Indigenous Land Reform Project

Research Director: Dr Leon Terrill

The Indigenous Land Reform Project looks at the introduction of land tenure reform in Indigenous communities across Australia.



More than 20 percent of Australia is owned by Indigenous peoples under native title and statutory land rights schemes. As this map illustrates, most Indigenous land is situated in remote areas – with the largest areas being found in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Over the last decade, Australian governments have introduced a series of reforms to the way that Indigenous land is owned and used. To date, the focus of the reforms has been on the land inside of residential communities.

The purpose of the Indigenous Land Reform Project is to improve understandings of these significant reforms. The Research Director, Dr Leon Terrill, is currently undertaking several research projects on the reforms and their consequences for Indigenous land owners and community residents.

This resource page provides some information and resources about the reforms.


Some recent developments

Througout 2015 and 2016, the Australian Human Rights Commission has been conducting an inquiry into Indigenous Property Rights. The Commission has published several communiques and guiding principles. 

In December 2015, the Senior Offiers Working Group to the of the COAG Investigation into Indigenous Land Administration and Use handed down its report. COAG have agreed to implement the report's recommendations. 

On 31 July 2015, the Australian Government announced that a preliminary agreement had been reached for a township lease over the community of Gunyangara. The agreement provides for a township lease to ‘a community entity owned and controlled by the Gumatj’. This will be the first time a township lease has been granted to an Aboriginal organisation rather than the Executive Director of Township Leasing.

CEO of the Northern Land Council, Joe Morrison, described the agreement as the first to be made on the terms of the community rather than those of the government. While the full details are yet to be released, the new model looks similar in some respects to that proposed several years ago by the Central Land Council. Dr Terrill described the agreement as ‘a real victory for the land councils’, though noted that much work is yet to be done on the details of the proposed lease. 

In June 2015, the Australian Government introduced a bill to amend the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) to make possible a variation of township leasing for the community of Mutitjulu (which needs special rules as it is inside a National Park). For the first time, the Government indicates that it is willing to consider alternatives to township leasing that give control to a community entity rather than a government body.

In June 2015, the Australian Government released Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia. The White Paper contains a number of references to land reform, including $10.6M in funding for pilot land projects.

In May 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission held a roundtable meeting in Broome about ways to enable economic development on Indigenous land.

The Australian Indigenous Law Review publishes a special edition on Indigenous Land Tenure Reform.

On 1 January 2015, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land (Providing Freehold) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2014 (Qld) commenced operation. The Act enables some areas of land inside 34 Indigenous communities to be divided up and converted to ordinary freehold.

In October 2014, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced an Investigation into Indigenous land administration and use. The investigating team is advised by an Expert Indigenous Working Group. A report will be provided to COAG in the second half of 2015.

In August 2014, the Australian Government releases The Forrest Review: Creating Parity which contains several sections on Indigenous land reform.


Some useful publications

Dr Terrill’s book - Beyond Communal and Individual Ownership: Indigenous Land Reform in Australia – was published by Routledge in late 2015.

Leon Terrill, 'Hernando de Soto and Empowerment through Land Tenure Reform' in Sean Brennan, Megan Davis, Brendan Edgeworth and Leon Terrill, Native Title From Mabo to Akiba: A Vehicle for Change and Empowerment? (Federation Press, 2015) 213.

Leon Terrill 'The language we use to debate Aboriginal land reform in Australia' (2014-15) 18(1) Australian Indigenous Law Review 24

Kirsty Howey, ‘“Normalising” What? A Qualitative Analysis of Aboriginal Land Tenure Reform in the Northern Territory’ (2014-15) 18(1) Australian Indigenous Law Review 4

Greg Marks, ‘Two Sides of the Same Coin: Outstations Policy and Land Tenure Reform’ (2014-15) 18(1) Australian Indigenous Law Review 44

Central Land Council, ‘Land Reform in the Northern Territory: evidence not ideology’ (Policy paper, October 2013)

Leon Terrill, 'Five years on: Confusion, illusion and township leasing on Aboriginal land' (2011) 1 Property Law Review 160.

Leon Terrill, 'Indigenous Land Reform: An Economic or Bureaucratic Reform?' (2010) 7(17) Indigenous Law Bulletin 3.

Leon Terrill, 'The Days of the Failed Collective: Communal Ownership, Individual Ownership and Township Leasing in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory' (2009) 32(3) University of New South Wales Law Journal 814.

'What is Township Leasing?' (2014) Indigenous Law Centre Research Brief 

Chapter Four: Indigenous Land Tenure Reform in Tom Calma, Native Title Report 2009 (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2009)


Some useful links

Website of the Office of township leasing

Australian Government, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Township Leasing on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

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