Title fight has wide implications
The High Court has ruled on a native title case considered one of the biggest since Mabo.
It is the first time the High Court has examined the Native Title Act's compensation provisions, including placing a value on intangible harm caused by disconnection with country.
The claim was brought by Ngaliwurru and Nungali native title holders over rights that were extinguished by the Northern Territory Government in the 1980s and 1990s.
The court settled on a final compensation amount of $2.5 million, divided into three components — economic loss, interest and non-economic loss for “spiritual” harm caused by disconnection.
“The compensation for loss or diminution of traditional attachment to the land or connection to country and for loss of rights to gain spiritual sustenance from the land is the amount which society would rightly regard as appropriate,” the majority judgement said.
The decision has set a precedent for similar claims nationwide, indicated in part by the fact that the governments of Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia were “interveners” or interested parties in the case, stepping in to support the NT and Federal Governments' positions.
The process began when Timber Creek native title holders were awarded $3.3 million in compensation for the extinguishment of their native title rights in 2016.
That decision was challenged by the NT and Federal Governments, and the compensation amount was reduced to $2.9 million.
The NT and Federal Governments and the Ngaliwurru and Nungali claim group both appealed that reduction.
The Federal and NT Governments argued that the native title rights were “overvalued”.
They argued that the economic loss should be less than 50 per cent of the freehold value of the land. The High Court agreed, awarding $320,250 for that component.
That decision was partly based on the fact that Timber Creek was covered by a pastoral lease in the 1880s, which meant traditional owners kept “non-exclusive” rights to hunt, fish and practice their law and culture.
The Ngaliwurru and Nungali people argued that the loss of native title was worth the entire freehold market value of the land.
This week, the High Court determined that the economic loss was worth 50 per cent of the freehold value, but also affirmed the original decision that the group was entitled to interest on that payment, and $1.3 million for cultural loss.
Lawyer Tony Denholder said it has huge implications for other claims.
“That the small area of Timber Creek still triggered a compensation liability of over $2.5 millon, will have strong implications for the more than 2,800,000 sq km of native title land holdings across the rest of Australia,” he said.
“The high court’s decision will likely to trigger compensation applications from many of the hundreds of native title holder groups around Australia, who finally have clarity – albeit limited – on how they might quantify the compensation owed to them for impacts on their native title.”
The ruling raises questions for the mining, resources and agricultural sectors, with suggestions that governments could pass liability costs onto third parties.
Minerals Council of Australia chief Tania Constable says the industry wants governments to “provide policy certainty to promote investment, jobs and sustainable regional communities”.