Treaty Commissioner Bill Introduced to NT Parliament

Thursday 20 February 2020 @ 11.25 a.m. | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure | Legal Research

On 12 February 2020 the Treaty Commissioner Bill 2020 (the “Bill”) was introduced to Northern Territory’s Legislative Assembly by Ms Uibo, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The Bill was immediately referred to the Legislation Scrutiny Committee for inquiry and report due by 5 May 2020.


The Bill’s Compatibility Statement indicates that the Bill has two primary objectives:

  1. to implement the Memorandum of Understanding (“MoU”) signed between the Northern Territory Government and the four Land Councils at Barunga in June 2018 (known as the“Barunga Agreement”); and
  2. to implement the key undertaking made in the Barunga Agreement to make the appointment of the "Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner a statutory appointment".

In addition to fulfilling the two primary objectives, the Bill details other arrangements that surround the Treaty Commissioner’s statutory appointment. While some of these arrangements are contained in the Barunga Agreement, others are specific to the Bill, some being:

  • requiring the Treaty Commissioner and staff to act impartially and independently;
  • detailing the eligibility criteria for the Treaty Commissioner;
  • confirming the Treaty Commissioner’s term of appointment as being for three years; and
  • listing the Treaty Commissioner’s functions, powers and reporting obligations.

The Bill’s Explanatory Statement (“ES”) states:

“ … the key component of the Barunga Agreement requiring immediate implementation is the appointment of the Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner”.

Role of the Treaty Commissioner

According to the website of the Northern Territory Treaty Commission, the Treaty Commissioner’s role is to "consult with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory regarding a treaty and develop a framework for treaty negotiations."

Clause 11 of the Bill provides for the functions and powers of the Commissioner.

The Commissioner's functions are:

(a) to gauge support in the Territory for a treaty between the Territory and Aboriginal peoples of the Territory; and

(b) to consider what a treaty in the Territory should seek to achieve.

The Commissioner's powers are:

(a) to consult with the Territory Aboriginal Land Councils, the Aboriginal peoples of the Territory and areas adjacent to the Territory and Territorians in general; and

(b) to facilitate communications between the Territory, Territory Aboriginal Land Councils and the Aboriginal peoples of the Territory in relation to the development of a framework for future treaty negotiations.

The Barunga Agreement

In June 2018, the Northern Territory’s four Land Councils and the Northern Territory Government signed an historic MoU, paving the way for consultations to begin with Aboriginal people about a Treaty, this became known as the Barunga Agreement.

An article in the Guardian of June 2018, noted “… this is the first time the NT government and land councils have agreed to work together in this way, and the first time in decades that the four big land councils – the Northern, Central, Anindilyakwa and Tiwi – have joined together in consensus”.

Under the terms of the MoU, the NT Government will appoint an independent Treaty Commissioner “who will lead the consultations with Aboriginal people and organisations across the Territory, and develop a framework for Treaty negotiations. The Commissioner will be an Aboriginal person with strong connections to the Territory, and expressions of interest will be called for the position”.

The MoU states that the agreeement:

“ … represents the first significant step in advancing a Treaty in the Northern Territory since the call for a national Treaty in the historic Barunga Statement by the Northern and Central Land Councils.”

In 1988 the Northern and Central Land Council presented the late former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, with the Barunga Statement, which called on the Government to recognise the rights of Aboriginal Australians. The Hawke Government adopted a policy to support a treaty between the Australian Government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — but no treaty has since been signed.

Speaking to ABC News in 2019, Federal Member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon said:

"… this was the place that the treaty movement started … When we think about what we're here for … I'd like all of us to take away from here a yearning to see that product finished, so that we can have a treaty with our first Australians."

Comment on the Bill

In the Minister’s second reading speech, she commented:

“ … Whilst the bill is relatively straightforward, it has the potential to re-shape the relationship the Northern Territory Government has with Aboriginal Territorians … I suggest it is already re-shaping that relationship in a positive way … Emeritus Professor Mick Dodson AM was engaged as the Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner in March 2019 … One of the key purposes of this bill is to convert Commissioner Dodson’s consultancy appointment to a statutory appointment. Clause 23 of this Bill achieves this.”

TimeBase is an independent, privately owned Australian legal publisher specialising in the online delivery of accurate, comprehensive and innovative legislation research tools including LawOne and unique Point-in-Time Products. Nothing on this website should be construed as legal advice and does not substitute for the advice of competent legal counsel.


Related Articles: