease, or sell their land and build a dwelling in accordance with local laws and planning regulations.
Native title can’t be recognised over freehold land, and a native title determination won’t affect private home ownership.
Non-exclusive native title can be recognised over some kinds of farmland, including pastoral leases.
This means that pastoralists can continue to graze animals, fence land, build dams, and erect homes. At the same time, native title holders can access, use, and enjoy the land according to their traditional laws and customs.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the first farmers to cultivate the land’s resources to feed their communities. It is also important to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland have made a significant contribution to the agricultural industry, and for many years undertook work without fair wages or conditions.
If there’s inconsistency or dispute about the land use, the rights of the pastoralists takes precedence over the rights of the native title holders. However, a pastoralist can’t prevent native title holders from exercising their native title rights, and can’t deny access to native title lands areas.
Under the Native Title Act, native title holders have a right to negotiate an agreement with government or private corporations who want to develop land, open mines or build infrastructure on land that has a native title determination. This is an important measure that allows native title holders to have input over development that affects their traditional lands and waters. It also means that native title holders can get compensation for allowing industry to access their traditional lands.
The right to negotiate is not a right to veto. Native title holders can’t prevent development unless the site is a cultural heritage site, or the Traditional Owners hold freehold tenure.
Native title is not the same as land ownership. It doesn’t let native title holders do the same things that can happen on private freehold land, like building a property. So there aren't rates or taxes that apply to most lands recognised by native title.
Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples can apply for a unique type of freehold land called ‘Aboriginal Freehold’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander Freehold’, but this is a title return (land transfer) under the Aboriginal Land Act 1991 (Qld) and the Torres Strait Islander Land Act 1991 (Qld).
With this type of freehold, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can build homes or commercial buildings. In this case, taxes and rates will apply in the same way as other private land that’s used for commercial or residential purposes.
Native title rights and interests remains subject to Commonwealth, state and local government laws. Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, including those who are native title holders on areas where native title is recognised, need to:
follow Australian law
obey police or other law enforcement when required.
In some special circumstances, native title rights might affect how a law applies. For example, if state law requires someone to obtain a hunting permit, this requirement may not apply to native title holders if this hunting is part of exercising a recognised native title right.
A native title determination recognises native title rights and interests over areas of land. This recognition does not involve a financial settlement.
Whenever possible, we try to resolve native title applications through a process of negotiation called a ‘consent determination’. This approach prioritises relationship building, and tries to avoid the need for any disputes to be resolved by the Federal Court, which can be a costly and time-consuming approach for all involved.